The former chief executive of a $6 million property company claims she was “muscled out” of her own business by a campaign of sexual harassment and bullying mounted against her by the people she brought in as investors.
Emma Hendry, the former chief executive of Hendry Group, launched legal action in the Federal Court last Friday against Robert Salter, the founder of private equity firm The Salter Brothers, and his employees Bevan Nicholson and Tineyi Matanda, who she alleges made repeated and unwarranted comments about her appearance and gender.
The Salter Brothers said in a statement they “strongly deny” all claims and will “vigorously defend” the allegations, but could not comment further as proceedings were before the courts.
Ms Hendry, 37, the chief executive for the past six years of her family company the Hendry Group, said the harassment had forced her to take stress leave. She was not paid fully during this period, and when she asked the board to investigate the alleged harassment it did not. She “repudiated” her contract as CEO and left the company. She is now self-employed working as a consultant for start-ups in the property industry.
Executives from a number of large Australian companies have complained of sexual harassment in recent years but Ms Hendry is one of the few who has escalated the matter to legal action. She told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald she wanted to be a lightning rod for change for women in business, and her experience to serve as a reminder about what is appropriate behaviour.
From CEO to court
Ms Hendry went within six months from being chief executive of a 38-year-old, award-winning family business that provides advice to the property industry, to being unable to work and embroiled in lawsuits.
She took the reins six years ago as CEO of a company started by her father in 1982. Under her watch, it turned over millions each year and was featured on The Australian Financial Review’s innovation list three years in a row. Ms Hendry said the company’s customer base had been growing, but she had needed more capital to pay debts and invest in technology.
In early 2019, she started looking for investors and was introduced to The Salter Brothers, a Melbourne-based fund manager that specialises in alternative investments. The $2 billion company was one of 10 private equity firms she had met with, but The Salter Brothers’ track record in the property industry made it a good fit, she said.
“Those few first meetings were around what Hendry is, where we’re going, our strategic plan for getting there and from my experience, they were very excited about this opportunity.”
Soon after, a small team from The Salter Brothers began due diligence – forensically examining the company’s books and records to decide how much they wanted to commit. It was during this period, Ms Hendry alleges, that Mr Matanda, Salter’s investment manager, started asking “many inappropriate personal questions”. These questions “pertained to my private and personal life which were very inappropriate,” Ms Hendry said.
“Do I drink alcohol? Do I have children? Do I have a partner? Do I plan to have children?
“When I asked, ‘Why are you asking me these questions?’ he responded he just wanted to work out what type of a woman I was.”
That was the beginning of what Ms Hendry’s legal team will allege was repeated sexual harassment and discrimination by employees of The Salter Brothers that ended in her being muscled out of the company.
The investment firm officially bought into Hendry Group in June 2019 with a significant investment and publicly, it appeared the partnership was thriving. Robert Salter commended Ms Hendry’s leadership in a press release dated July 2019 saying she had a a “clear vision for the future of this industry”.
But behind the scenes, it was a very different story. The 10-page originating application, obtained by The Age and Herald, details a series of occasions where Ms Hendry’s appearance, clothing and gender was commented on.
“You better go and speak to your dad, little girl, I will bankrupt both you and him,” Mr Salter is quoted as allegedly having said.
The document alleges she was talked over, prevented from making decisions and belittled. Mr Salter had “leered at her and looked her up and down”, openly laughed at her and “slowly traced his eyes up and down her body”.
“It started as very subtle and then became more overt over time,” she told The Age and Herald. “Being dismissed, being talked over, not being allowed to finish a conversation and comments on my body, on my appearance, my attire.
“It was very demeaning, belittling. It made me extremely upset.”
Ms Hendry had closely watched the #MeToo movement unfold and followed the reporting of AMP’s botched handling of a sexual harassment complaint that ended in chair David Murray resigning in August. She said in many of the cases that made headlines, there was a power imbalance.
“People feel that if there’s a power imbalance, the people in power have impunity,” she said.
In this case, the power imbalance was reversed. Ms Hendry was the chief executive but also the alleged victim.
As the alleged harassment became more frequent and overt, Ms Hendry said the pressure caused her to faint in a tram in December last year.
“The stress and the emotional and physical toll that it had taken on me had caused me to just not be able to deal with these people any longer,” she said. “All this behaviour made me not able to come to work to do my job.”
A doctor advised her to take stress leave, and it was then that Ms Hendry sent a letter to the Hendry Group board detailing her experience of alleged sexual harassment. By that time, according to the legal claim, the company was “controlled by The Salter Brothers and Robert Salter particularly”. The Hendry Group acknowledged receipt of her complaint but launched two legal cases against her alleging professional misconduct, saying she had breached terms of her contract.
The Salter Brothers said in a statement to The Age and Herald that an internal investigation into Ms Hendry’s approach to running the company had been launched before her letter was received.
Ms Hendry said the allegations against her were unfounded, and a thinly veiled attempt to push her out of the company she had built. Her lawsuit against the investment firm is intended to secure her reinstatement as chief executive so she can finish the company transformation she had planned.
“I do believe in our justice system and I do believe justice will be served,” she said.
If you or anyone you know needs support, you can contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732)
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