Rival drilling tycoons place bets on offshore-rig recovery

Billionaire John Fredriksen and his former top adviser Tor Olav Troim may not see eye to eye anymore, but they agree on this: it’s time to buy offshore rigs again.

Foreseeing a boom in oil drilling a decade ago, the shipping tycoon and his right-hand man built one of the biggest offshore-rig companies before they fell out in 2014. With the industry now in the doldrums and assets at bargain prices, the two are at it again, this time as competitors.

“When these boys start looking at the rig market, that’s a reason alone for others to have a look as well,” Harald Oyen, head of securities research at SEB AB in Oslo, said by phone. “When they smell a good deal, there must be something in the making.”

Troim’s Borr Drilling Ltd., which announced its first rig deal after setting up three months ago, is now buying Transocean Ltd.’s entire fleet of jack-up rigs for $1.35 billion, it said Monday. That would be the biggest acquisition in the offshore drilling industry since the downturn began. Fredriksen — who registered his new Northern Drilling Ltd. investment company on Norway’s over-the-counter market Monday — recently acquired a floating rig for $365 million and an option for another at $400 million.

Crude’s collapse in 2014 sent the offshore-drilling industry into its deepest decline in a generation. Lower rig fees and less work battered operators including Seadrill Ltd., the company Fredriksen built with Troim’s help and which is now in tough negotiations to restructure its debt. Yet the latest rig deals indicate the industry could be at a turning point.

‘Interesting bets’

Fredriksen and Troim’s new companies are “interesting bets that we’re close to the bottom of the market, with relatively attractive entry prices and full equity funding that allows them to wait for the market to turn,” said Sondre Stormyr, an analyst at Danske Bank AB. Their acquisitions could trigger rising optimism among investors, SEB’s Oyen said, echoing Nordea AB’s suggestion last week that Fredriksen’s purchase may spur other deals in the industry.

“Based on how much more my phone has been ringing over the past three to five weeks, the answer is yes,” Oyen said. “These guys are bellwethers.”

After rising 6.3 percent on Monday, Borr shares added 5.9 percent in Oslo on Tuesday to 36 kroner ($4.27), more than double the price in its initial $155 million equity issue. The company was able to raise $800 million for the Transocean deal at $3.50 a share, showing investors’ appetite. Northern Drilling, to which Fredriksen contributed half the initial capital of $230 million, also jumped on Monday to 60 kroner from the issue price of about 42.5 kroner. It was at 61 kroner on Tuesday.

Growth strategy

Pareto Securities AS, a joint bookrunner in Northern Drilling’s placement, has a buy recommendation on the company and a price target of 76 kroner. “The company will pursue an opportunistic growth strategy, which, based on the sponsor’s unique deal flow and proven track record in timing rig acquisitions, bodes well for co-investors,” analyst Bard Rosef said in a note.

Arctic Securities ASA also recommended clients buy the stock, with a price target of $10, or about 84 kroner.

Fredriksen resorted to setting up new vehicles when running into trouble before: in 2011, he split his shipping company Frontline Ltd., before merging the units back together in 2015. Northern Drilling is purely an investment company set up to buy rigs at distressed values, a person familiar with the matter has said. The billionaire intends to sell the rigs at a profit in the future, giving Seadrill, which will operate them, the opportunity to match any offer.

Meanwhile, Fredriksen has the capacity to handle Seadrill’s debt situation and investments in new rigs, Oyen said. “Fredriksen will never let a good deal pass,” he said.

Wait it out

Regardless of whether the rig market starts recovering this year or remains weak until 2020, both Fredriksen and Troim can afford to wait, Oyen said. More than half of Fredriksen’s estimated fortune of $10 billion is in cash and other assets, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaire Index, and Troim’s Borr is debt-free.

Relations between the two men, who worked together for almost 20 years, soured in 2014 and have yet to be restored. Commenting on Seadrill in January, Fredriksen said in an interview with Norway’s Dagens Naeringsliv that Troim had left a financial mess behind him.

Troim didn’t respond to a request for comment on Monday.

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