The rise and fall of Ron Brierley: From famed corporate raider to infamous criminal

Known for his daring corporate endeavours, love of cricket and collectables, a famed Kiwi businessman’s life achievements are now tarnished by exploiting society’s most vulnerable.

It’s said Ron Brierley’s first business was trading stamps while at Wellington College.

Later in life he was rumoured to have one of the largest stamp collections in the world and by the 1970s and 80s the man — known to some as “Lionheart” — was a household name in New Zealand and Australia for his boardroom feats.

His money and power grew. One in every 20 Kiwis once owned shares in his company RA Brierley Investments Ltd (BIL). A knighthood followed for services to business in 1988 and his net worth peaked at more than $200 million, making him one of New Zealand’s wealthiest people at the time.

He had become a towering tycoon with a famed career as a corporate raider on both sides of the Tasman, a long way from when he first began writing a tip sheet, Stocks and Shares, as a 19-year-old.

But now the 84-year-old’s reputation is in tatters and his business achievements tainted as he faces the prospect of more than a year behind bars.

“Public recognition was a terribly important part of his own life and his image of himself,” Brierley’s lawyer Tim Game SC said in court earlier this year. “The downfall has been complete to the point donations are not accepted or returned if given.”

A little more than three decades after his knighthood, with many more business deals in between, the former Bank of New Zealand chairman was stopped at Sydney International Airport.

He was arrested by Australian Border Force officers as he was about to board a flight to Fiji on December 17, 2019. His hand luggage was seized.

Unbeknown to Brierley, an anonymous phone call had sparked a five-month police investigation into his activities, leading to criminal charges.

Police said they found more than 200,000 images and 500 videos on Brierley’s laptop and electronic storage devices depicting child abuse material. In total, he was charged over 46,795 images found.

Today, the old man who walks with a slight limp and requires the help of a cane, courtesy of a problem hip, was sentenced to 14 months in prison after this year pleading guilty to three charges. Fourteen more were withdrawn.

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph reported Brierley’s legal team are already launching a challenge against the sentence in the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal. He will be eligible for parole in May next year.

Brierley’s lawyers have said he had suffered significant cognitive decline since his arrest and requires his vast resources to keep himself functioning.

He had the beginnings of dementia and vascular disease, Game said.

“He has kept this to himself and has been troubled by it for a long period of time,” his barrister said today.

One of Brierley’s supporters told the court in a letter: “Ron was not a man’s man interested in rugged activity – nor a ladies man.

“[He] was something of an enigma.”

In another letter, friend and barrister Thos Hodgson wrote Brierley was a “broken man” and would spend his twilight years in extreme distress and the subject of public ridicule.

“All his kindness and generosity and good works will forever be overshadowed by those revelations concerning his possession of child abuse material,” he said.

Judge Sarah Huggett said many of Brierley’s friends found his crimes irreconcilable with the “Sir Ron” they knew.

“His fall from grace has been radical,” she said at the Downing Centre District Court.

The charges Brierley admitted were for material seized from devices when Brierley was stopped and also found during a search of his Pt Piper waterfront mansion in Sydney’s east.

However, it may have come as no surprise to those who knew him.

Yvonne van Dongen, who wrote Brierley’s unauthorised biography but did interview him for it, told Radio NZ after his arrest of Brierley’s frequent trips to Thailand to meet teenage prostitutes.

“It was flagged in the book. There was no sense of shame. There was no ‘don’t write that’. I am not surprised given that he had a predilection,” she said.

The 1990 book, Brierley: The Man Behind the Corporate Legend, said of the trips to Southeast Asia: “Most Western social and moral conventions are meaningless in Asia and, like many Western men, Brierley revels in the luxury of freedom run loose.”

She wrote: “Brierley seems completely comfortable with this aspect of his life and showed no signs of embarrassment when teased about his frequent trips to Thailand.

“‘You know how I like to visit the Buddhist temples’, he told me with a knowing smile.”

Brierley’s lawyer, Tim Game SC, has told the court his client has dealt with his attraction to prepubescent girls for many years, which he described as a “significant affliction” and “disorder”.

“He has kept this to himself and has been troubled by it for a long period of time,” Game said.

“Maybe because he’s been forced to, he does appreciate the seriousness of the wrong done.”

The court had also previously heard Brierley believed the images were “perfectly okay” and he looked at them for “recreation”.

Brierley was feared in the corporate world; his confidence and the veneer of invincibility may have come from his company’s size, wealth and power.

Established in 1961, BIL became the largest company in New Zealand by market capitalisation by the mid-1980s. It had 160,000 shareholders and investments in hundreds of companies worldwide.

Despite being a failed accountancy student, Brierley attacked companies with poor balance sheets and management before stripping the assets or giving the business a rebirth and flipping it for a profit.

He told the Herald in 2001: “If you were buying $1 for 50c, you couldn’t be too far off course.”

The company’s primary objective was described as taking over or acquiring substantial holdings in certain public companies, in Australia and New Zealand, with a view to ultimate participation in management and the reorganisation and improvement of their finances.

This applied particularly to “dead” companies with considerable assets but low earning capacity because of poor management.

In the 1960s Brierley moved to Sydney and also took over Industrial Equity Limited (IEL), a shell company used to list his 100 per cent owned Citizens and Graziers Life Assurance Company. Twenty years later IEL was Australia’s third-largest listed company.

Brierley made several attempts to list BIL on the NZX but was turned down until finally being accepted on a seventh application — his investment company was listed on a compliance basis on March 2, 1970. It would also be listed on the ASX and London Stock Exchange.

BIL thrived in the Gordon Gekko “greed is good” days of the 1980s. By 1986, its shares hit an all-time high of $6.68 and the company’s value was about $10 billion.

The company held investments in more than 300 companies, including French department store chain Galeries Lafayette, Air New Zealand, Sky City Entertainment, Dominion Breweries, Australia’s Fairfax Holdings, the UK’s Thistle Hotels and British tobacco manufacturer Rothmans.

In a feature for the Herald in 2011, van Dongen said Brierley’s standing in the business community altered subtly with each decade.

“He started in the 1960s as a pesky corporate gadfly with cheeky recommendations and bold assertions in the tip sheet he wrote while still in his teens. From his 20s on, he refined his techniques and became ever more adventurous until the sight of his name on a share register was enough to give company directors conniptions.

“He was the scourge of fat, lazy boards and sought out hidden or undervalued assets, often in the form of property, which he then spun off and sold on. This Brierley was derided as an asset stripper and corporate raider.”

Then came 1987.

After the sharemarket crash, IEL imploded and there were rumblings of a boardroom coup at BIL — which never really recovered. BNZ also posted its largest loss under Brierley’s chairmanship.

It is estimated $4.5b in shareholder wealth was lost in the 1990s through the poor handling of investments. Eventually, Brierley left the helm of BNZ and was ousted as chairman of BIL and IEL.

On BIL’s 40th anniversary in 2001 Brierley left as a director of the company.

“BIL is an organisation that has changed in character, quite completely and not for the better, [one] which geographically, and in other respects, was becoming more and more distant as far as I was concerned,” he told the Herald at the time.

“When I stepped down as chairman I should have gone completely. Equally, as a non-executive director, I should have taken a much stronger stance during the 90s than simply accepting that I was outnumbered and going with the flow.”

BIL came under Singaporean control and was renamed in 2007 as GuocoLeisure Ltd. It’s last day of trading on the NZX was in 2014.

Brierley was also the chairman of another corporate raider come investment business, Guiness Peat Group (GPG), from 1990.

The company was an offshoot of UK investment bank Guinness Mahon and was a loud voice to stop the London Stock Exchange from merging with Germany’s Deutsche Börse in the early 2000s.

GPG was renamed Coats PLC in 2015 and Brierley stepped down as a director.

As recently as 2017, his Mercantile Investment had taken over Wellington Merchants, formerly Kirkcaldie & Stains, the same year he was involved in acquiring a stake in Christchurch-based retailer Smiths City.

In June 2019, at the age of 81, Brierley announced his retirement in a statement to the ASX, where Mercantile Investment — taken over by Sandon Capital Investments — is listed.

“I am announcing my imminent retirement as chairman of Mercantile Investment Co. Due to age and health issues, I can no longer give the total commitment to the company which it requires and which shareholders deserve,” he said.

It appeared Brierley, who was known to make regular trips to Europe with Italy being a favourite and was a former trustee of the Sydney Cricket Ground, would spend his retirement enjoying his love of cricket and walks around Sydney’s eastern bays.

But now, after his convictions and sentence, Brierley’s name will only hit the headlines for the honours and awards he is stripped of.

After his guilty pleas, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she asked officials to begin a process to remove Brierley’s knighthood.

In early May, the disgraced multi-millionaire surrendered the honour.

Ardern told media, after Brierley tendered his resignation as a Knight Bachelor, that offending such as his “undoubtedly completely rewrites your history. Undoubtedly.”

The Queen was informed, Ardern said.

Cricket Wellington said it was reviewing Brierley’s life membership. A pavilion at the Basin Reserve was, at one time, named after Brierley — one of his many links to the game.

Alasdair McBeth, the president of the cricket association, earlier told the Herald there is a “spectrum of views out there” about Brierley offending.

“People of the 70s and 80s who would have spent a lot of time with him are stunned,” he said.

Wellington College also began to sever ties with the disgraced old boy. A theatre and sports field at the college was named after Brierley, who had donated significant amounts of money to the school.

Signs bearing his name have been scrubbed clean.

In an email to the school just three months after his arrest, Brierley said: “Ironically, of course, I’m exactly the same person as I have always been.”

The former knight, as his lawyer said, has now become a social pariah.

– Additional reporting The Daily Telegraph

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