Gulfport pledges share buybacks after hedge fund demand

BOSTON (Reuters) – Natural gas and oil firm Gulfport Energy Corp said it would buy back $400 million of shares on Thursday, just hours after a public demand to that effect from hedge fund investor Firefly Value Partners.

After the close of trading, Oklahoma City-based Gulfport announced plans to buy back $400 million worth of shares in the next two years and said it bought $90 million worth of shares in the last weeks of 2018.

“I want to underscore our commitment to further enhancing shareholder value with a newly authorized $400 million stock repurchase program to be executed within the next 24 months,” David Wood, who was named chief executive officer late last year, said in a statement.

On Thursday morning, New York-based hedge fund Firefly had said it wanted Gulfport, which has a market capitalization of $1.5 billion, to buy back $500 million of shares.

Firefly, which owns 8.1 percent of Gulfport, said in a public letter that such a large share buyback could translate to a doubling of Gulfport’s share price.

It criticized how Gulfport had allocated capital and complained that current board members might not be committed to pushing for improvements.

In its statement announcing the share buyback, Gulfport did not refer to Firefly or address its complaints.

But by the afternoon, when the eight member Gulfport board ended its meeting, management and the directors laid out a plan that some analysts said could neutralize the hedge fund’s requests.

Firefly declined to comment on the Gulfport statement.

Gulfport also forecast free cash flow of more than $100 million this year and said this year’s capital expenditures would be between $565 million and $600 million and be paid with cash flow.

Last year, Gulfport had authorized $200 million worth of buybacks.

In its critique of the company and its board, Firefly said directors do “not seem up to the task of fixing the company’s capital allocation strategy and regaining investors’ trust.” It added that it may be time to add a shareholder to the board who could energize the group to push for these changes.

“We propose an action plan that we believe allows Gulfport to create at least $9 per share of value for stockholders (over 100 percent of the current market capitalization) over the next 12 months,” Firefly’s letter said. Rising commodity prices would make the impact of the share buybacks even bigger.

The company’s shares, which closed at $8.82 on Thursday, have tumbled 32 percent in the last year.

This is the time of year investors who are pushing for change traditionally write public letters to companies that detail their complaints. Later they may run a proxy contest to seat newcomers on the board.

Firefly has been invested in Gulfport since 2013 and there have been private discussions, the hedge fund acknowledged.

There was turmoil at the company late last year. In December it appointed Wood as CEO to replace Michael Moore, who resigned after accusations that he had misused the company’s chartered aircraft and a company credit card.

Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien

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