Energy Business

Is Ouster of Cheniere Energy Founder a Mistake?

Whether the presence of activist investor Carl Icahn was the immediate cause is arguable, but what is inarguable is the Cheniere Energy Inc. (NYSEMKT: LNG) on Sunday ousted co-founder, chairman, president and CEO Charif Souki. The board appointed Neal A. Shear as interim president and CEO and appointed board member G. Andrea Botta as board chairman.

Shear was also named chairman of the boards of directors for Cheniere Energy subsidiaries Cheniere Energy Partners L.P. (NYSEMKT: CQP) and Cheniere Energy Partners L.P. Holdings LLC (NYSEMKT: CQH).

Icahn acquired an 8.2% stake in Cheniere Energy in August and said at the time that he believed that Cheniere’s shares were undervalued and that he planned to discuss operations, capital spending, financing and executive pay with the company’s management and board of directors. Two Icahn-named directors were added to Cheniere’s board shortly after Icahn’s acquisition was announced. Since the August announcements, Icahn has upped his position in Cheniere Energy to almost 14%.

What Icahn brought to Cheniere’s party, in his view, was disciplined spending that will allow for larger cash allocations to dividends and buybacks. Maybe, but Cheniere co-founder Souki has pulled the company back from the edge of disaster more than once and now had it positioned for a solid win.

Apparently, though, Souki wanted to continue expanding even though first shipments of liquefied natural gas have yet to leave the export facility at Sabine Pass. Adding even more to the company’s long-term debt load of nearly $16 billion may have encouraged more board members to line up with Icahn’s appointees.

Whatever happened, Cheniere Energy’s shares traded down about 2.2% Monday morning, at $40.38 in a 52-week range of $38.71 to $82.32. The consensus price target on the stock is $75.50 and the high target is $100.00.