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Walter Energy proposes $3.2B acquisition; timing to close Tampa HQ still unclear

Coal producer Walter Energy is a company in flux. It's run by an interim CEO and is in a prolonged process of relocating its headquarters from Tampa to Birmingham, Ala., with executives working out of both locations.

Yet in revealing a proposal Thursday to buy Western Coal Corp. of Vancouver, British Columbia, for $3.2 billion — a deal that would near double the company's production capability — Walter sent a clear message that interim doesn't mean inactive.

Walter offered to acquire Western Coal's outstanding stock for $11.50 in Canadian dollars per share in cash and company stock. Western Coal agreed to work exclusively with Walter over 14 days to try to come to terms. Separately, Walter also agreed to pay affiliates of Audley Capital about $615 million ($630 million Canadian) for their 19.8 percent stake in the Canadian company.

The combined company would control 385 million tons of coal reserves and be well-positioned for future acquisitions, according to Walter's interim chief executive, Joe Leonard.

"From a strategic perspective, a transaction with Western Coal would be transformational for our company," Leonard said in a statement.

Some analysts were surprised by the news given Walter's caretaker leadership.

"This is an aggressive move. Clearly they want to be a buyer instead of a seller," Avondale Partners analyst Daniel Mannes said.

The announcement did little to clarify two issues: when Walter will name a new chief executive and when Birmingham will become its official headquarters, initially forecast to occur in early 2010.

Walter spokesman Michael Monahan, who relocated to Birmingham two months ago, said nearly all employees who planned to move from Tampa have already done so. There are currently about 100 employees in Birmingham and a skeleton staff of a couple of dozen left in Tampa, Monahan said.

"People are having their last days all the time there," he said.

Nevertheless, he refused to set a timetable for a Tampa pullout or even say if it would happen by year's end.

Earlier, Leonard told investors that the timing of a corporate relocation would be left open if it would help identify and recruit a permanent candidate to replace him. Thursday's announcement "may have an impact on the timing" for naming a CEO as well, Monahan said, without being more specific.

Shares in Walter closed Thursday at $96.86, up $2.15 or 2 percent.

Times wires contributed to this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at jharrington@sptimes.com.

Walter Energy proposes $3.2B acquisition; timing to close Tampa HQ still unclear 11/18/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 18, 2010 9:52pm]
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