Tycoon behind Crusaders shy of spotlight

Last updated 05:00 17/11/2012
Corey Flynn, Andy Ellis and Dan Carter
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SMART INVESTMENT: Mining magnate Brent Francis has made a smart investment with the Crusaders.

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Brent Francis, the coalminer expected to underwrite the Crusaders' new licence bid, has the reputation of someone who is content to remain in the shadows.

Until a few days ago Francis' public involvement with rugby was limited to sponsorship of the West Coast Rugby Union.

Now the Christchurch-based businessman, who has majority shares in several West Coast coalmines, has been linked with a consortium of provincial rugby unions that want Francis to underwrite their bid to operate the Crusaders franchise.

Speak to those who have had some association with this new identity in New Zealand professional rugby and they agree Francis is no show pony. Being in the news is anathema to the coal baron.

This week Francis was on business in Asia and politely declined a request for an interview, stating in an email he was "not in a position to talk about the Crusaders until such time as there is a deal signed off by all the parties".

Former All Blacks manager and stalwart West Coaster John Sturgeon, who lives in Runanga, 10 kilometres northwest of Greymouth, hardly flips off his stool when he hears Francis has been elusive.

"He's a low-profile man," Sturgeon confirms.

"He doesn't like publicity - he's one of those people who just likes getting on with things. He's a real top bloke."

What is known is that Francis is the executive director and chief executive of New Zealand Coal and Carbon Ltd (NZCC) which comprises two mining companies, ROA Mining and Francis Mining.

ROA Mining operates the ROA mine 30km northeast of Greymouth and Francis Mining runs the Echo mine 10km southeast of Reefton.

Francis, who began mining in Southland 30 years ago, is the majority shareholder of the NZCC group of companies. He is also a deputy chairman of the Coal Association of NZ and a director of several other companies.

Sturgeon, a former miner and now the chairman of Development West Coast, describes Francis as "an astute man".

"He's low-key. There are no airs and graces with him and he operates a very good ship. He's a non-ego guy."

West Coast Rugby Union chief executive Mike Connors reiterates Sturgeon's message when noting Francis, who has sponsored the tiny union for the past four seasons, doesn't seek publicity.

"We greatly appreciate what he does for West Coast rugby," Connors says.

"He is just one of those guys who doesn't like his name up in lights. He is unassuming and very supportive of people over here."

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Although he may not seek attention, Francis spoke publicly after the Royal Commission's report into the Pike River disaster.

As New Zealand Coal and Carbon's chief executive, this country's largest privately owned coal mining company and exporter of coal, he said he wanted to see all 16 of the commission's recommendations in place.

"The industry hasn't been sitting on its hands since the event," Francis stated. "So there are a number of initiatives that have been taken."

Francis Mining's headquarters are in Christchurch.

Francis, whose late father, Stan, was considered one of the forerunners of his chosen industry, had been involved in the family business North Otago Road Metal (now Road Metals) but long ago opted to focus on mining.

The exact details of his involvement with the Crusaders are expected to be explained during a private forum with the provincial unions' representatives next week.

Rather than demand the Crusaders stump up any hefty fees, the NZRU may accept Francis will act as the underwriter to ensure they meet some of their obligations.

When advertising for new licence holders the NZRU stated it wanted the licensee to provide a bond of $1 million and to maintain at least $500,000 working capital at all times.

These demands may be tweaked, requiring the NZRU, who want to reduce its exposure to risk and inject more money into the game, to relax its demands.

Despite posting a $563,000 loss last year, Canterbury, the wealthiest union in the consortium, still has healthy cash reserves but will be reluctant to expose itself.

Earlier this year, when the consortium was putting its bid together, it was understood it was about $200,000 short.

Unlike the Hurricanes licensing model, which has been awarded to a group led by the Wellington Rugby Football Union and including Welnix, owners of the Phoenix football club, which will pour $2 million to $3m into the franchise annually, the Crusaders' bid will allow Canterbury, Tasman, West Coast, Buller, Mid and South Canterbury to retain control of their franchise.

The worst-case scenario for Francis is if the Crusaders are financially mismanaged he will be liable.

So what is he expecting in return for taking such a risk?

Several sources have said "not much" and the rugby fan appears content to be supporting the franchise at the top of the South Island.

One insider from Christchurch confirmed that when the Crusaders met the Highlanders in Greymouth for their pre-season match late last summer it was Francis' financial assistance that enabled the game to be played on the Coast.

Francis, it is understood, has not asked for naming rights on the Crusaders jerseys, something that was unlikely to be granted anyway because in September BNZ re-signed as principial sponsor of the five New Zealand franchises for another three years.

The earlier deal with the BNZ, signed in late 2009, was touted to be valued at about $1m to the NZRU.

However, Francis could be well-placed to demand a place as an independent on the new Crusaders board.

A final decision about governance has yet to be made but the board seems certain to be reduced from seven directors - three from Canterbury, two independents and two provincial union reps - when it signs the new NZRU contract.

The licence to manage the Hurricanes was made for three years, with the right of renewal for five more.

A similar arrangement is likely for the Crusaders.

A final contract is expected to be signed within a month.

- The Press

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