Equity fund on stand-by to put federal billions to work

From advanced manufacturing to cleaner industries, an existing growth fund already backed by taxpayers and big banks could get the economy back on track.

Amid calls for Australia to start making things again after the demise of car assembly plants and refinery closures, there are many smaller-scale manufacturers who are still on the tools.

“We don’t have a complete absence of advanced manufacturing, but a lot of it is smaller scale and needs capital,” Australian Business Growth Fund (ABGF) Chief Executive Anthony Healy told AAP.

As a former banker, he has seen good ideas wasted when banks say no to people applying for a loan.

“Founders, family-owned businesses get to a certain size and scale and then don’t have the capability, capital or connections to make that next step,” he said.

He said there are sectors that are not only important for Australia so supply chains don’t fail again, but also have huge growth potential.

“When we find these businesses we love investing in them because you can see the opportunity in the market – whether it’s handling our e-waste or supporting advanced technology and defence or electrifying the mining industry.”

Meanwhile, the new $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund (NRF) is yet to land on an investment mandate but had its first board meeting on Monday.

“Obviously the NRF is designed to bring more capital to industries that the government sees as priority sectors, and we’re investing in a number of those sectors already,” Mr Healy said.

Asked whether he was concerned it had taken the NRF months to get to this point, he said: “these things take time.”

“The government will be trying to accelerate the deployment of that because they don’t want to be writing their first cheque in three years’ time.”

The fund he heads up is a likely contractor as an established investor using public-private partnerships. What this means in practice is for every dollar assigned out of federal coffers, ABGF has attracted $4.50 from banks.

Initial capital commitments totalled $540 million from NAB, Westpac, Commonwealth, ANZ, Macquarie Group and HSBC, with sights set on $1 billion.

This is a business model often used by governments to get private capital to help build costly infrastructure, such as highways or airports, and is favoured by Treasurer Jim Chalmers.

“It’s been a good model for us and I think it’s a model that you can scale and replicate,” Mr Healy said.

“It’s not grants, it’s not subsidised loans, it’s commercial capital,” he said.

The fund also offers certainty from bi-partisan political support – it was established by the coalition in 2020 with a mandate to find small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and help them grow.

Applicants need to meet certain parameters such as a turnover of $2 million to $100 million and offer something unique that gives the company a competitive edge or export potential.

“We fit between venture capital, which is early stage, and big buyout firms,” Mr Healy said.

Beyond financial sustainability are a swag of environmental and social reporting obligations that he doesn’t see as a handbrake on investment.

“Everyone’s moving in that direction and one of the reasons is that most providers of capital, whether it’s governments or large pension funds – here or offshore – are expecting that.”

But SMEs often do not have the capacity to do it, so his fund provides reporting frameworks.

Mr Healy said it added value long-term to have a business focused on responsible investment outcomes and data to back it up.

“But they’re all founders, who started with almost nothing, so they go ‘don’t drown me in this’,” he said.


Marion Rae
(Australian Associated Press)


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