Hotchin: I may never return

The Hanover Finance boss speaks out after the SFO cleared him over loss of millions in investor funds.

Mark Hotchin. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Mark Hotchin. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Mark Hotchin has been keeping his head down. These days, he's a stay-at-home family man who enjoys a game of tennis and swimming.

"I've been trying to stay fit," he says on the phone from Australia. There's no budget for a personal trainer.

Since his assets were frozen, Hotchin, wife Amanda and their three children have been getting by as best they can, accepting help from family members to supplement their $1000-a-week allowance while they fight court battles.

The current "Hotchin house" is a rented, four-bedroom dwelling in an anonymous Australian city, a stark contrast to the Paritai Drive palace that has cost $42 million and counting.

"It's not like Paritai," Hotchin laughs, slightly uncomfortably. "It's just a regular house."

His journey from multi-millionaire financier to pantomime villain took another twist this week when he was cleared by the Serious Fraud Office of any criminal wrongdoing over Hanover Finance.

The threat of a jail term that had hung over him during the 32-month investigation has finally gone, but many still see him as Public Enemy No 1.

In his first interview for two years, Hotchin spoke of the vilification his family endured and why they may never return to New Zealand.

He doesn't want sympathy, and doesn't want to be portrayed as a victim, but he's speaking out because he wants the facts to be told.

"One of the things that we found with [people] sending the SFO down a certain path and the media going along with them, you end up going down a path that you can't get off even though you get to the end and you realise it was the wrong path.

"It's so long and there's so much damage done that it's a very long way to go back. But we are where we are and we will just move forward."

Hotchin, 54, became the public face of Hanover after it fell into trouble during the global financial crisis of 2008.

With their savings in jeopardy, around 15,000 New Zealanders looked for someone to blame.

"I think the public wanted a face to go with it.

"Unfortunately, that ended up sitting with me," says Hotchin.

The series of deals that left Hanover investors with stock in the tiny Hawera-based Allied Farmers has been pored over in minute detail by the best forensic investigators in the country.

This week, the SFO announced they had found no criminal wrongdoing.

What's clear, says Hotchin, is that Allied was the mouse that swallowed the elephant, only to realise it had bitten off more than it could chew.

In early 2010, then-Allied Farmers chief executive Rob Alloway laid a complaint with the Serious Fraud Office, starting the longest running inquiry in its history.

Hotchin says: "I knew going in that all of those allegations were rubbish, but of course I thought they will see that and stop, but they didn't. One question leads to another question and they kept going."

Fuelled by widespread reporting of breastbeating statements from former SFO chief executive Adam Feeley and Shareholders' Association founder Bruce Sheppard, Hotchin became one of the most despised people in the country.

The association has since settled a defamation claim with him and fellow Hanover co-owner Eric Watson, though action against Sheppard was this week set down for trial by judge alone, without a jury.

The catalyst for Hotchin's decision to leave New Zealand in mid-2010 was an article that appeared in the Sunday Star-Times newspaper quoting Amanda while on holiday in Hawaii.

"That really quite badly defamed my wife and caused public opinion to be outraged - as it would have and it should have been, had she said those things. But she never did.

"Everybody was so anxious or keen to accept word-for-word these headline-grabbing statements that made no sense at all and left us feeling pretty sick, to be honest.

"That more than anything made [it] not the place we wanted to be. It was the point where it became evident that you could just say what you want and you will get mileage out of it."

At the age of 50, and facing an uncertain future, Hotchin moved his young family to Australia.

Rock bottom came a few months later, with the Securities Commission's shock move in the High Court to freeze his assets.

The decision was made without warning and ex parte, so Hotchin could not represent himself at the hearing.

"That was very, very left-field. None of the advisers we had, they didn't see them coming."

Since his assets have been frozen, Hotchin says, the family have had to cut back on "pretty much everything. You do less, and you cut back a bit and it's okay."

The experience has brought the family closer together.

"We've spent a lot more time together, whereas previously I would spend a lot of time working. In some aspects it's probably been positive from a family-time perspective."

These days, he doesn't disclose any details about where he is living.

"I've experienced some media turning up on my doorstep and didn't like it very much."

The last time Hotchin was interviewed was in March 2011, when he was criticised as being arrogant and uncaring.

But then, like now, he apologised to all the investors who lost money. They include friends and family members.

At 54, Hotchin has taken on a couple of business projects, but nothing "that requires a lot of attention".

"Between the FMA [Financial Markets Authority] and the SFO and feeding the family, it's been a pretty full-time job."

He was not surprised the SFO fired a parting shot about "serious questions" still unanswered, but remains defiant. "I don't think they were ever going to close it and say, 'Well done, fellas'.

"Any rational person who looks at the efforts the SFO went to over a three-year period and the resources they put into finding something, I'm not sure there would be many companies in the country that could withstand that type of scrutiny.

"They [the investors] should be comforted by it. But of course it's cold comfort because they are still out of pocket."

In hindsight, would he have done anything differently? "Oh my God," he says. "It would have been better to carry on as we were. We didn't have to do [the Allied deal]."

Hotchin believes the FMA case against him, four fellow former directors and Watson as co-owner is a colossal waste of money - money that would be better spent creating a fund for those who lost money.

"We're spending a lot of money. They're spending a lot of money, the Government is spending a similar amount. I've felt for a long time that a help fund would be a better idea. We've certainly seen a lot of money wasted when there's a lot of people out there who could do with it. It's a bit of a travesty, really.

"I'm keen to move forward and get some help for the investors."

Meanwhile, Watson has come out swinging against the SFO, calling its investigation a witch hunt. "They wanted his [Hotchin's] head on a plate."

Having already won a six-figure defamation payout from the Shareholders Association, Watson is now taking a close look at statements made over the course of the investigation.

As an absentee part owner, he has always been a step removed from the running of the firm, and says the decision to make him a defendant in the civil case against Hanover is yet more grandstanding.

"The FMA presses on but they have got themselves in an interesting position because clearly they have no case [against me].

"The finest legal minds have looked at this. I have no interest in settling a case with them at all. They have zero chance."

He says Feeley and FMA chief executive Sean Hughes had "jumped on the bandwagon" to make public announcements.

"That to me is not fair. They have constantly used the media to build this terrible image of who the directors are and what the company did."

- Herald on Sunday

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