By BOB ANEZ/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - The new board of directors of NorthWestern Corp. is unlikely to accept any offers to buy the utility when it emerges from bankruptcy in early November, the company's top official said Thursday.
Gary Drook, president and chief executive officer, predicted directors will follow the lead of management in opposing a sale of NorthWestern in the face of numerous offers.
''They're not going to be anxious to turn around and sell the company on day one,'' he told members of the legislative Energy and Telecommunications Committee. ''Way too many people have jumped to the conclusion the company's going to be sold.''
Drook used the meeting with lawmakers to report NorthWestern's progress toward recovering from bankruptcy within 14 months of when the company filed for protection in federal bankruptcy court.
He said the utility's available cash has improved dramatically and the company had $116 million on hand at the end of July. That will be closer to $55 million later this year once all costs associated with the bankruptcy are paid, he said.
NorthWestern is almost finished selling off its money-losing subsidiaries, including a heating and ventilation company and propane business, Drook said. Plans are to auction off later this year the remnants of a gas-fired power plant that the company had planned to build near Great Falls, he said.
NorthWestern hopes to get $100 million once the sales are complete, including $30 million from the auction of the mothballed Montana First Megawatts plant, said Brian Bird, chief financial officer for the company.
Drook repeated predictions that NorthWestern will emerge from bank-
ruptcy with $800 million in debt, or about $1.3 million less than when it filed. That red ink will be eliminated by giving creditors stock in the reorganized company.
''We're going to come out of this, I think, with the cleanest balance sheet in the industry,'' Drook said.
He said the company plans to use cash supplies over the next five years to further reduce debt, increase dividends to stockholders and invest in transmission projects. Montana, with its extensive natural resources and location near high-growth areas such as Colorado and California, would be ideal for construction of more electric or natural gas transmission lines, Drook said.
But he emphasized NorthWestern has no intention of ventur-
ing outside the energy field for its investments. That, he reminded the committee, is what led to the company's financial problems.
Over the next five years, Bird forecast a 1.2 percent growth in revenue, but said net income will rise by 9.2 percent once the company can stop paying costs associated with the bankruptcy.
He said NorthWestern plans to spend about $75 million a year on its existing transmission and distribution system and will be paying $45 million in dividends by 2008.
Roger Schrum, vice president for human resources and communications, said NorthWestern has stockpiled 5.6 billion cubic feet of gas for the winter heating season, slightly more than storage at this time last year.
He said gas prices are about 23 percent higher than a year ago and some forecasts indicate they will continue to rise through the winter.
Bob Rowe, chairman of the Montana Public Service Commission, was pleased with NorthWestern's status after listening to the reports.
''The company has made substantial progress with its restructuring,'' he said. ''The utility has the potential to be in a stronger position now than it has been for many years.''
Rowe said Montana regulators assumed a year ago that NorthWestern might be a good candidate for purchase once it reorganized, but he agreed with Drook that a sale is not likely soon.
''The first thing the new board will want to do is get familiar with the utility and get their hands on the reins,'' he said. ''After that, they will almost be obligated to consider offers put before them.''
NorthWestern has 608,000 utility customers in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. It is the parent company of NorthWestern Energy, which provides electricity to more than 300,000 customers in Montana and natural gas to about 157,000 customers.
NorthWestern also has about 41,500 natural gas customers and 57,800 electric customers in South Dakota.