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Report on Business SNC-Lavalin ‘100-per-cent’ focused on court battle, CEO says as company reports fourth-quarter loss

SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. says it does not expect to be invited to strike a negotiated settlement on federal fraud and corruption charges and is now bracing itself for a multiyear court battle.

And it confirmed a team of employees and outside advisers are running scenarios to develop a Plan B reshaping of the company if needed to protect shareholder value. The goal is to counter any financial fallout as the legal drama continues.

In comments to discuss SNC-Lavalin’s first quarterly loss in six years, chief executive Neil Bruce said the company’s position at the centre of a political storm in Ottawa over the past two weeks has taken its toll. And he said the corporation simply wants to move on.

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“Our innocent employees are being used as a puck in a political hockey game, and frankly they don’t deserve it and they’ve had enough,” Mr. Bruce told stakeholders on a conference call. “So we are 100-per-cent concentrating now on defending ourselves in court.”

Mr. Bruce is trying to chart a new course for SNC-Lavalin that involves growing the company to $15-billion in annual sales and adjusted profit of $5 a share by 2020. But he’s been hobbled in that effort by legal trouble that won’t go away and unexpected problems disclosed in January, notably with a contract with Chile’s Codelco. S&P Global ratings cut SNC-Lavalin’s credit rating to the cusp of junk in the wake of the news, saying it expects the company’s credit metrics to worsen over the next two years.

The trouble has mounted quickly and taken the market by surprise, leading to calls by some investors for the company to take deeper action, such as selling assets. Faith in management has also been rattled and some shareholders, such as Montreal-based investment firm Palos, have exited their long-held positions in the company.

Fixed-income investors have shown cooler heads. SNC-Lavalin’s five-year corporate bond, which made its debut last year with an interest coupon of 3.235 per cent, has declined in price only slightly this week, suggesting the company’s longer-term investors are confident their dollars are safe.

The stock fell 2.9 per cent in Toronto to close at $34.76. It is trading at price levels not seen in a decade.

SNC’s future is clouded by legal trouble whose resolution is proving impossible to predict. The RCMP laid rare corporate fraud and corruption charges against the firm in 2015, alleging the company bribed individuals in the former Libya government of the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi between 2001 and 2011.

To protect against the potential damage caused by a multiyear court fight, Mr. Bruce regathered a team of employees and external advisers this past October to analyze the options for reshaping operations. He declined to give much detail about those options Friday, but said the company has both “plenty of opportunities to grow the business outside Canada” while it also remains “committed to the Canadian market,” and to its roughly 9,000 Canadian employees.

The loss for the fourth quarter ended Dec. 31 was $1.6-billion, or $9.11 per diluted share, on revenue of $2.56-billion, SNC-Lavalin said in a statement. That compares with profit of $52.4-million, or 30 cents per diluted share, on revenue of $2.9-billion for the corresponding period in 2017. The backlog of work awarded but yet to be completed stood at $14.9-billion at the end of the quarter, with $2.2-billion worth of new bookings during the period.

Performance was hurt by a $1.2-billion charge the company took last month to account for a deterioration in its oil and gas business. SNC management is unsure about the company’s ability to win new work in Saudi Arabia amid strained political relations between Canada and the Middle East kingdom.

The Montreal-based multinational slashed the quarterly dividend by more than half to 10 cents to conserve more cash while maintaining previous financial guidance for 2019. The company is in good financial health and doesn’t need to raise equity, Mr. Bruce said.

SNC-Lavalin provided no clarity on any specific strategic moves Friday in its earnings statement, saying only that management intends to push on with its current strategy. The process, already under way, to sell a piece of its stake in the Highway 407 Toronto area toll road “continues to progress,” the company said. Selling the stake would resolve the company’s balance-sheet stress based on analysts’ expectations that it would fetch $2-billion after tax, National Bank analyst Maxim Sytchev said in a research note.

Mr. Bruce has confirmed to The Globe and Mail that the company is struggling with payment agreements involving the construction of two sulphuric acid plants for Codelco. The problem boils down to SNC giving the green light to its subcontractors to do work that Codelco hadn’t approved. It’s “an error” that is isolated and contained, Mr. Bruce said Friday, adding SNC expects to recover some of that revenue in the future.

As for the challenges in the oil and gas division, oil prices remain volatile while customers are taking longer to approve projects and allocate capital, Mr. Bruce said. The company acquired the bulk of its oil and gas capability in August, 2014, through the purchase of Kentz, just before global crude prices tanked.

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SNC’s largest shareholder, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, on Thursday reaffirmed its faith in the engineering firm’s management and future prospects, vowing to act as “a rock" to support the company.

SNC maintains the company itself did nothing improper in Libya and that individuals responsible for the wrongdoing are no longer on the payroll. It has asked for what it referred to as remediation agreement with prosecutors that would allow it to settle the charges without going to trial.

The company’s plight has set off a political earthquake in Ottawa after The Globe reported Feb. 7 that senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office put pressure on then-attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould to shelve the charges against SNC-Lavalin. She refused and was subsequently demoted. Earlier this week, Gerald Butts, the Prime Minister’s principal secretary, also resigned, but asserted he had not pressed Ms. Wilson-Raybould.

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