One of Autonomous Energy's projects at Sydney Markets in Flemington

Despite becoming collateral damage in an alleged $400 million dollar fraud scandal, Autonomous Energy (AE) says it remains a viable business and is looking to emerge as smoothly as possible from a period of voluntary administration.

In March this year AE was acquired by iuigis, one of several companies operated by Bill Papas, who is now being pursued by Westpac over allegations he and his company Forum Finance swindled hundreds of millions of dollars from the bank. 

AE is one of Australia’s oldest solar companies, operating since 2003 and specialising in commercial and industrial sustainable energy projects.

AE chief executive, Matthew Linney

Chief executive of AE, Matthew Linney told The Fifth Estate allegations against Papas and his companies came as a shock, as did news AE was being placed into administration from the 8 July. 

“We weren’t insolvent — we were quite the opposite. We had plenty of cash in the bank, we had projects on, good management and relationships with our clients. We were in a good position,” Mr Linney said. 

Also coming as a shock were media reports, based on comments by AE founder and former managing director Mark Gadd who is no longer involved with the company, that the business had come to a “brutal” end. 

Mr Linney said AE had been “caught on the sidelines” of the fraud allegations against Forum Finance but remained well placed to emerge relatively unscathed, unlike some of the other businesses involved. 

“We were operating as a completely independent company, so we didn’t integrate with any of their other businesses,” Mr Linney said. 

“We had no involvement in the business really from iuigis or Bill Papas. Zero dollars ever came into AE from Bill or any of those businesses he controlled.” 

According to Mr Linney, Papas willingly placed all of his companies into voluntary administration in advance of Westpac appointing their own preferred administrators through the courts, a step that was also necessary for the sale of the businesses. 

AE’s management team has made a bid to administrators, Mackay Goodwin, to purchase the company. 

“We’re hopeful that (happens) sooner rather than later and then we can get on with running the business with the same people that have been running it to date,” Mr Linney said.

At its peak in 2018, AE drew in over $30 million each year in revenue and employed more than 50 people plus contractors.

The company currently employs 24 people and is undertaking a range of mid to large scale projects valued between $50,000 to around $2.5 million.

Mr Linney said COVID-19 had impacted the broader industry as lockdowns occurred, and as businesses became less willing to spend capital. However he said things had improved this year as the initial effects of the pandemic subsided.

“The main thing was uncertainty caused our clients to suspend spending money. Most of our pipeline of work was in shopping centres, universities and other sectors that were heavily affected by COVID-19 so they all pulled funding,” Mr Linney said. 

“Those guys are all coming back this year and as of February the market’s been much more buoyant. We think the next couple of years will be really strong.”