A notoriously shrewd businessman has emerged as the frontrunner to buy South Canterbury Finance after the failed finance company's chief executive, Sandy Maier, was spotted on an Air New Zealand flight leafing through a sale and purchase agreement.

But businessman Duncan Saville is not the only investor circling the remains of Allan Hubbard's company which failed on Tuesday, saddling the taxpayer with an immediate $1.78 billion bill.

South Island rich lister George Kerr yesterday confirmed he was interested in buying at least some of South Canterbury's better assets.

The developments came as the Herald reveals today:

* South Canterbury Finance's investments include almost $2 million in four prime Auckland bars and nightclubs - on which it lost about $1.5 million.

* The taxpayer bailout is more than the Government spends each year on police or the ACC.


Mr Saville, a former protege of New Zealand's foremost corporate raider, Sir Ron Brierley, was said to be one of the three parties shortlisted as possible buyers of South Canterbury before it went into receivership.

On Tuesday evening, a Herald source saw Mr Maier on an Air NZ flight leafing through a document which the source was able to identify as an "agreement for sale and purchase to sell South Canterbury Finance Ltd to Permanent Investments Ltd ".

The source said the document indicated a sale price of $2.65 a share.

Permanent was registered with the Companies Office in early August.

Mr Maier yesterday declined to discuss the document, saying he was bound by confidentiality agreements with three potential bidders, one of whom he was negotiating with until five hours before South Canterbury Finance was placed in receivership.

He had said he had passed on details of two of the buyers to the receivers, Kerryn Downey and William Black of corporate advisory firm McGrathNicol.

Meanwhile, Mr Kerr's company Torchlight, which was owed $100 million by South Canterbury, has been repaid using part of a $175 million loan from the taxpayer.

Yesterday, he said Torchlight was interested in buying some of the South Canterbury's assets, but it was not interested in the company as a going concern.

Although Torchlight had been in discussions with South Canterbury "from time to time", it had not been involved over the past few weeks.

Prime Minister John Key yesterday said there was no question that there was interest in the company.

"It's just a question of what price and whether it satisfies the Government's tests," he said.


* An earlier version of this story said the sale price of $2.65 a share was the equivalent of $1.57 billion. This was incorrect.