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Euronav’s future hangs in the balance ahead of shareholder showdown

‘The most important thing is that we get to a point where we are no longer stuck,’ says Euronav chief

After the chaos of an abandoned merger with Frontline and a bruising shareholder scrap with the Saverys family, Euronav chief Hugo De Stoop claims to have found serenity and is optimistic the tanker giant will finally be able to move on after this week’s executive board vote

HUGO De Stoop is feeling calm. In fact, he is more than calm, he is “totally serene” ahead of this week’s decisive vote that will determine the future direction of the Belgian tanker giant Euronav.

The embattled chief executive of the largest listed independent crude oil tanker company always chooses his words carefully, but this is a final dig at the Saverys family shareholder revolt that could potentially see Mr De Stoop out of a job if the March 23 vote does not go his way.

Amid the bruising boardroom battle that started almost a year ago to control the giant tanker company, the Saverys family argued that only a wholesale ousting of the current board would be enough to “restore serenity” and allow a proper assessment of the strategic alternatives available to Euronav.

While Mr De Stoop says he has tried to keep the debate focused on strategies, not people, the serenity comment clearly hit home and appeared to temporarily crack the thin veneer of “constructive dialogue” around two competing visions earlier this month.

“I found that profoundly unfair,” he said on one of the multiple teleconference calls he has fronted in a bid to win round the 50% of shareholders who are not the Saverys family or John Fredriksen. “There was no tumultuous time before CMB [Compagnie Maritime Belge] decided to oppose the merger [with Frontline]. That chaos was brought to us by CMB.”

Far from bringing serenity, Mr De Stoop’s view of the Saverys family’s bid to remove the board is that they are engaged in a “brutal” and “cynical” attempt to wrestle control of the business without paying for a formal takeover or merger.

But then the Saverys family are feeling equally aggrieved at what they see as an entirely unfair portrayal of their position. Successive salvos from the Euronav camp have questioned their approach to corporate governance and sought to suggest that through CMB the Saverys clan aim to sell off Euronav’s tanker assets and merge the company with their own CMB.Tech.

“We are not a bunch of crazies,” protested CMB chief executive Alexander Saverys during their own attempt to set the record straight with a press conference.

Cut away the veiled insults and attempts to discredit the opposition and this ultimately comes down to two very different visions for the future of the company.

“The current supervisory board wants to pursue mergers becoming bigger to become better,” said Mr Saverys. “Respectfully, we disagree. Simply owning the assets does itself create value.”

A temporary ceasefire is holding ahead of tomorrow’s vote, which should allow all sides to at least plan ahead with some clarity and move on from what has been a disruptive period for all stakeholders.

While the Euronav management were split nearly 18 months ago with a core group ring-fenced away from anything other than operational matters, De Stoop concedes that fatigue is an issue.

“For me the most important thing is that we get to a point where we are no longer stuck,” says Mr De Stoop.

Despite the opposing views, he hopes that a solution can be reached that will see both the Saverys family and Mr Fredriksen, each with a 25% shareholding, join the board and agree next steps.

“I'm very, very hopeful that if we get a balanced board, it will be very good for the company,” he explains, adding that there is a high degree of respect for everyone’s corporate and strategic skills.

There is little suspense over which way the Saverys side will vote when it comes to the executive board decisions, but the unknown swing fact that will ultimately determine Euronav’s fate remains Mr Fredriksen’s intentions.

Will he follow the recommendations of the independent advisers and vote in line with the Euronav Supervisory Board’s recommendations at the special general meeting, or does he have other plans?

Neither Euronav, nor the Saverys family know which way he will go and neither side are in the mood to speculate over the many permutations of what may come out of tomorrow’s shareholder showdown.

As for Mr De Stoops own fate, he is clear about the options that lie ahead.

“If CMB gets its way and wants to fully diversify the fleet, I don’t see myself spending much time there because I wouldn’t have the energy. If it is the current strategy of Euronav, or variation of it, I totally see myself in that... and then there is the possibility we could be looking at something completely different than today.

“Well, then we will see but at that point it’s not about me and to be frank, it’s more about the others and whether they see me as someone that is capable of delivering a new strategy. I’m totally, totally serene. I’m totally comfortable with whatever happens.”

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