Exclusive: Industrialist Nikhil Merchant leads race for acquiring Reliance Naval

Exclusive: Industrialist Nikhil Merchant leads race for acquiring Reliance Naval

Low-profile Gujarat businessman wants to add Pipavav shipyard facility to his adjacent LNG port.

Swan Energy MD Nikhil Merchant (left) with former Gujarat CM Vijay Rupani. Photo: Twitter Swan Energy MD Nikhil Merchant (left) with former Gujarat CM Vijay Rupani. Photo: Twitter

A consortium led by Mumbai-based industrialist Nikhil Merchant is leading the race to acquire the debt-laden Reliance Naval and Engineering Ltd, originally known as Pipavav Shipyard.

Sources have told Business Today TV that Merchant, who has a billion-dollar LNG port and regasification terminal project coming up adjacent to the shipyard, is the force behind the Rs 2,400 crore bid by Hazel Mercantile Pvt Ltd. The low profile and astute businessman, who is the Managing Director of Swan Energy Ltd, is said to have plans to build frontline warships and submarines at the shipyard once it comes out of bankruptcy court.

When contacted, a company executive offered no comment.

Sources aware of the details say Merchant is very keen on the bid, given the significant synergies between his port, LNG facility, and the shipyard. The shipyard also has strategic significance as it is viewed as a facility that could play a role in contributing to the Modi government's plans for "Aatmanirbhar" defence production.      

Originally, three bids had been received for Reliance Naval, including one backed by a Dubai-based NRI that offered the lenders only Rs 100 crore. The second, a slightly higher bid of Rs 400 crore, has been put in by steel tycoon Naveen Jindal's group, which reportedly wants to convert the shipyard into a steel processing facility instead of using it for building warships.

Reliance Naval is touted as a world-class facility in the private sector and is said to possess the second largest dry dock globally. The shipyard was taken to the National Company Law Tribunal in January last year after lenders, including IDBI Bank, invoked the insolvency and bankruptcy process to recover close to Rs 12,429 crore in outstanding loans. Among the top 10 financial creditors to the firm are State Bank of India, with an exposure of Rs 1,965 crore and Union Bank of India with around Rs 1,555 crore of outstanding loans.

Pipavav Shipyard had received India's first license and contract to build surface ships, followed by prestigious contracts from ONGC, Coast Guard, and Norwegian billionaire George Fredrickson. However, the company went into insolvency, and ever since, the lenders have been struggling to find a serious and committed bidder for the project. Last year, the Indian Navy cancelled a contract for six patrol vessels due to delays in delivery.

Lenders are keen for an early resolution and the takeover of the shipyard by a genuine investor.

A successful transaction would also be significant given that other industry peers like ABG Shipyard and Bharti Shipyard have seen the lenders recover virtually nothing of their outstanding loans. Both ABG Shipyard, with a debt of around Rs 20,000 crore, and Bharti Shipyard, with nearly Rs 13,000-crore debt, have gone into liquidation after the bidding failed.

The Committee of Creditors is also learnt to be in negotiations with both bidders and wants them to increase the offer, before voting on the bids sometime early next month.

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