When billionaires break up, it’s not just a family affair

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At last corporate Australia and Perth’s worst kept secret is out. Billionaire Andrew Forrest and his wife Nicola have confirmed their split.

Understandably, it is a personal issue for the family, which they would have preferred to remain private. But when billionaires separate or divorce, it’s not just a family affair – it’s a national affair.

And as Nicola now appears to have control over a larger stake in Fortescue Metals Group than her husband, it becomes a shareholder issue.

Nicola and Andrew Forrest have announced their separation.Credit: Fairfax Media

It’s by design, rather than an accident, that Andrew Forrest is Australia’s highest-profile businessman. It has been in his interest to court the media to amplify the success of his iron ore giant, Fortescue, to magnify his warnings about climate change and to pressure his fellow billionaires into beefing up their philanthropy efforts.

But whether this marriage breakdown with his wife of more than 30 years takes the course of the famous split up between Hamish Douglass and his estranged wife Alex, or develops into a tale with a Rupert Murdoch twist, remains to be seen.

To be sure, Andrew Forrest won’t inspire his own brand of Succession, given he has made it abundantly clear that his children won’t be fighting over the spoils of his circa $30 billion wealth. Most of this will go to charity. But if the two cement separation with a divorce and either moves on to a new relationship, Forrest could have more children.

Meanwhile and despite denials to media six months ago by the Forrests that they were living apart, various changes around the ownership structure of their private interests over the past five months suggest the pair had been getting their ducks in a row for a while.

The headline news last month was their decision to gift $5 billion worth of Fortescue shares to the Forrest family’s Minderoo charitable trust – a shareholding that Forrest made clear would not be sold. The pair co-chair the board of Minderoo, so have equal influence over its assets.

But in February, Nicola Forrest had become a 50 per cent shareholder in Tattarang, the corporate vehicle in which the lion’s share of Forrest’s Fortescue shares are housed.

‘Various changes around the ownership structure of their private interests over the past five months suggest the pair had been getting their ducks in a row for a while.’

Additionally, last month $1.1 billion of shares in Fortescue were transferred into a company owned by Nicola Forrest.

Nicola, who is said to be based in Sydney now, has (on paper at least) a larger interest in Fortescue than her estranged husband.

Unsurprisingly, the Forrests hosed down any speculation that their split would have implications for Fortescue.

“Our friendship and commitment to our family remains strong. There is no impact on the operations, control or direction of Fortescue, Minderoo or Tattarang,” the Forrests said in a statement.

Magellan’s founder and former chief executive, Hamish Douglass, confirmed the split from his wife in December 2021 and declared he had no intention of selling his shares. Eleven months later he ditched 70 per cent of his stake.

If there are any concerns that Nicola Forrest may ultimately choose to sell some Fortescue shares, it can create an overhang in the market with the presence of a large block of shares that could be sold and place downward pressure on the stock.

There was no evidence of this on Thursday, as the share price gained 0.9 per cent.

Meanwhile, Kerry Stokes-controlled West Australian newspaper reported on Thursday that: “In December, The West Australian emailed Anthony Flannery, who handles media inquiries for the Forrests, to ask if they were ‘effectively living separate lives’ and what that meant to their extensive business and philanthropic interests, including their 36 per cent stake in listed company Fortescue Metals Group.

In response to the email, Mrs Forrest spoke with The West Australian, angrily denying the rumours, slamming the question and intrusion on her family.”

In February, a very public spat erupted between Stokes and Forrest.

Forrest suggested Stokes was misusing his media companies for commercial reasons based on the fact that Forrest had moved a large contract for heavy mining equipment away from Stokes-owned Caterpillar.

While Stokes was not speaking directly to journalists at the time, one got the impression from the Stokes’ camp that he took the view that this altercation was the result of Forrest’s dislike of reasonable criticism or scrutiny.

Perth’s chattering class speculated at the time Forrest versus Stokes fight was about The West Australian newspaper’s intrusion into his personal life.

But it’s all on very public display now.

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