Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Collapse painful for all but bosses

Mainzeal looks like bad management - but it'll be employees, subcontractors and ratepayers who suffer.

The crash of Mainzeal spells trouble for projects like Shed 10 at Queens Wharf. Photo / APN
The crash of Mainzeal spells trouble for projects like Shed 10 at Queens Wharf. Photo / APN

And the Government and the business world wonder why New Zealanders prefer to squirrel their savings away in rental housing or in cash under the proverbial pillow. The simple answer is Mainzeal.

No sooner were investors recovering from the collapse of the finance companies, and starting to flirt once more with the stock market, when crash, bang - down goes one of the three giants of the construction industry.

Imperilled are the jobs of hundreds of employees, and the financial future of numerous subcontractors, the latter at risk of being bankrupted for no fault of their own.

Let's also not forget the poor Auckland ratepayer, now likely to be forced to inherit Mainzeal's share of repair costs for a badly built leaky apartment tower.

Once more there will be the same old excuses about difficult market conditions and blah de blah de blah. All said, if past experience is any guide, those in charge of the collapse will maintain a jet-setting lifestyle their creditors can only dream of.

My capitalist friends argue that if the law comes down too hard on directors of failed companies, people like Richard Yan in the present instance, then you'll bring the capitalist system to its knees, because no one will volunteer to get involved in the governance and running of such companies.

In other words, it's all right to persuade sucker shareholders and workers and subbies to carry the risk and become the sacrificial lambs, but not the captains of industry who are at the helm making the fatal choice whether to avoid the iceberg or plough straight into it.

Mainzeal's collapse not only stalls Auckland projects like the refurbishment of Shed 10 on Queens Wharf, the new Waiheke Public Library and a $95 million new campus for the Manukau Institute of Technology, it leaves ratepayers with Mainzeal's "several million dollar" leaky-building repair debt.

Being a compassionate soul, I draw the line at converting the old stone Mt Eden Prison into a Dickensian debtors prison. But it does get right up my nose that the people behind the wheel when a company crashes - some there by dint of their political celebrity status - don't at least share the same financial discomfort as the people who invested in the company, either with their hard-earned savings or the sweat of their brow.

Nothing crystallises this unfairness so much as the $20 million-plus Hotchin Palace on Paratai Drive, ownership still buried in a complication of Hotchin family trusts more than four years after the failure of the finance company Hanover Finance.

The Financial Markets Authority is sniffing around the property in its civil action to recover compensation for investors and levy penalties, alleging misleading or untrue statements in Hanover offer documents. The Serious Fraud Office is also investigating. But the pace is glacial.

For those caught growing marijuana or, for that matter, over-fishing, the penalties are much more draconian. And the legal process much less onerous. Under the Criminal Proceeds Recovery Act as updated in 2009, the state doesn't even need to get a conviction to seize a house or car or other property it suspects was bought with the proceeds of crime. The onus is then on the property owner to prove otherwise.

In the parliamentary debate prior to the law change, Government MPs claimed "Remuera" wide boys would be targeted along with the marijuana farmers and the drug importers. I'm still waiting.

In the first six months of the new law, about $51 million of gang assets were frozen or seized on suspicion they were bought from proceeds of crime. That was nearly double the amount seized the whole previous year, when police could seize property only after a conviction.

By August last year, nearly $80 million of suspected criminal assets had been frozen by court order under the act and a further $17.5 million confiscated. This included a $5.8 million Waikato farm and a new Bentley worth $400,000.

Now I'm not a vindictive man. But when I read about the victims of Saint Hubbard of Timaru, or the subcontractors facing potential ruin thanks to the inept management of a construction company, it seems so unjust.

Sure, there's no suggestion of criminal misbehaviour with Mainzeal, but there's obviously a case of bad driving involved. Yet under our law, it's the passengers who stand to suffer most. How wrong is that?

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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