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David Richwhite is recalled as the merchant banker's banker. Urbane, sophisticated, well dressed, polite and well spoken.

John George Russell, the former head of the ill-fated Securitibank, who gave the young Richwhite the leg-up into investment banking, describes him as "the ideal type for a merchant banker".

Russell said those qualities were the perfect foil for another recruit at the bank, Michael Fay, Richwhite's future business partner.

Fay was more flamboyant, remembers Russell, while Richwhite was more thoughtful - the man who tidied up the loose ends.

The partnership, forged in 1975 with the formation of Fay, Richwhite & Co, has put them among New Zealand's wealthiest. It was at this bank that the two men - now both in their mid-50s - made their fortunes, partly thanks to their role in the privatisation of state-owned assets during the Rogernomics revolution in the '80s.

This year's NBR Rich List shows Fay and Richwhite are now worth $630 million apiece. They have a $200 million New Zealand commercial property portfolio, including Great Mercury Island off the Coromandel Peninsula.

Richwhite is listed as a director of 15 local companies in Companies Office records and is a former Telecom and Business Roundtable director. He is also chairman of his family investment firm, David Lloyd Investments with Fay, he also has a shareholding in private British rail operator English, Welsh and Scottish Railway, formed in 1996 and now owner of five of Britain's six privatised freight operating companies.

But beyond this detail Richwhite's investments remain far from scrutiny. Like Fay, he splits his time between New Zealand and Europe as a tax exile. Richwhite is thought to spend more time in London than in his chosen home of Geneva.

Former associates such as Leigh Davis, who sat on the Tranz Rail board with Richwhite at the time of the controversial share trades, and former Fay Richwhite PR spokeswoman Michelle Boag, say they know little of his business interests.

Davis describes him as "a fabulously talented Kiwi businessman with a great love of life who is able to develop warm and supportive friendships".

He said Richwhite would have been "mortified" when he heard of the Securities Commission action over the Tranz Rail share dealings.

Richwhite was not available for comment.

Boag responds in a similar vein: "He was a very, very nice man, incredibly generous in a very quiet way. He never sought a [public] profile."

Richwhite hails from a wealthy Remuera family. His sister, Rosslyn, is married to Simon Caughey, chairman of the venerable department store Smith & Caughey.

Grandfather Cleave MacKellar Richmond White, who changed the family name to Richwhite by deed poll apparently because he was sick of being confused with other Whites, amassed the basis of the family's wealth with a Waikato coal business.

A 1956 Herald story about a parliamentary debate over supply problems at the Maramarua coal field covered a heated exchange between a Labour MP, Fred Hackett, and the then National Party Prime Minister, Sidney Holland.

A "certain gentleman named Mr Richwhite of Auckland", Hackett said, had come along and pointed out to the State Hydro-Electric Department that he had an agreement giving him a royalty on every ton of coal mined at Maramarua.

"If the expected tonnage of coal was taken, the Government would be giving Mr Richwhite something like £30,000 a year for doing exactly nothing."

Holland responded: "There is not a tittle of truth in that whatsoever. The Government has not agreed to pay commission on this coal and the Government will not agree to pay commission on this coal."

Cleave Richwhite was also a director of several companies including Tasman Pulp and Paper, the New Zealand representative on the British Phosphate Commission and Swedish vice-consul in Auckland.

The Richwhite family company, David Lloyd Group, sold its cement, transport and concrete interests to Brierley Investments and W. Stevenson & Sons in 1990.

Richwhite attended King's College and graduated from Otago University with a commerce degree. It was there, according to Metro magazine, that he met Libby Hay, whom he married.

His first big job was with Russell's Securitibank. It was then New Zealand's biggest Government bond and local authority security dealer, trading $5 million to $10 million daily, huge amounts for those days.

Richwhite left the bank on good terms, forming his own merchant bank with the already departed Fay and another former Securitibank colleague, Rod Petricevic. This became Fay, Richwhite & Co a few months later when Petricevic left.

Securitibank collapsed in December 1976, swallowing $31 million of investors' money. Petricevic now runs finance company Bridgecorp.

In the highly regulated years of the Muldoon Government, Fay Richwhite's investments ranged from Government stock to films.

With the election of the David Lange-Roger Douglas Government in 1984 and the sweeping deregulation and privatisation that followed, Fay and Richwhite came into their own.

Over the next decade, the deals flowed. These included the purchase of 32 per cent of retailer LD Nathan; the formation of a consortium including Bell Atlantic and Ameritech to buy Telecom, which was later floated; buying a 32 per cent stake in the BNZ, which was subsequently sold to National Australia Bank, and the acquisition and then sale of Fiji's Denerau resort.

Then there was New Zealand Rail, bought from the Government by Fay Richwhite, Wisconsin Central Transportation and Berkshire Partners for $328 million in September 1993.

Shares in the renamed Tranz Rail were sold to the public three years later for $6.19 each, valuing the company at $755 million.

Fay, Richwhite was also lead manager of the initial public offering and two of its subsidiaries were organising brokers.

Herald columnist Brian Gaynor calculates Fay and Richwhite and associated companies made $402 million in profits from the sale of former state-owned assets.

Richard Prebble, State Owned Enterprises Minister in the Lange Government, remembers that Fay and Richwhite had "very clever" young men working for them in the 1980s who studied the issues facing the Government and regularly sent in proposals.

Prebble said they were the first to draw the Government's attention to the fact Postbank was valuable for "counter intuitive reasons".

Fay, Richwhite wrote to the Government suggesting Postbank was valuable because it had lots of clients but no computer system and banks hated taking over other banks' computer systems.

A Treasury study on Postbank showed it to be a "little jewel". Said Prebble: "Until then no one in Treasury had suggested Postbank was anything other than a liability."

But Fay Richwhite missed out on the big deal when Postbank was sold to ANZ in 1989.

In the 1980s, Fay and Richwhite were often seen as the quintessential yuppies with their 29-floor Queen St tower, flash suits and the Fay-fronted America's Cup challenges.

They talked about turning New Zealand into the Switzerland of the South Pacific.

Ironically, Fay and Richwhite went to live in Switzerland in 1998 after selling their Auckland homes for more than $13 million.

Their departure followed the drawn-out "Winebox" inquiry which investigated allegations over Cook Island tax dealings involving parties including Fay, Richwhite. It found no evidence of illegal dealings.