Private equity firms that piled into oil-production assets in the past few years now find themselves stuck, and forced to contemplate novel ways to make an exit.
Even with the recent vaccine-induced surge in oil prices, industry executives say initial public offerings — the traditional method for realizing gains from private-equity consolidation and dealmaking — are unlikely.
So one recent deal, the planned reverse takeover of Premier Oil Plc by Chrysaor Holdings Ltd., has caught their attention.
“There are hundreds of private companies that need to merge, need to go public or monetize in some way,” said Dennis Cornell, managing director of private equity solutions at Moelis & Co., a boutique deals adviser.
The Premier transaction could be a “harbinger of things to come,” he said at the virtual SPE Upstream Finance and Investments Conference this week.
Private equity-backed companies have made particular inroads into exploration and production, or E&P, in the North Sea.
They’ve scooped up assets as Big Oil retreated from aging fields.
Since last year, many closely held oil explorers and producers have paused plans to go public. The list includes North Sea producers Siccar Point Energy Ltd., Wintershall Dea GmbH and Neptune Energy Group Ltd.
A spokesman for Wintershall Dea referred to comments made by its Chief Executive Officer Mario Mehren earlier this year that its IPO has been postponed to 2021, subject to market conditions.
Siccar Point and Neptune didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The problems started in 2019, when fossil fuels lost their appeal to investors due to environmental concerns.
The situation got a whole lot worse earlier this year, after oil demand and prices collapsed in the first wave of the coronavirus.
Asset sales slowed and the pool of potential buyers has dried up.
IPOs worked well when oil was still “fashionable and profitable,” said Jules van Limborgh, director at Kerogen Capital, which backs North Sea explorer Hurricane Energy Plc.
London saw its last listing of an E&P company a year ago, when Longboat Energy Plc, run by the former management team of Faroe Petroleum Plc, raised 10 million pounds ($13 million) in an initial public offering.
Dozens of companies are left with only two options surviving the cycle: remain invested for longer, while consolidating and streamlining their assets for an uncertain future; or get creative and make an exit now.
The Premier deal is one example of the latter path. Chrysaor, backed by EIG Global Energy Partners’ investment vehicle Harbour Energy, had built itself up into the largest U.K. North Sea E&P through a sequence of deals, including the $3 billion purchase of a package of assets from Royal Dutch Shell Plc in 2017.
Joining with Premier, which had been laboring for years under a heavy debt burden, gave Chrysaor its coveted London listing, while sacrificing little control.
Once the deal is complete, Premier shareholders will end up with about 5% of the combined company, its CEO Tony Durrant will step down and Chrysaor will be in a position to pursue further deals.
Private-equity funds that weren’t already thinking of reverse takeovers will certainly be considering them now, said Salman Haq, co-founder and managing director at Access Corporate Finance in London.
There could be similar transactions, but not very many because a good deal needs to tick several boxes including target size, asset quality and geographical exposure, he said.
Kerogen’s van Limborgh said he would be patient, but could also be open to a deal.
“Now we probably have to sit on things a little bit longer, work harder, optimize production, cut down costs and just really focus on what we are doing,” he said.
“Opportunistically, there are always companies out there that are looking for something, and if somebody comes along we will speak to them.”