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Greensill, from sugar cane fields to international empire and finally insolvency

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Lex Greensill’s mission to “make finance fairer” has taken him from the sugar cane fields of Bundaberg in Australia to the gold embossed halls of Buckingham Palace.

On Monday, it ended in bankruptcy proceedings. Greensill’s eponymous financial firm, once the centre of a multi-billion dollar lending empire that helped grease corporate supply chains, filed for insolvency.

The sudden change in fortune came after Credit Suisse said $10 billion of funds that bought bonds backed by Greensill notes were shutting due to concerns over how some of the underlying assets were valued, depriving it of a key funding source.

The insolvency proceedings and questions over valuations mark a stunning reversal for Greensill, who had attracted backers such as Japan’s SoftBank, advisers including former British Prime Minister David Cameron and who was named a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 2017.

His firm, founded in 2011, helped companies manage their finances by paying suppliers on their behalf and collecting the money later on.

Known in the industry as supply chain financing, this niche area took off in the wake of the financial crisis when banks were pulling back from lending to smaller firms and has generated handsome fees for lenders during the coronavirus crisis.

Financial innovation – the repacking of invoices into bonds and selling them to investors – enabled Greensill to turbocharge his business and compete head on with major banks.

But the strategy has also attracted controversy. Supply chain finance does not have the same disclosure requirements applied to more conventional forms of debt, creating what rating agency Moody’s has described as a “tiger trap” for investors.

Germany’s financial regulator has said an audit of Greensill’s German Bank could not provide evidence of receivables on its balance sheet purchased from mining tycoon Sanjeev Gupta’s GFG Alliance. GFG has not responded to requests for comment on BaFin’s findings.

Greensill Capital said in a statement in response to BaFin’s announcement that Greensill Bank always “seeks external legal and audit advice before booking any new asset.”

Several German towns have already flagged that they put millions of euros into Greensill bank, attracted by its lack of negative interest rates, and are warning they are likely to lose it all.

With his smart suits and wide grin, Greensill became the public face of the supply chain finance industry, setting up offices in New York, Chicago, Miami, Frankfurt, Bremen, and Sydney. According to its website, his firm extended $143 billion of financing to more than 10 million customers and suppliers in 175 countries in 2019.

The idea for his business first began near Bundaberg, a town north of Brisbane in Australia renowned for its rum, where Lex’s parents owned a small farm, Greensill said in a 2017 interview here with Sky News.

The financing model was inspired by the hardship his parents endured while they often waited two years or more to be paid for the sugar cane and melons they produced.

“We found ourselves under pressure from the big multinational companies who don’t always pay their bills on time,” Greensill said in the interview, adding that he had not continued his education to university because his parents could not afford to send him.

The experience led Greensill to begin developing ideas on “how suppliers could access more efficient financing, regardless of their size and geographic location” his firm’s website says.

As it expanded, Greensill drew backing from Japan’s SoftBank worth nearly $1.5 billion as well as funding from private equity firm General Atlantic, the company’s website shows.

SoftBank and General Atlantic have declined to comment on Greensill’s troubles.

Greensill’s crusade for fairer finance also put its jet-setting CEO on policymakers’ radars in the aftermath of the financial crisis as non-bank lending grew, and he advised Britain and the U.S. on the launch of their supply chain finance initiatives.

The pinnacle of Greensill’s rise in British society came in 2017 with the awarding of the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for services to the economy. He smiled as Prince Charles draped the medal around his neck.

“Possibly the best thing about today was being able to take my mum to the palace from country Queensland,” Greensill told Sky News on the day he received the award.

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