Richard Elman famously named his company after Noble House, James Clavell’s novel about a British trading house in colonial-era Hong Kong (Clavell himself was inspired by the story of Jardine Matheson). Elman likely imagined himself as Ian Dunross, the book’s main character, but it is his current successor who is probably going to feel most like Dunross did at the start of the book, inheriting a company left in a fairly precarious financial position by his predecessor.
Last Thursday, Noble announced their 1Q17 results alongside a major board restructuring. The company reported that first quarter profitability was impacted by a challenging operating environment, “exacerbated by the dislocation in coal markets” – a remarkable choice of words for a physical commodities trader. As a result of ongoing profitability and operating cash flow struggles, the company has continued to sell-off assets and raise cash in order to manage repayments of its ~US$4.8bn debt load (~US$1.7bn of which is due this year).
As part of the board restructuring, Elman will take on a non-executive board role as founder and chairman emeritus. Paul Brough, previously an independent non-executive director of the company, will take on the role of chairman of the group. Jamie O’Donnell of UCL rejoins the board as an independent non-executive director. The board representatives from CIC will also rotate. Finally, Iain Bruce, Irene Lee and Richard Margolis are all stepping down after years of service.
It is ultimately a sad end for Elman, who has been one of Asia’s more colourful and swashbuckling entrepreneurs over the last few decades. Still, change is necessary if the company is to continue evolving and not go the way of so many “hongs” of years past. You can read Elman’s final letter as Noble’s chairman here.