Noble's former CEO sues founder for $80m in shares

Mr Yusuf Alireza (above) approached Noble Group founder Richard Elman (below) in May last year and raised "concerns over the future viability" of Noble Group and made various recommendations, according to the writ. That same month, Mr Elman gave him
Mr Yusuf Alireza (above) approached Noble Group founder Richard Elman in May last year and raised "concerns over the future viability" of Noble Group and made various recommendations, according to the writ. That same month, Mr Elman gave him six months' notice of termination.PHOTO: REUTERS
Mr Yusuf Alireza (above) approached Noble Group founder Richard Elman (below) in May last year and raised "concerns over the future viability" of Noble Group and made various recommendations, according to the writ. That same month, Mr Elman gave him
Mr Yusuf Alireza approached Noble Group founder Richard Elman (above) in May last year and raised "concerns over the future viability" of Noble Group and made various recommendations, according to the writ. That same month, Mr Elman gave him six months' notice of termination.PHOTO: REUTERS

Yusuf Alireza files suit against Richard Elman in Hong Kong, alleging breach of contract

HONG KONG • The former chief executive officer of Noble Group has filed a lawsuit against founder Richard Elman, claiming that he is owed stock in the embattled commodity trader.

Mr Yusuf Alireza, who left the company in May last year, filed the suit against Mr Elman in the High Court of Hong Kong alleging breaches of contract, according to a writ of summons. Mr Alireza is seeking at least HK$450 million (S$80 million) in shares.

Mr Elman, who stepped down as chairman of the company last month, declined to comment. Mr Alireza could not immediately be reached for comment.

Once Asia's largest commodity trader, Noble Group is beset by a crisis that stretches back more than two years, which has left the Hong Kong-based firm grappling with losses, a collapse in its securities, downgrades to its credit rating and uncertainty over its ability to fund its debt.

The company's market value has slumped to just over US$290 million (S$400 million) from more than US$10 billion at the end of 2010. Mr Elman, the largest shareholder, has an 18.5 per cent stake.

Mr Alireza, who was appointed CEO in 2012, oversaw the sale of assets, including Noble's agricultural unit to China's Cofco, to raise funds and cut debt.

According to the writ, Mr Alireza had a deal to receive about 63.9 million fully paid shares in Noble for starting work at the company, and an additional 52.3 million shares when his employment was terminated. He claims those shares have not been transferred.

The former Goldman Sachs Group executive approached Mr Elman in early May last year and raised "concerns over the future viability" of Noble Group and made various recommendations, according to the writ.

That same month, Mr Elman gave Mr Alireza six months' notice of termination, citing irreconcilable differences between the two on how the company should be run in future, the writ says.

Noble Group's troubles started in February 2015, when a group called Iceberg Research criticised its accounting methods.

The company dismissed the allegations as the work of a disgruntled former employee and started litigation against him.

Attempts to reset the business last year included the sale of its United States energy solutions unit after Mr Alireza left, an exit from European power and gas, a reduction in its metals business and a rights issue. The trader is now in talks with lenders to extend a US$2 billion facility that expires this month.

Mr Alireza's lawsuit is the second filed by a former CEO of Noble Group. Mr Ricardo Leiman, who left in 2011 and went on to found a rival trading house now called Engelhart Commodities, sued Noble in Singapore claiming shares and a bonus were wrongfully withheld.

Noble Group has said the compensation should not be paid because Mr Leiman had been in discussions to set up a rival business while still on a Noble contract.

Noble Group stock slipped two cents to end the day at 30.5 cents. The shares have collapsed 82 per cent over the past year.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2017, with the headline 'Noble's former CEO sues founder for $80m in shares'. Print Edition | Subscribe