Like any industrial crisis, British Steel’s collapse into liquidation this week leaves tens of thousands of blue-collar workers worrying over their ability to pay household bills, or feed their families.
To the globe-trotting private equity barons who have presided over the troubled company’s demise, the stakes appear to be considerably less desperate.
Almost 200 miles south of British Steel’s Scunthorpe site, in the heart of London’s Knightsbridge, is the HQ of Greybull Capital, a rapacious private equity firm that snapped up the steel company in 2016 for just £1.
Greybull Capital oversaw the collapse of Monarch, Comet and now British Steel. (Pictured) Marc Meyohas (right), one of the men who controls the private equity firm, shaking hands with Tata Steel UK chief executive Bimlendra Jha
Daniel Goldstein, who also controls Greybull capital, pictured with his wife, Deana
It’s located above a recently closed branch of luxury shoe store Jimmy Choo, just down the road from Harrods and adjacent to a branch of Dior, where alligator-skin handbags cost £26,000 — a sum approaching that of a steelworker’s annual wage.
There is no fancy name-plate. Instead, the company, which invests funds on behalf of ultra-wealthy clients, gives every impression of wanting to operate in anonymity.
Visitors can only gain entry by pressing a small, unmarked metal buzzer. A woman who answered the intercom this week refused to allow me access to the upstairs office, where just five people are employed, according to the firm’s Companies House filings.
Grey blinds were drawn across the windows, and a Rolls-Royce idled in the street outside.
This, then, is the highly-secretive nerve centre of a financial firm which spent the week asking the Government to dole out £75 million (in addition to a previous £120 million bailout) to prevent its investment in British Steel from going under. The cash would have come straight from the pockets of taxpayers.
There is no fancy name-plate on the company’s Knightsbridge office, London, writes Guy Adams. Instead, the company, which invests funds on behalf of ultra-wealthy clients, gives every impression of wanting to operate in anonymity. (Pictured) A golden wrecking ball
Yet, like many London finance houses, Greybull is run by foreign nationals and chooses to hold many assets, including much of its stake in the ‘British’ firm, via an opaque offshore vehicle registered in the tax haven of Jersey.
Such financial gymnastics are standard practice in the world of high finance. Some call this typical of unbridled, unaccountable, 21st-century global capitalism.
Indeed, unions have accused Greybull of laying ‘a trail of corporate destruction which has wreaked havoc on the lives of working people’ during its three years in charge of the steel firm.
All the while, it has taken £3 million a year out of British Steel in ‘management fees’, while simultaneously allowing the company to rack up bills of £17 million a year in interest on loans that Greybull itself issued, via Jersey, at rates of almost 10 per cent.
So who, exactly, is behind the secretive private equity firm? And how did this small bunch of ultra-wealthy foreigners come to own one of Britain’s industrial giants?
The answer, on paper, is very simple. According to Companies House filings, Greybull Capital is controlled by two men: Marc Meyohas and Daniel Goldstein.
They run the business via a Limited Liability Partnership, a complex structure which makes it impossible to establish how much it’s making in profits, paying senior executives, or handing over to investors.
What we do know, however, is that both Meyohas and Goldstein are astronomically rich.
A newspaper profile published several years ago described them as ‘familiar faces’ in exclusive restaurants where they ‘dine with a tight-knit circle of associates’.
Meyohas, a short, bespectacled Frenchman who co-founded Greybull in 2010, is at home in this rarefied neighbourhood, having known extreme wealth his entire life thanks to his father’s business dealings.
The 47-year-old son of a corporate lawyer called Nathan Meyohas, Marc grew up in Paris, but was sent as a teenager to board at Clifton College, the £37,000-a-year school in Bristol. After that, he studied economics at Manchester University before going into the world of business and finance.
His two sons with lawyer wife Fiona are educated at Dulwich College in South London, the £41,000-a-year alma mater of P.G. Wodehouse and Ernest Shackleton. The family spends holidays yachting and skiing, in both Europe and the U.S.
Marc Meyohas has a younger sister, Sarah, an experimental modern artist in New York who sells canvases for upwards of $10,000.
He is also close to a brother called Nathaniel, who helped set up Greybull. Nathaniel married into one of the world’s wealthiest families: wife Michaela is a scion of the Nahmad art-dealing dynasty, who are believed to own more than 3,000 masterpieces, including 300 Picassos stored in a duty-free warehouse in Geneva.
A third brother, Olivier, is a multi-millionaire London-based banker with U.S. corporation Blackstone.
As you might expect, the second Greybull kingpin, Daniel Goldstein, is similarly privileged. A strapping, 40-year-old all-American banker, he was educated at Yale and previously worked at Lehman Brothers and BNP Paribas.
He has three children with wife Deana, a socialite and philanthropist who worked for a brief spell as ‘jewellery editor’ of Tatler magazine, a job which (as one former magazine staffer puts it) tends to be given to ‘young ladies who don’t really need to work for a living’.
The couple moved to London in 2008, spending £5 million on a five-bedroom house in Chelsea.
Last year, after an extensive refurbishment, they placed the property on the market for £8.75 million. Lavishly furnished, and full of modern art and bespoke furniture, it resembles an interiors catalogue rather than a typical family home, and also has a basement gymnasium.
It is a world away from Scunthorpe, where a terraced house can fetch under £50,000.
Little wonder, therefore, that Greybull Capital and its methods divide opinion.
To critics, it represents the very worst of vulture capitalism: a ruthless, tax-avoiding organisation, which seeks to turn a profit by purchasing failing companies and picking over their bones.
To admirers, it performs a valuable service: rescuing troubled businesses from the scrapheap, and turning them around.
The truth probably lies somewhere between those extremes.
Founded in 2010, the business was designed as a ‘family’ investment house that would generate profit from the assets of two ultra-wealthy dynasties. One was the Meyohas clan, the other the Perlhagens, a Swedish family which owes its fortune to a pharmaceutical firm that created heartburn tablets.
The Meyohas family fortune seems to have been built by Nathan, Marc’s father, a successful businessman who enjoyed a brush with notoriety in the late Nineties when he was caught up in the Elf oil affair.
It saw dozens of executives and others associated with the state-owned firm fined and jailed for siphoning vast amounts of money from its coffers, much of which was used to buy luxury property, artwork, and jewellery, or to pay for the upkeep of mistresses.
At a 2003 trial, it emerged that the oil company was bunging £4 million a year to each of France’s political parties, and making vast and illegal payments to the families of corrupt African dictators.
Around £300 million was siphoned off between 1989 and 1993 alone.
Nathan was caught up in proceedings in 1996, when magistrates trying to unpick the scandal accused him of having received between £9 million and £18 million in an illegal commission payment for acting as an intermediary when Elf brought some North Sea oil rights from a U.S. firm.
He admitted being paid £3 million, but denied any wrongdoing and said the commission was legitimate.
When the case came to trial, Meyohas was the only one of the 37 defendants to be acquitted. His co-accused shared jail terms of 60 years and fines totalling £30 million.
Fast forward to 2010, and sons Marc and Nathaniel set up Greybull as a vehicle to grow the family fortune that their father had built.
The firm was named after an oilfield in Wyoming, one of its first ventures. It took over companies that had fallen on hard times and needed a quick injection of capital, before nursing them back to health. In a rare interview, Marc explained he entered this tricky but potentially lucrative area after the 2008 financial crash, when mainstream investors dramatically scaled back risky lending.
Whereas traditional firms might take weeks to mull over the pros and cons of a rescue deal, Greybull tends to ‘respond in 24, 48 hours’, he said. While not every deal pays off, he said, ‘we try to get more right than wrong’.
The firm’s backers argue that since it buys companies that otherwise would go under, their business provides a benefit for workers, keeping them in jobs for a few extra months or years.
At British Steel, £250 million a year has been paid in salaries since Greybull took over in 2016, benefitting the Treasury by around £200 million in tax and National Insurance.
Critics, though, claim the firm is more interested in asset-stripping to ensure that even if an investment turns sour, they emerge with a small profit. And controversy has surrounded the methods by which the company achieves this.
Market sources quoted in a Sunday Times profile in 2017, which claimed Greybull’s executives were known for their volatility, said they had ‘never known anything like’ dealing with the firm and adding ‘they can be very aggressive’.
Sharp elbows have certainly helped cut canny deals when pumping cash into businesses on the verge of collapse.
Greybull tends to put very little actual equity into firms, thereby minimising its own risk, and structures deals so that it’s a ‘secured creditor’, making it first in line to be paid out should things go wrong.
In 2014, for example, it recouped £4.6 million from the administrators of Riley’s Sports Bars, a chain it had invested in two years earlier. There was ‘insufficient value’ left to pay other, less fortunate creditors.
Three years later, it recouped £1.5 million from the collapse of My Local, a chain of convenience stores originally purchased from Morrisons. Although the firm may still have lost cash on these investments, such returns doubtless soothed the pain.
As did the £60 million that Greybull recouped from the administrators of Monarch, the airline it bought that went under in 2017, stranding 100,000 passengers and leading to 1,858 job losses.
When electrical retailer Comet collapsed in 2012, Greybull was among the investors who received £54 million as it was wound up.
And these, remember, are the bets that go wrong. Others, which go right, (the firm cites among its successes an engineering company called Arc) can yield small fortunes for Greybull’s stakeholders.
British Steel initially looked like falling into the latter camp. After buying the company for £1 in 2016, and investing an undisclosed sum in equity (sources claim no more than £20 million), it persuaded staff to take a 3 per cent pay cut. Around 10 per cent lost their jobs due to an ‘efficiency drive’.
Meanwhile, a Jersey-registered subsidiary loaded the firm with debt, charging 9 per cent interest (almost £17 million a year) on a £154 million loan.
Initially, things seemed to improve, and in their first year, Greybull turned a profit. But steel-making is a cyclical business, and with the market for UK steel hit hard by cheap imports from China, it slipped into the red.
The first sign of crisis came last month when Britain’s failure to leave the EU left the company without an allocation of ‘carbon credits’ to meet its obligations under climate-change protocols.
It persuaded the Government to spend £120 million purchasing credits on its behalf (they remain the property of the taxpayer, and can be sold on the open market).
But it was not enough: last week, it emerged another £75 million loan would be needed to stave off collapse. The request seemed bold in an era where the public has long since grown tired of financial firms — which make obscene profits, when things go right — expecting the taxpayer to pick up the pieces when their bets turn sour.
Perhaps that helps explain why Business Secretary Greg Clark let the company fall into liquidation.
In the ensuing fallout, it emerged Greybull has also been charging British Steel annual ‘management fees’ of £3 million. In a statement, the private equity firm claimed this was for ‘extensive services’ which are ‘charged at a significant discount to market rates’.
But given that only five people work for Greybull, according to its last Companies House return, those ‘market rates’ would appear to be stratospheric.
Certainly, they are the sort of sums that Scunthorpe’s steel workers can only dream of.
But then it seems normal that the biggest losers, when things turn sour, are rarely the secretive moneymen from Knightsbridge.
Additional reporting: Jim Norton and Peter Allen