Balmoral Tanks loses ‘price-fixing’ court case

A leading oilfield services firm in Aberdeen has lost its court battle to avoid a fine for illegally exchanging pricing information with competitors.

A division of Balmoral Group was fined £130,000 two years ago by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

It was part of a much bigger price-fixing scandal, in which three other companies were fined £2.6m between them.

Balmoral Group grew by supplying buoyancy devices to the offshore oilfield services sector, and has become an international player in that specialism.

Its founder, chairman and managing director, Jim Milne, is one of the best known faces in Aberdeen’s oil sector. In its most recent accounts, the group had annual turnover of £87m.

Thirteen years ago, the company expanded into the supply of cylindrical galvanised metal water tanks for large buildings.

Three other companies already dominated that market in the UK and Ireland. It was found that they colluded to fix prices between 2005 and 2012. Their admission of guilt and co-operation with the CMA led to their fines being reduced.

Secret recording

The CMA gained evidence that the cartel repeatedly sought to draw Balmoral Tanks Ltd into price-fixing. The Aberdeen-based subsidiary did not do so.

But there was evidence from a meeting in 2012, which was secretly recorded by the CMA, that it shared “competitively-sensitive information” on pricing with the other companies.

Balmoral raised objections to the £130,000 fine, and fought it over the past two years. It argued that the information shared was not as significant as the CMA claimed and that divulging it was not of commercial value to others.

It lost its case in October 2017 at the Competition Appeal Tribunal. The Court of Appeal in London has now ruled against it, upholding the CMA ruling.

The CMA’s executive director of enforcement, Michael Grenfell, commented: “This important judgement from the Court of Appeal sends a clear and unequivocal message, not just in this sector, but to all businesses across the UK.

“If companies exchange competitively-sensitive, confidential information – even at just one meeting – that is itself a breach of competition law.

“The CMA is committed to using the full range of its powers to crack down on such illegal behaviour, which includes issuing fines.”