Estonian shipping company up for sale

  • 2002-01-31
  • Kairi Kurm
TALLINN - ESCO Holding, owner of the shipping company Eesti Merelaevandus, Estonia's largest privately owned shipping company, is up for sale for a minimum price of $1.5 million with starting bids accepted until Feb. 6.

The heavily indebted company claimed the real value of its shares to be around 260 million kroons ($14.44 million) in its invitation for written bids published in the Estonian newspaper Postimees and in international newspapers.

But in the view of Axel Eitzen, chairman of the board and part owner of Tschudi & Eitzen, current owner of a 77 percent stake in ESCO Holding, this is an overestimate.

Tschudi & Eitzen will be attempting to win complete control of the company from its other share holders - Eesti Uhispank and private individuals - in the sale.

Currently 20 percent of the company which its shareholders pledged to buy from the state remains in state hands because the shareholders failed to pay up.

The company's current debts total some $17 million to $18 million, he said.

"In order to find a solution to the problems we have to bring money into the company. The only way out is to find a stable owner, who is financially sound and can provide ESCO with stability and liquidity.

We're making a bid for 100 (percent) or 80 percent of ESCO, depending on what the government wants to do with the 20 percent shares pledged to the state."

"If we win the bid we can give ESCO the required liquidity, which will safeguard its future. We cannot do this at the moment as shareholders because the money would all go to the creditors. The company is at present controlled by creditors because the value of ESCO is smaller than its debts."

In 2000 ESCO had 400 million kroons in losses on sales of 1.1 billion kroons and in 1999 it incurred a 322 million kroon loss on sales of 1.1 billion kroons.

ESCO Holding's owes about 100 million kroons to Eesti Uhispank and 170 million kroons to the state, of which 40 million should already have been paid off.

ESCO Holding purchased 70 percent of the shipping company in 1996 for 700 million kroons and obtained the right to buy the rest of the shares in 1999.

But it paid only half of the 300 million kroons required for this second stake and asked for the payment deadline to be extended.

Tschudi & Eitzen acquired ESCO Holding through Baltic Sea SA, which it bought from the U.S. company Stanton Capital in 1999 having earlier been a minority shareholder.

Veiko Tali, head of the financial services department at the Ministry of Finance, said that the state wanted to maximize gains from its claim against ESCO Holding.

"What we do next depends on how much money is returned by any concrete action," said Tali. " We can reverse the results of the tender if they damage the creditors' interests."

The state would not want the company to go bankrupt because the claims might then be left unsolved, and the state would be left with outstanding debts.

"It's also not ethical for a creditor to try to escape its liabilities by side roads," he said.

Tschudi & Eitzen's aim is to support its Eurolines commercial routes and increase its third party ship management and crewing services, said Eitzen.