Just a few years ago, Arun Kumar Jagatramka was riding high.
He had taken over two mines near Wollongong, employing several hundred people in a region that needed jobs like a fish needed water. He had saved the Wollongong Hawks basketball team, agreeing to become guarantor for the franchise after an emotional campaign that brought the city together.
He was the chairman of Gujarat NRE Coking Coal and its Indian parent companies. Their boards included family members and friendly associates. At home in India he was a feted businessman and modelled himself as a campaigner against corruption. NRE stood for "Natural Resources and Environment".
Here, he had been named the Illawarra Mercury's Person of the Year, mixed with leading politicians and sportspeople, and was even nominated for Australian of the Year.
He was building a mansion on Cliff Road, Wollongong's Mayfair. He rode around town in the comfort of a Bentley, and he was treated like a rock star. It was early 2010.
Flamboyant, visionary and quick to smile, a pool of big ideas in a pocket-sized body, he was a man made from a different mould - particularly for a mining executive. He had ridden into town and redefined the terms.
His purchase and revival of the old South Bulli colliery in 2004 - renamed NRE No 1 - was economically significant, and taking over the mines at Wongawilli provided a greater resource.
But it was putting up the $1 million guarantee for the Hawks that sent his stakes soaring. The company would later become the team's major sponsor as well.
A city of battlers had found a white knight. Wollongong embraced him and his quirks; he was known simply as "Arun".
Workers at Gujarat spoke of feeling like they had joined a family, as much as a company.
The miner would hire out the WIN Entertainment Centre for lavish Christmas parties; the family's wealth was estimated at $400 million.
He was on the board of the Port Kembla Coal Terminal and the Illawarra Local Venues Council.
He joined with the University of Wollongong to launch a plan for a new campus in his hometown of Ahmedabad; he was honoured by Premier Barry O'Farrell for furthering business relations between India and Australia.
Those were moments Jagatramka basked in, and clearly likes to remember.
Triumphant images of when he was named the Mercury's Person of the Year, and when he was nominated for Australian of the Year in 2010 still adorn the front page of the Gujarat NRE Coking Coal website.
Not present in the "latest news" section of the website, though, is any mention of the dire problems that have brought the firm to its knees.
And this week, at a meeting where Jagatramka let his company be taken over so it could pay its debts, he started blaming the newspaper headlines he once loved so much for his troubles.
But it would be the sustained failure to get his mine approved via the proper channels that would prove the real threat to the company.
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The Indian miner had big ideas for his Illawarra coal reserves, revealing ambitious plans in 2011 to quadruple production and extend the life of both mines for decades.
Workers felt secure in the knowledge that despite the global financial crisis, their company would be here for the long haul.
With plans to spend about $200 million extending the Illawarra mines, a target of three million tonnes of coal extracted each year, and coal prices sky-high on the back of Chinese and Indian demand, Gujarat was well placed. Its parent company was a ready-made customer and the long term future appeared promising.
Troubles arose, however, with the plans. Having split the application into two parts on the advice of NSW government department officers, the company was working on stage one of the plans, which would deliver infrastructure improvements but not the lion’s share of the coal.
But the major project application fell at the first hurdle of regulatory approval – the disclosure of any political donations. Gujarat had given donations to the Liberal Party, the Nationals, Labor when it was in government, and Wollongong lord mayoral candidate Rod Oxley. Mr Jagatramka also personally donated $3000 to the Liberals.
None of these had been declared when the company lodged its development application in March 2010, despite planning rules requiring a disclosure form.
Because of the late disclosures, Gujarat’s application was referred to the independent Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) – rather than the Planning Minister being able to use his Part 3A powers to determine the application.
The miner was now confronted with a thorough planning application process, one which would draw out for two years, and one which at first seemed beyond the company’s capabilities.
Eyebrows were raised in September 2011 when Mr Jagatramka was given a new job – executive chairman – at Gujarat NRE Coking Coal, a new position that came with a $1 million salary and a house provided by the company – the mansion which Mr Jagatramka was just finishing building on Cliff Road. Also included in the package were ‘‘two vehicles of an appropriate standard’’.
Mr Jagatramka drove a Bentley at the time. It is not known if this was one of the cars provided by the company, but it was a Bentley in which Mr Jagatramka arrived at this week’s shareholder meeting, ready to address workers angry they had not been paid for weeks.
Shareholdings were dominated by a series of family-controlled companies based in India and Australia. Some observers well versed in corporate regulation have noted the company appeared to be run more like a personal fiefdom than a public company.
But these ‘‘different ways of doing things’’ were attributed to Mr Jagatramka’s personality, his background, his quirks. And why not? An entrepreneur often carries a certain eccentricity – and a wilful visionary can get things done. As long as things were going well at the coal face, Wollongong could be a forgiving place.
Things were looking up in October 2011, when the PAC approved the first stage of the Russell Vale expansion – the $122 million preliminary works project.
Gujarat had secured a $97.5-million loan, from Axis Bank in Hong Kong, with parent company Gujarat NRE Coke going guarantor. The expansion appeared to be full steam ahead.
But the political donations episode hinted to an approach that viewed the rules applying to mining developments as an inconvenience, rather than the law of the land. It would be an approach that would later bring Gujarat NRE Coking Coal to the brink.
It was not long before Mr Jagatramka was forced to deny his company was in trouble. In a year, the share price had plummeted from more than 80¢ to a new low – at the time – of 17.5¢ in February 2012. Persistent stories were doing the rounds about contractors not being paid, some owed significant sums.
Delay in the longwall project was one of the reasons investment firm UBS forecast the company’s profits would drop significantly in the coming year. With Gujarat debt soaring well past the value of its shares, UBS said it appeared more funding would be needed and advised against investing.
Such concerns were brushed aside as $90million of new longwall equipment was installed in an elaborate blessing ceremony at Russell Vale, with Mr Jagatramka assuring investors they would soon be cutting coal.
In a PR coup, recently retired Hawks captain Mat Campbell was employed as a community relations manager.
One problem remained, however: planning permission to keep mining.
The Planning Department stood firm, saying no mining would be allowed without proper approval, and the environmental assessment lodged the previous year had been inadequate.
With the help of the Department of Primary Industries, the miner got around this hurdle and was allowed to mine in the Longwall 4 area after submitting a Subsidence Management Plan (SMP) in lieu of a full assessment.
With the longwall machine churning out the black diamonds, Gujarat was able to report its highest level of coal production in a quarter – topping 362,000 tonnes between April and June.
But the SMP – allowing mining of Longwall 4 – was only good until September, at which point the coal in that section had been exhausted. Longwall 5 had not been approved so the machines fell silent. With no coal to sell, the money was running out. A proper application was before planning authorities but the process is not a short one.
What followed was a period of anxiety for investors and workers that lasted until a day before Christmas last year, when the PAC gave approval for production on Longwall 5 to commence. The PAC said the fact so many jobs could be lost factored strongly in its decision.
At last year’s Christmas party, in his trademark penchant for metaphor, Mr Jagatramka told his workforce they could expect ‘‘calmer waters’’ ahead.
Perhaps in reference to the giant carriers that haul his coal from Port Kembla to India, he fashioned his workforce as a ship with himself at the helm.
‘‘The year gone by has been a tough one for us,’’ he said. ‘‘Our ship has been sailing in rough waters for quite some time now. We have weathered some storms and to our delight, I can say the shore is in sight. Land Ho!
‘‘However, a word of caution. We have a few more miles to go until we can safely anchor our ship and I would urge your continued support in this direction.’’
But there has been no safe anchor this year.
Instead, hardly a month went by when miners’ wages were not paid late. Their superannuation payments stopped in March. And talk of how much dozens of Illawarra suppliers were owed grew louder. Those wanting to speak up were told they risked bringing the company down.
Court cases from those plucky enough to risk future business with Gujarat piled up, as the company was ordered to pay out its dues in half-million-dollar lots.
Then Jindal Steel and Power launched a hostile takeover – offering to pay shareholders 20¢ a share. Gujarat advised rejecting the offer because it was ‘‘too low’’.
Meantime, cracks in the expansion plans grew wider in April, when several major NSW government agencies panned the company’s ‘‘information poor’’ documents, which did not provide accurate data or address key issues like subsidence, air quality and the region’s drinking water safety.
The Department of Resources and Energy’s submissions also raised alarm bells over the financial state of the company, revealing Gujarat was behind in its state mining royalty payments.
The community was divided over the mine, with more than 750responses to the expansion proposal, split down the middle between residents worried about its environmental impacts and workers touting the economic benefits Gujarat had brought.
A carbon tax bill of nearly $9 million mounted, despite the company being given money from the federal government to offset costs.
To pay down some of its debts while the expansion plans sat on hold, Gujarat NRE offered shareholders the chance to buy a greater stake in the company, hoping to raise $68 million.
But the bid failed dismally, with only $35,000 forthcoming.
With cash reserves depleted, Gujarat put its stocks on hold and repeatedly asked the Australian Securities Exchange to keep its shares suspended, week by week, while it worked behind the scenes to come up with money.
Two months ago, Jindal reappeared on the scene – offering to buy the $68 million worth of shares in exchange for a majority stake in the Illawarra mines.
As one of India’s largest steel producers, Jindal told the Indian press it hoped to carry on Mr Jagatramka’s plans to ramp up production at Wongawilli and Russell Vale to ensure a continuous supply of quality coal.
With the deal pending, Gujarat released its annual report. It was five months late and revealed just how dire the company’s money problems had become.
There was a $76 million annual loss and debts of more than $480 million to be paid within a year. The company’s mining assets had been revalued, losing more than $80 million – on a conservative estimate – since March 2012.
Even the ostentatious Cliff Road house, which Gujarat no longer owned, was devalued by about $5 million but still Mr Jagatramka denied his company was in trouble.
Like the planning applications, the annual report lacked detail, with auditors refusing to tick it off because the company had not provided ‘‘sufficient evidence’’ about the value of its assets or ability to repay its debts.
They questioned Gujarat’s ability to continue trading.
Nevertheless, the ASX allowed the stock to come off hold and for a moment it seemed possible things were back on track.
But by September, Jindal withdrew its cash advances until the takeover deal was signed off.
Workers walked off the job over another late pay on September 13. Pay packets stopped altogether five days later.
Finally, the miners’ union spoke out, revealing months of industrial action and battles in the Fair Work Commission.
It was ‘‘business as usual’’ for the Hawks, who had already received their yearly payment from their sponsor. But mine workers spent a month wondering when their wages would be paid.
Oddly, payslips – wrongly indicating that wages, super, tax and union fees had all been paid – kept being posted to workers’ pigeonholes.
But with no money coming in, some men turned to union-provided food vouchers or charity from Wollongong’s Church on the Mall, while others found work elsewhere.
‘‘People are stressed – we have blokes who are big rough, tough coalminers in tears,’’ one coalminer said.
‘‘They have kids to feed and families to look after and there are people who can’t even afford to put petrol in their cars.’’
Mr Jagatramka was overseas, sending his regrets and apologies through a letter read out at a heated union meeting.
‘‘Dear friends we have before us some very challenging times,’’ his letter said.
‘‘I’m thankful to Jindal for providing partial funding over the last three months to sustain operations, but I am baffled by their sudden withdrawal and absolute refusal, suddenly to remit even the critical amount needed for timely payment of weekly wages.
‘‘This was never expected by me and I am at a loss for words in this regard. My hands are tied.’’
Back in town this week, he addressed the shareholders’ meeting where it was decided Jindal would take majority ownership.
The deal freed up about $18 million for Gujarat to pay back its debts, and the two companies are negotiating how they will operate the two Illawarra mines.
Workers still have not been paid.
Finally last week, Gujarat’s amended – and scaled back – development application was made public. An 18-year expansion had been reduced to five years, and expenditure was down from $250 million to $85 million. Contentious areas under the Cataract water catchment had been removed. But it may have come too late.
Mr Jagatramka no longer gets a rock star reception. He’s still smiling, shaking hands and laughing easily, but his laughter at Wednesday’s meeting did not go down so well.
And his outburst in front of the media, blaming the company’s woes on various targets including the carbon price and the Mercury, was an extraordinary display.
With the many suppliers, contractors and workers still unpaid, and the development approval for the Russell Vale expansion still a way off, there are many wondering if they didn’t give their trust away a little too easily.