From axes to grind to grief, the response to Brierley’s arrest was heartfelt

It wasn’t long after famed corporate raider Ron Brierley was arrested at Sydney airport this week that the emails from his business foes started flooding in.

Business people who had found themselves on the wrong side of corporate raids by the 82-year-old Brierley during his long career took out their rusted axes and started to grind away, slinging insults at the Kiwi-born millionaire who had just been released on bail after being charged with six counts of possessing child abuse material.

Sir Ron Brierley has been a divisive figure in Australian business. His arrest this week didn't change that one bit.
Sir Ron Brierley has been a divisive figure in Australian business. His arrest this week didn’t change that one bit. Credit:Phil Doyle

In response to at least one particularly vicious message sent by a businessman still smarting over a business bingle with renowned value investor Brierley, the multi-millionaire’s response was short and simple.

“Thanks,” Brierley said in an email exchange seen by the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.


While Brierley may be privately returning messages, he’s said nothing publicly since his Wednesday arrest at 6.30am ahead of boarding a flight to Fiji. He did not respond to requests for comment on Friday, nor earlier in the week.

As camera crews assembled outside his sprawling Point Piper home near where ANZ bank chairman David Gonski and former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull have homes, Brierley closed the garage door and remained inside.

“Sorry, he’s not here,” a woman said through the intercom when reporters rang the bell, as a man who appeared to be Brierley was glimpsed through the windows of the home. Brierley’s business comrades, billionaire rag trader Solomon Lew and longtime business partner Gary Weiss, did not respond to calls.

Only hours earlier Brierley had been detained at Sydney Airport after a travel alert was issued by NSW Police, the result of a six-month investigation sparked by a tipoff from a member of the public. Detectives swarmed, searching his laptop and electronic devices, where they found over 200,000 images and 500 videos. A senior police source says the sample of the material sent for forensic examination was allegedly “consistent with child abuse material”.

Whether the charges stand up in court will not be decided for some time and Brierley is yet to have an opportunity to enter a plea against the charges.

Regardless of the outcome of the case, the stain of the allegation marks an inglorious end to an inspired career for a man who was one of the most admired and feared corporate raiders ever operating in Australia.

Born and raised in Wellington, Brierley had already made his mark in New Zealand business circles when he emigrated to Australia in the 1980s.

Knighted in 1988, it didn’t take long for Sir Ron to strike fear into Australian companies through eyebrow-raising corporate raids by his various investment vehicles, including Brierley Investments (once NZ’s biggest company), Industrial Equity, Guiness Peat Group and more recently Mercantile.

Over the course of his career some of Australia’s biggest companies were in his sights, including Carlton United Breweries, Tatts and AGL. In 2007, while he was chairing Lew’s Premier Investments, he helped broker a deal to sell its stake in Coles to Wesfarmers for a cool $1.1 billion.

His 1980s takeover of Woolworths, then a struggling retailer with a market capitalisation of a mere $900 million, is his biggest achievement. Under Brierley’s control, Woolworths brought in new blood and in 1993 it relisted with a value of $2.45 billion. Today it is a $48 billion behemoth.

Along the way he mentored many people who would become captains of their industries, from future BHP and Orica chairman Malcolm Broomhead to founder of tech darling Afterpay Anthony Eisen and former Brierley Investments and later Visy chief financial officer Herman Rockefeller, who was killed in Melbourne in 2010.

Brierley’s private pursuits were less advertised. He is a keen stamp collector, arts patron and cricket fan and was a trustee of the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust between 1988 and 1996.

But despite his achievements, Brierley has always been a divisive figure among shareholders.

Part of the man’s business acumen was knowing which companies to target, usually looking for companies with lazy boards or poor performance. His investment firms would then amass stakes and effect sweeping change, whether through asset sales, management clearouts or board renewal. Some investors and directors cheered – others, unsurprisingly, booed.

This week brought a perfect example of the animosity Brierley’s Mercantile can drum up. The chairman of ASX-listed penny-dreadful resources group Gibb River Diamonds, Jim Richards, celebrated Mercantile dumping its stake in Gibb and thus withdrawing its bid for the group, describing it as an “extremely welcome development”.

Yet Richards’ glee was not matched in all circles of corporate Australia. In some areas a pall of grief hung thick even days after news of Brierley’s arrest flowed through.

“I’m profoundly shocked. I never thought I’d wake up and read this news. I don’t think anyone ever imagined this,” said one former business associate, speaking of Brierley’s arrest.

“It is rather shit.

“He gave so many people their starts. If Ron had died on Wednesday rather than been arrested, what would have the headlines said? They would have said he was a great man who had a glittering career.”

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