Elliott says one of America’s largest utilities should be split in three

Activist hedge fund Elliott Management has called on Duke Energy to consider splitting into three separate companies, firing its first public salvo in a campaign to overhaul one of the US’s biggest utilities.

Elliott said it had taken an unspecified stake in Duke, which provides power to 7.8m people across the US south-east and Midwest, and in a letter to management on Monday it accused them of “empire building”.

“Based on our extensive analysis of Duke’s businesses, we believe that Duke should conduct a thorough, unbiased review of a tax-free separation into three regionally focused, publicly traded utility holding companies: the Carolinas, Florida, and the Midwest,” wrote Elliott’s Jeff Rosenbaum, senior portfolio manager, and Jesse Cohn, managing partner.

Elliott — the $42bn fund whose recent activist campaigns have targeted BHP, SoftBank and Whitbread, among others — said the review should be led by an independent board committee, including new independent directors, with the assistance of external advisers

The hedge fund did not disclose the size of it stake in Duke, which was initially reported by The Wall Street Journal. But it said it was a top-10 investor.

Duke said it would review the proposals, which it said were the latest in a series Elliott had put forward since July 2020.

“Throughout, Duke Energy’s board of directors has reviewed their proposals in-depth and determined that they are not in the best interests of the company, its shareholders and other stakeholders,” Duke said.

It also hit out at the hedge fund’s “decidedly mixed results” in the utility sector, where it has previously taken stakes in Sempra Energy, FirstEnergy and Evergy.

“These utilities’ share prices have materially underperformed the sector to date since Elliott became involved, establishing an unenviable track record of shareholder value destruction,” said Duke.

The aggressive public exchange foreshadows a fight to sway shareholders over the merits of Duke’s strategy and performance under longtime chief executive Lynn Good.

Elliott argued that despite holding a portfolio of “top-tier” utilities, the company had suffered “numerous operational setbacks and investment and strategic missteps over the past decade, at significant cost to both shareholders and customers”.

Among the “missteps” Elliott cited were the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a 600-mile gas pipeline being developed in conjunction with Dominion Energy. The project collapsed last year after a series of delays and legal challenges sent costs soaring. It triggered a $2.1bn writedown by Duke.

Elliott also pointed to the cost of a 2014 coal ash spill and what it said was the “overpriced” acquisition of Piedmont Natural Gas in 2016.

The company, Elliott said, “has focused more on increasing its footprint and portfolio than on operational execution and prudent investment, leading to perceptions among those who follow the company that Duke is ‘empire-building’ at the expense of shareholder value”.

A split could create between $12bn and $15bn “line of sight near-term value” for shareholders, the hedge fund claimed.

Duke shares were up 0.7 per cent in a falling market on Monday. The company last year rejected a merger offer from NextEra Energy, a Florida-based utility and power producer, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

The move on Duke is the second piece of large-scale stakebuilding by Elliott to come to light in little more than a month. The hedge fund has also built a multibillion-pound stake in GlaxoSmithKline, setting up a potential battle over the UK drugmaker’s future after it underperformed peers and lagged behind in the race to develop a Covid-19 vaccine.

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