Banknote printer De La Rue’s CEO has cried off from the G20. Did he do so to oversee Drachma deliveries? Or is the company facing an imminent takeover danger?

James Hussey…personal advisor to Oberthur Chairman

There’s been a lot of tweeting, nodding and winking today ever since the Daily Telegraph’s Ben Brogan noted that banknote printer De La Rue’s CEO Tim Cobbold had cried off the Mexico G20 talking shop. “Uh-oh,” Ben tweeted cheekily. The suggestion, obviously, was that Cobbold was staying home to get a rush order from Athens out of the factory door.

I think this is unlikely – but it doesn’t make the story any less intriguing. As Tim has said himself in the past, it usually takes six months between an initial order being placed by a central bank or government, and the notes being delivered. Doing the job in three weeks simply isn’t possible without taking massive quality control risks. This does not, of course, mean that the notes aren’t already printed in Overton, and simply waiting for the word from Athens. Or Berlin. Several times earlier this year, De La Rue refused “to either confirm or deny” they were printing Drachmas; which, to most suspicious hack minds, means they were.

But if that was the case, it seems unlikely they’d think it necessary to have Tim Cobbold cancel working the room in Mexico just to oversee the Despatch Department at the Hampshire plant. Perhaps more relevant is the fact that, just a week ago, former De La Rue CEO James Hussey joined voracious head-to-head competitor Oberthur. And thereto lies one helluva tale.

When in 2010, ‘irregularities’ were found at the De La Rue printing plant, the company was forced to temporarily halt production at its Overton factory on July 21 of that year.  The initial corporate line was that ‘concerns about the quality of banknote paper’ had brought things to a halt, and that only one customer was involved. But then De La Rue abruptly announced that it was calling in the Serious Fraud Squad….and that several De La Rue clients were ‘involved’.

The next part of this yarn depends on how one defines the term ‘involved’. The SFO probe focused on clear evidence that De La Rue staff had faked certificates verifying the quality of banknote paper. What was never revealed was precisely why they’d been doing this. But what’s abundantly clear is that Chief executive James Hussey quit. He did not get a payoff in any shape or form.

That’s pretty unusual in senior corporate circles. But a Hussey ally denies any wrongdoing on the former CEO’s part.

“James believes with some justification that he was made a scapegoat,” he says, “And, well, just generally shafted for something that was nothing to do with him”.

However one interprets what happened, the SFO investigation petered out with minimal publicity. And now James Hussey has turned up at major competitor Oberthur Technologies. But here the tale takes another twist: for last year, Oberthur was behind a series of failed bids for De La Rue.

Suddenly, this begins to look like something well worthy cancelling a Mexican fiesta for. Here we have a spurned former CEO taking up a senior position at a competitor who has tried to board the De La Rue ship before now. Here we also have – do we? Who knows? – a leader spurned who might have commercially advantageous information – perhaps incriminating secrets? – well capable of damaging De La Rue’s core business…in a sector where sphincter-tight secrecy is 95% of the game.

Tim Cobbold cited ‘personal reasons’ for staying in Britain this week. He’s telling the truth: he clearly regards this situation as very personal indeed. De La Rue’s annual report reveals that Cobbold has a clause in his contract that allowing him to resign at one month’s notice “in the event of certain corporate actions” – specifically, if the company is taken over. He would be entitled to a payment equivalent to one year’s salary of £113,000, as well as benefits, such as a pension and company car, worth £40,000. His finance director Colin Child has a similar deal.

So yes, Benedict Brogan is right to go “Uh-oh” on Twitter. This could well be one to watch very closely indeed.

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