Bevan Hurley

Bevan Hurley is the Herald on Sunday chief reporter.

Old warrior has new fight on his hands

It's been a hard 18 months for philanthropist Sir Owen Glenn, whose name has never been far from the headlines.

The findings from Sir Owen Glenn's inquiry into domestic violence and child abuse are yet to be made public. Photo / Dean Purcell.
The findings from Sir Owen Glenn's inquiry into domestic violence and child abuse are yet to be made public. Photo / Dean Purcell.

Sir Owen Glenn was banging his fists on the table. Sitting high up in a corporate box in Eden Park's South Stand, watching his Warriors team carve up at the Auckland Nines tournament in February, he paid no mind to the sold-out crowd.

It was the biggest party in town but Sir Owen was in no mood to play. The 74-year-old appeared angry about "absolutely everything under the sun", according to one observer.

It seemed he had reason to be.

Unknown to everyone, Sir Owen was locked in a bitter court battle in the United States for control of his $400 million fortune, a fight which was jeapordising the $80m he'd promised various community groups and charities in New Zealand.

Eighteen months earlier, he had returned to New Zealand promising to reduce domestic violence and child abuse - to cure, as he put it, New Zealand's national shame.

But, like the runners on the field, Sir Owen's reputation was taking hit after hit.

The abuse inquiry was faltering, a historic allegation of physical abuse emerged and questions were raised about financial irregularities at his Glenn Family Foundation.

The strain was taking its toll. Later that February day, he was blocked from leaving Eden Park because of a traffic-management plan.

Sir Owen made the classic kid-in-the-playground threat: if they didn't let him out, he would pack up, go home and withdraw his Warriors team from the second day of Nines action.

What Sir Owen claimed was an idle threat, forced by his need for an insulin shot, was taken seriously by NRL hierarchy and apologies were made before the team returned to the pitch the next day.

It was a long way from back in 2012, when Sir Owen and Warriors co-owner Eric Watson had spoken of turning the club into the premier sporting franchise in the Southern Hemisphere.

Since then, his relationship with the Warriors hierarchy has soured badly.

Sir Owen felt he wasn't being consulted on the big decisions, even though he had retained a representative on the board.

And while there's no suggestion he is to blame, his ownership has coincided with a dramatic fall in fortunes for the club.

From the highs of having all three teams compete on 2011's Grand Final day, the Warriors have lost three head coaches, and the first-grade team has finished 14th and 11th.

And there has been disquiet among sponsors and women associated with the club.

Sir Owen's luxury yacht Ubiquitous. Photo / Greg Bowker
Sir Owen's luxury yacht Ubiquitous. Photo / Greg Bowker

The Herald on Sunday revealed last month that Sir Owen had invited the players' wives and girlfriends, and some female staff, to a party on his superyacht Ubiquitous last year. They were attended by mini-skirted waitresses and, at one point, everyone played charades.

After the games, prizes were given out including fur handcuffs and g-strings. One player's partner described it as "awkward".

Then there were the off-colour remarks made at a big-note dinner about sponsors Vodafone and SkyCity.

Amid rumours of tension between Watson and Sir Owen, some top sponsors installed clauses allowing them to escape their contracts should Glenn assume 100 per cent ownership of the club.

Then came last month's "destabilising grenade" attack by Sir Owen over coach Matt Elliott's departure.

By going public with his concerns, Sir Owen threatened to derail the club he claimed to love.

The "Warriors at War" headlines hit the front page on Watson's 55th birthday.

The Warriors have righted the ship since the public blood-letting, re-signing key players and turning in impressive results. But the ownership issue remains unresolved.

In July 2012, Sir Owen announced he was forming a Commission of Inquiry to tackle New Zealand's rampant family violence and child abuse problem.

In a statement, he derided the "short-term and sporadic funding contracts" and the lack of "connection and co-ordination" in our domestic social services.

Sir Owen assembled an unparalleled team of academics, doctors and psychologists from New Zealand and overseas, who were keen to be involved.

It was the violence he had seen as a young man on the streets of South Auckland that made him want to escape to Sydney with his young family.

The same violence and abuse had drawn him home for the purpose of fixing this evil which blights the country he loves.

He pledged $80m in total, including $8m to reduce domestic violence and improve community life in his old suburb of Otara.

According to some friends, Sir Owen's grand ambition had been to one day stand before the United Nations General Assembly in New York and tell the world how he had solved New Zealand's domestic abuse crisis.

The seemingly selfless act of generosity to a country that barely knew him - one he had spent more time away from than living in - seemed extraordinary.

It no doubt went a long way towards his knighthood on the New Year's Honours list last year. But it didn't take long before the controversies began.

Reports emerged early last year that several staff and advisers had walked away from the inquiry because of concerns about the confidentiality of sensitive information they were taking from victims.

Then, in June that year, a bombshell hit in the form of blonde American beauty Marja Shaw.

According to court documents, the Seattle firefighter, a one-time travel companion and employee of Sir Owen's, had accused him of physically abusing her at Honolulu's Aston Waikiki Beach Hotel in September 2002.

Sir Owen immediately went on the offensive, using words such as "harassment" and "extortion", and repeatedly stated he had never hit a woman.

The court case had dragged on for two years and cost him a huge pile of money, and during that time Shaw had also launched a wrongful termination of employment case against him.

Despite his denials, the inquiry's credibility took a hit.

The knight who rode into town firing silver bullets at the evils of poverty, child abuse and domestic violence had pleaded no contest to a charge of physically abusing a young woman.

There were resignations from some members of the inquiry, who were blindsided by the revelations.

The inquiry has never fully recovered from the revelations, and the promised publication of its findings has yet to happen.

Then in July last year, questions were raised about the use of Sir Owen's Glenn Family Foundation Charitable Trust to make payments into a bloodstock company and his personal bank account.

It was revealed the trust's former general manager Peter McGlashan had raised concerns about the payments in an email to Sir Owen.

The Department of Internal Affairs said its investigation into the "financial irregularities" had taken time because of "complexities".

Spokespeople wouldn't talk specifics but said if they recommended deregistering a charity to the independent Charities Registration Board, they would only make public comment after the board had made its decision.

In March, Sir Owen removed two long-term business associates as directors of Go Bloodstock and installed relative John Glenn.

Those who know him well say Sir Owen is not an ostentatious man. He has previously said he owns homes in Auckland, Sydney and Fiji, and bought half of Blandford Lodge farm near Matamata, as well as his superyacht Ubiquitous.

There are also the racehorses and the constant business class travel. But he doesn't have flash cars.

And there is no doubting his philanthropic donations to charities and institutions across the world.

In 2002, he donated $7.5m to the University of Auckland Business School and, as a result, the business school named its flash new building after him.

A million bucks was donated to the Christchurch earthquake recovery, another million at least to Hockey New Zealand.

Overseas, his Glenn Family Foundation has ploughed millions more into projects in the Philippines, India and Nepal.

To some, he was New Zealand's answer to the growing trend for the super-wealthy, such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates, to pledge their fortunes to worthy causes.

Certainly, the man who had fought his way up from nothing to amass a multimillion-dollar fortune never had any intention of fading quietly into his dotage.

Read also:
$400m at stake as Glenn sues old mate
Owen Glenn trips up on Otara pledge

- additional reporting Matthew Theunissen

- Herald on Sunday

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