Sapura in troubled waters, what's next?

26 Mar 2022 09:41am
Photo source: Sapura Energy website
Photo source: Sapura Energy website

Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad once lamented in the 1980s that there were not many Bumiputera oil and gas companies in the country.

At the time, the industry was dominated by state-owned firms supported by a handful of small oil and gas players.

It was then that a little-known firm called Sapura rose to the challenge to become one of the country's pioneers in the oil and gas sector.

Sapura was founded in 1975 by Shamsuddin Abdul Kadir who at the time delved into the information, communications, and telecommunications industry.

Sapura then diversified in the energy sector helmed by Shamsuddin's son Tan Sri Shahril Shamsuddin who immediately showed his mettle.

Sapura spreading its wings

Named after Shahril's mother Siti Sapura, the group quickly gained prominence in not only Malaysia's oil and gas sector but also the world.

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For the past few decades, Sapura renamed Sapura Energy Berhad spread its wings to all corners of the world-spanning from Asia to the Middle East and South America.

Things were hunky-dory at the time and Sapura rapidly became the darling of Malaysia's corporate amassing contracts worth RM30 billion and garnering a market capitalisation of more than RM10 billion on Bursa Malaysia.

The downward spiral

It was the golden years for Sapura between the 1980s and 2010.

However, it is common knowledge that crude oil prices are always volatile.

In 2014, prices of black gold dived to US$20 a barrel which really affected Sapura.

Sapura which was one of the world's top five oil and gas firms then began to have cash flow problems.

The company really struggled to stay afloat to the point it needed more funds.

PNB to the rescue

In 2018, Permodalan Nasional Bhd (PNB) agreed to help Sapura by injecting into the firm RM2 billion via a fundraising exercise.

Another RM2 billion would be provided by banks later on.

All investors betted on oil prices to surge and surged it did when the commodity broke the US$100 psychological barrel mark a month ago, its highest since 2014.

This is no thanks to Russia's invasion of Ukraine which saw prices of fossil fuel climb as high as US$120.

Every oil and gas concern such as Petronas and Perisai Petroleum as well as all oil and gas companies in the world laughed to the bank.

Sapura however recorded an RM9 billion net loss in 2021 said to be the highest in corporate Malaysia.

Where did it go wrong? What happened?

Sapura biting more than it can chew

Analysts said what happened at Sapura is that it is just a victim of circumstance.

The company may be just too big bidding billions of ringgit worth of projects making it hard to manage.

And to be fair to Sapura, in 2018 onwards, nobody would have thought that Covid-19 would rear it's ugly head.

The pandemic exacerbated Sapura's financial position in 2020 when the pandemic struck and vehicles ground to a halt.

“The hugely disappointing losses were mainly due to the lower project completion.

This is coupled with higher project costs for its engineering and commissioning and operations and maintenance segments,” said Kenanga Research analyst Steven Chan in a financial results review.

Sapura chief executive officer Datuk Anuar Taib said it aptly: "It is not about winning billions of ringgit worth of bids.

"It is all about making a profit," he told an English financial daily.

What's next for Sapura?

It is hard to deduce what Sapura will do next, but Sapura is in a tight bind and backed into a corner.

The first option is on whether it's 40 percent owner PNB will extend more funds to PNB.

The general consensus is that it is unwise for PNB to do so.

In the banking industry, it is standard practice that a fresh loan should not be extended to bail out a bad debt until the debt is cleared.

Another scenario is that Sapura can be rescued by a white knight.

But the possibility is so remote as the debt involved is simply too gargantuan.

Lastly, the most likely scenario is for Sapura to be declared bankrupt due to its estimated RM15 billion debt and all its assets auctioned off and liquidated to satisfy its vendor which are baying for it's blood.

"Sapura has in its arsenal an array of oil and gas equipment which is considered to be advanced compared to those owned by other O&G companies.

So by liquidating its premium assets, it could ease some of its financial pressures.

Save its 12,000 workers

Whichever way, priority must also be given to its estimated 12,000 workers spread out in 15 countries.

Their plight must not be neglected and part of proceeds from the sale of its assets must be returned to its workers who will most likely be laid off.

The way forward

Maybe amid all the quagmire, there is hope for Sapura.

“The group is in the midst of negotiating with its vendors on outstanding payments," said Public Invest analyst Nurzulaikha Azali in a note to investors obtained by Sinar Daily.

The road ahead will be challenging and nobody knows what will happen.

All eyes will be on Sapura in the coming weeks to see if it will sink or emerge unscathed from this devastating loss.