ONCE the richest man in Australia, mining baron Andrew Forrest is relying on last-ditch talks with his bankers to preserve the health of his multibillion-dollar iron ore empire, Fortescue Metals.
On Thursday afternoon Mr Forrest shed wealth at the rate of $8 million a minute.
The stock exchange halted trade in Fortescue shares yesterday as the company attempted to reach a deal with its lenders, otherwise its $9 billion debt would be payable by the end of the year.
Discussions with its banks have ''progressed significantly", the company said yesterday.
News of the talks, which emerged late on Thursday, sent the company's shares plummeting, wiping $1.5 billion off its market value.
Mr Forrest was worth $9.41 billion at the height of the commodity-fuelled boom in 2008, and was still Australia's richest person as recently as 2010. His wealth has halved in the past five months to just over $3 billion.
In a worst-case scenario for the Pilbara-born former jackaroo, Fortescue could be forced to undergo a damaging equity raising to repair the company's financial position, which would likely see Mr Forrest's one-third holding in the company he founded substantially reduced.
Commodity prices are notoriously volatile. Some industry analysts have tipped iron ore prices to recover as swiftly as they have fallen.
In a bet on the price on iron ore, Fortescue took on large amounts of debt to fund an expansion plan to triple production. But last week it sacked almost 1000 workers and has put some of its plans on hold as the price of iron ore tumbled.