News of Sir Ron Brierley's arrest in Sydney swept through the financial markets yesterday as reports of alleged child pornography offences emerged.
The 82-year-old was arrested at Sydney airport as he was about to board a plane to Fiji and charged with six counts of possessing child abuse material, according to a police statement.
The arrest followed a five-month police investigation, reportedly sparked by an anonymous phone call to Crime Stoppers in August.
"The contents of his laptop and electronic storage devices were reviewed, which are alleged to have contained large amounts of child abuse material," NSW Police said in a statement.
Brierley, knighted in 1988, was a giant of the New Zealand corporate scene through 1970s and 1980s leading a series of daring corporate raids and takeovers.
According to a report in The Australian newspaper, police allege he was in possession of 207,000 images of child abuse and more than 500 videos at the time of the search.
A subsequent search of Brieley's Point Piper home in Sydney's eastern suburbs allegedly yielded further electronic items that will undergo investigation, the report said.
Neither Brierley nor his legal representative has so far issued any statement in response to the police statement and subsequent media coverage.
One of the last vestiges of Brierley's business empire, Sandon Capital Investments, said it was aware of reports of his arrest, but wasn't in a position to comment further.
The ASX-listed company took over Brierley's last vehicle – Mercantile Investments – earlier this year when the veteran corporate raider said it was time to retire at the age of 81.
"Sandon Capital Investments Ltd is aware of the press coverage relating to the arrest of its director Sir Ron Brierley," it said in a statement to the ASX.
"At this stage the company is not in a position to comment about this matter. The company will provide an update on any material developments as appropriate."
Sandon's investment portfolio is mostly in Australia, although it does hold a substantial stake in New Zealand retail chain Smiths City and a holding in the run-off insurer Foundation Life.
In his prime Brierley was a classic corporate raider, attacking companies with lazy balance sheets and poor management, shaking them to the core before either stripping them of assets or coaxing businesses back to life to later sell on for sizeable profits.
Starting in the 1960s Brierley went on to dominate the corporate landscape like no other – although his star waned as the years went on.
Former Shareholders Association chairman Bruce Sheppard once described Brierley's early days as a "missionary of the market", a shareholder activist who was extremely effective.
"To the extent he was a Catholic missionary advocating shareholding value and extracting it, he was a Spanish conquistador missionary ... 'I've come to clean you up and if I can't clean you up I'll kill you and take all your gold and take it back to my kingdom'," Mr Sheppard told NBR's Shoeshine columnist in April 2015.
"Where I think he went wrong was he didn't change and evolve with the times. Capital markets became more institutionalised and more focused on pension fund returns and, as a result of that, corporate governance procedures started to be debated, for better or worse, but he didn't engage in the debate and failed to adapt."
Brierley's standing in the business community altered subtly with each decade, his biographer Yvonne van Dongen wrote for a Herald feature in 2011:
"He started in the 1960s as a pesky corporate gadfly with cheeky recommendations and bold assertions in the tipsheet he wrote while still in his teens. From his 20s on, he refined his techniques and became ever more adventurous until the sight of his name on a share register was enough to give company directors conniptions."
He was the scourge of fat, lazy boards and sought out hidden or undervalued assets, often in the form of property, which he then spun off and sold on. This Brierley was derided as an asset stripper and corporate raider.
In the "greed is good" 1980s, he was recast more favourably as an entrepreneur, made a knight of the realm and chairman of New Zealand's largest bank, Bank of New Zealand. By 1984, with Collins as chief executive, BIL was the largest company in New Zealand by market capitalisation, with 160,000 shareholders and investments in over 300 companies around the world, including French department store company Galeries Lafayette and Air New Zealand."
But just when he was at his zenith, everything unravelled in the wake of the 1987 sharemarket crash. BNZ posted its largest loss ever under his chairmanship, IEL imploded and in-fighting at BIL escalated. Eventually he left the helm of BNZ and was ousted as chairman of BIL and IEL."
Brierley is due to appear in court in February after being granted strict conditional bail.
- Additional reporting by BusinessDesk