Brendon Gibson - Who to call to stem the bleeding

Insolvency and restructuring are too important to be left to just anyone, veteran corporate surgeon tells Hamish Fletcher.
Brendon Gibson has spent more than two decades at the corporate operating table. Photo / Doug Sherring
Brendon Gibson has spent more than two decades at the corporate operating table. Photo / Doug Sherring

Brendon Gibson has spent more than two decades at the corporate operating table, working to sew up companies bleeding cash or revive those drowning in debt.

You learn a lot, he says, dealing with a business in tough times.

"One of the important parts of the job is people ... it's definitely not all just straight numbers," he tells the Weekend Herald.

"You've still got to make some hard decisions and deal with those people appropriately ... whether that's an employee, senior management, directors or a creditor who's saying, 'How can this be? I supplied $20,000 worth of goods to this business a month ago and you're telling me I'm not going to be paid'," he says.

The KordaMentha partner has worked on some of the country's highest-profile receiverships and restructurings, alongside longtime colleagues Grant Graham and Michael Stiassny.

These include Solid Energy, the failed state-owned mining company. Another was broadcaster MediaWorks, which Gibson helped restructure in 2013 when it was weighed down by $700 million of debt.

He also took charge of the Crafar Farms when they collapsed in 2009, guiding the troubled dairy empire through to its sale for a sum thought to be about $200 million.

However, the Nelson-born accountant didn't want to talk about that work this week. Nor did he want this piece to be about him.

Instead, Gibson is intent on focusing on the group that he spearheads and hopes can become the voice of his industry.

Gibson is the inaugural chairman of RITANZ - short for the Restructuring Insolvency & Turnaround Association of New Zealand.

Despite its prosaic name, RITANZ describes its work in near-epic terms.

"Our mission is to support insolvency and recovery professionals in their quest to restore the economic value of under-performing businesses, to assist financially challenged individuals and to help develop, maintain and promote the integrity of the insolvency profession," RITANZ says on its website.

Brendon Gibson (right) and colleague Michael Stiassny in the public eye, during the 2013 MediaWorks receivership. Photo / Dean Purcell
Brendon Gibson (right) and colleague Michael Stiassny in the public eye, during the 2013 MediaWorks receivership. Photo / Dean Purcell

The group previously existed under a different guise, and has attracted more than 360 members since its formation about two years ago.

And even though the profession is in a quiet period, Gibson says membership of RITANZ is continuing to grow.

"We can be busy in times of change, whether growth or when things are difficult ... I think we've been probably in a quiet period, we're still sorting out the impact of what's going on currently in the economy around the dairy sector," he says.

Although Gibson stresses the group is also about turnaround and restructuring, RITANZ was formed partly because the Government has been slow to regulate receivers and liquidators.

"Business has risk to it; there should be a level of risk and entrepreneurship," says Gibson. "So if you're going to have that, you will expect there will be some business failures or business difficulties. We would say, you license trustees, you've increased directors' regulation, you've now licensed auditors, financial advisers are licensed. All of a sudden if something goes wrong, anyone can clean it up."

In response to this regulatory vacuum, RITANZ has set up its own accreditation scheme, which members accepting insolvency work must sign up to.

Under the system, Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand vets applicants to make sure they have relevant experience and are a "fit and proper person".

If members fall foul of the rules they can be stripped of their accreditation, censured or fined up to $20,000.

Gibson is "amazed" by the uptake of the scheme and says about 90 RITANZ members have already been accredited since it was launched last November.

Incidentally, that was around the time Commerce Minister Paul Goldsmith appointed a panel of experts to review the Insolvency Practitioners Bill.

First introduced in 2010, the legislation has since sat on a shelf gathering parliamentary dust and the panel will look to see if it needs any amendments. As things stand, the legislation would require people accepting receiverships or liquidations to be registered. The Registrar of Companies would oversee this list and have the power to kick out "substandard or delinquent individuals".

Insolvency can be a means to an end and businesses can survive out of it.

Gibson, however, says the proposed changes don't go far enough.

"We're concerned that having a list which anyone over 18 can go on is actually worse than we've got today," he says.

"We've got no regulation at the moment. To create a list where you're able to call yourself a licensed insolvency practitioner where all you've done is say you're over 18, not insane and not bankrupt and you can then go take a liquidation or receivership, we don't see that as appropriate."

While RITANZ went to the trouble of setting up its own accreditation scheme, Gibson isn't opposed to stricter rules. At the moment, there is nothing that requires anyone to belong to RITANZ and meet its requirements.

"If the Government decides to regulate, we're happy to go with their regulation regime," he says. "We're not saying that we have to be the regulator."

Although restructuring and receiverships are tough for those going through them, Gibson says they're an important part of the business landscape.

"Probably 80 per cent of the insolvencies - and I'm talking receiverships because once a liquidation happens, it's dead - they end up with the businesses being sold and the majority of employees staying in place. So it's about a process of reallocation of capital; someone else takes the core part of the business."

When Shanghai Pengxin Group bought the Crafar Farms out of receivership in 2012, Gibson says, the Chinese company hired more people and committed to investing $20 million into the venture.

"Insolvency can be a means to an end and businesses can survive out of it," he says.

That doesn't mean people are always pleased when the likes of Gibson and his colleagues are called in.

"None of us would like someone coming and saying, 'I don't think the way you've been running things is the right way and we need to change it'."

Brendon Gibson

• Age: 49

• Inaugural chairman of RITANZ

• Born in Nelson, lives in Auckland

• Partner at advisory firm KordaMentha

• Bachelor of Agricultural Commerce from Lincoln University

• Father of three school-age sons

- NZ Herald

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