Jetset lifestyle of Blue Chip men

By Jane Phare

For a few glorious years, Blue Chip business partners and buddies Mark Bryers and Bob Bangerter were on a high.

As Blue Chip customers raided their piggy banks and tweaked the equity in their family homes, the cash rolled in. It was a culture awash with money run by people who spent up large to maintain a lavish lifestyle. Funding huge loans from banks and finance companies was no problem.

The Blue Chip presentation was charismatic, relying on investment seminars, word-of-mouth, friends of friends and family networks to spread the good word. The target was "conservative" investors, the older age group who were wary of high-risk investments but understood the gains to be had from the Auckland property market.

The Rev Allan Hawea, a Rotorua Anglican priest, says a Blue Chip representative gave a presentation to the church last year. As a result, some church members were keen to invest $160,000 of the church's money, as well as private money. "Fortunately some members opposed such an investment and in the end the trust deed over these funds prevented such an investment."

The original introduction, through a church member, was typical of how Blue Chip operated.

Once in the door, Blue Chip's presentation was slick and convincing. The outward trappings were impressive, from the expensive annual reports and Blue Chip publications to Bryers' and Bangerter's immaculate clothes and expensive European cars.

Last week the Herald on Sunday revealed that Mark Bryers last year regularly spent thousands of dollars in an Auckland downtown brothel, the HQ Club, sometimes booking out the club and all the workers for the entire night.

Blue Chip senior staff also drove expensive cars and even newcomers were treated royally.

One young former employee says in 2006 he went from driving a delivery van for a liquor company to working at Bribanc, Blue Chip's property management company, with a salary, perks and a new wardrobe of clothes.

The company offered him $2000 a year more than he asked for and on his first day he was taken to lunch at The Wine Chambers, an expensive Auckland restaurant.

Back in 2002 and 2003, Bryers and Bangerter spent thousands of dollars chartering an 8-seater Piper Navajo from Christian Aviation at Ardmore Airport to attend Blue Chip investment seminars around the North Island,including Hamilton and Rotorua.

They preached their message and sold their story wherever they went - even to the aircraft charter company staff. Many of their own staff, in New Zealand and Australia, were convinced, investing in Blue Chip property portfolios and persuading family and friends to do the same.

For the 2003 end-of-financial-year black-tie awards dinner, the company hired the Auckland Museum as a venue and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. Up on stage the two men spoke of their relationship, with Bangerter saying Bryers was like a son to him and Bryers saying Bangerter was like a father.

Three years ago, Bangerter was one of the first to buy a new Flying Spur Bentley, a luxury which would have set him back, on finance, by about $350,000. The car, which carried personalised plates - RJBI - was a familiar sight as Bangerter drove between his Mission Bay townhouse, and later his $3 million home in Remuera, and Blue Chip's Parnell office. But now Bangerter's pride and joy is for sale in Archibald and Shorter's Greenlane caryard for $260,000 - while he has moved down to a black $46,000 Jaguar. A silver Mercedes driven by Bangerter's partner, and assistant at Blue Chip, Maree Aitkenhead, is also for sale, for $100,000.

Gone too is Bangerter's sleek 22-metre super yacht Nirvana, which has been sold to Champagne Corporation Charters, of which Mark and Carolyn Todd are shareholders. It's the beginning of the end of the good life for Bangerter.

Last week he told the New Zealand Herald he was no "rich old fiddler", that he is owed money by Blue Chip and that he bought his $3.1 million Remuera property last year on borrowed money.

While admitting he owns three Blue Chip apartments, he said he "might have assets worth $500,000" if he was lucky.

Last week Bangerter's mobile phone number was no longer connected and neither was the phone at his Parnell Blue Chip office. Sources say he has moved to join Bryers at head office on the 20th floor of Qantas House in Queen St.

So far there is little sign of Bryers, who has more personal wealth than Bangerter, selling up. Last week he was still driving his Bentley Continental GT sports car, one of a collection of luxury cars which includes a Mercedes and an Aston Martin DB9.

He is firmly encamped in his Remuera home, which he has spent considerable money on since buying it in January 2006 for $3 million.

Blue Chip was Bangerter's idea but Bryers was the brains behind making it work. Despite Bryers resigning as chief executive and distancing himself from Blue Chip - he is paid $500,000 a year as a consultant by the Australian parent company, Blue Chip Financial Solutions. The reliance on Bryers shows up as a cautionary observation in an analyst's report on Blue Chip published in the company's annual report in 2004. Blue Chip was largely the vision of Bryers, the report said, and if he were unable to continue to operate in an executive capacity it could place the company at risk.

Property investment businessman Stewart Goldstone, who worked for Blue Chip in 2003 and has maintained close links with staff since then, describes Bryers as charismatic and a "fantastic" salesman. Over a beer he was personable and likeable.

Goldstone says Bryers aimed high, claiming he would be "New Zealand's first Maori billionaire".

"He planned to list Blue Chip in New Zealand, then Australia, then London, then Wall St."

When Goldstone joined Blue Chip he believed he would be in a management role. Instead he ended up selling. The training was thorough, the message compelling.

"There was an answer for everything."

Goldstone was so convinced he and his wife bought five houses, but not before they went to dinner at Bryers' house with his wife Shirley Wyma, who runs the upmarket Parnell carpet and rug business Source Mondial, and Bryers' sister and brother-in-law Lynda and Mike Rewita, who ran the Blue Chip franchise in the Bay of Plenty. Back then, Bryers was driving a blue Maserati.

Looking back, Goldstone says a "tidal wave" began building in 2003. "The place was awash with cash, so out of control." Staff numbers mushroomed and Bryers' answer to keep ahead was "to go faster and faster", to sell more while "borrowing from Peter to pay Paul".

Goldstone left and set up Merlot Investments Ltd in opposition. He credits Blue Chip with teaching him what not to do. "If it had been done properly it would have been a success. There was nothing wrong with the concept."

Goldstone's company uses trust accounts, advises clients to see their own lawyers, buys its own land and builds its own houses. But, he warns, the ripple effect of failures like Blue Chip could have a grave effect on the industry, with banks and finance companies unwilling to lend to developers. And it will take time to build up investors' confidence.

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