After making an A$49 million (£25 million) payout in 2017 over its corporate conduct, the company has been served with two class actions in the past month. They both claim that Treasury’s management misled them over the true state of the business for 18 months, causing them unwarranted losses.
In January Treasury cut its forecast growth in earnings for 2019-20 from an earlier estimate of between 15% and 20% to between 5% and 10%. The update, released after the market had closed for the day, shocked investors. When it opened the next morning Treasury’s shares lost a quarter of their value.
The company said it had lowered its forecasts because of its weak performance in the US, where it had been hit by a wine surplus, challenging conditions and unexpected management changes.
The aggrieved shareholders claim that Treasury had problems in the Americas well before an earlier growth forecast was issued in the middle of February 2019. A similar action was begun by another group of shareholders in early April.
When lodging the claim on Friday in the Victoria court, Miranda Nagy, the lawyer representing the latest shareholders group said: “From at least June 30, 2018 to January 28, 2020, Treasury’s US performance was in decline, with diminishing sales, a weak US brand portfolio overall and slowing growth of its key brand 19 Crimes, added to which were unsustainable levels of inventory held by its distributors.
“Treasury failed to disclose these problems. It also did not correct many representations from earlier years that it had ‘reset’ the US business in financial year 2015,” she said.
The lead plaintiff in the latest action, investor Steven Napier, said: “Investors are entitled to be informed about the health of the companies they are investing in. Treasury has betrayed those of us who in good faith put our money into the company. We deserve transparency and proper information to inform our decision making,”
The company said: “Treasury Wine Estates has strong corporate governance practices and procedures in place that were used in our market update. TWE will vigorously defend any action.”
Earlier this year Treasury said it was looking into a demerger of its iconic Penfolds brand by the end of 2021, following a wide-ranging review.
“We consider all options and have looked at all different options,” chief executive Michael Clarke said. “What we’re putting forward is strategically what the board thus far has approved for us to look at, to work on and to execute.”
Clarke is leaving the company in the summer and his successor may face the thorny problem of the class actions remaining unresolved as plans for the demerger are drawn up.
Since the profits downgrade in January the company’s trading will have been hit further by the Corona virus pandemic, especially as China is now its main export market.