Business

Sir Ron Brierley: Three guilty pleas and a fall from Olympus

He was always “a private man”, says Georgina Beyer, who once slept in Sir Ron Brierley’s bed.

“Oh not when he was in it, of course,” she laughs. Rather, it was a coincidence of a broken marriage and her step-father Colin Beyer flatting with Brierley in early 1970s Wellington.

It illustrates the close proximity Beyer enjoyed to watch the creation of a new royalty. Brierley, her step-father Colin and uncle Trevor Beyer, along with others in their circle, redefined wealth in New Zealand.

Those who founded Brierley Investments Limited have been called titans of business butin Greek mythology, the titans were the old gods who were overthrown. Rather, these men were the new gods who savaged New Zealand’s traditional definition of wealth.

Now, Brierley has fallen from Olympus, pleading pleaded guilty to three criminal charges of possessing child sexual abuse material.

“It will be pretty devastating, as far as reputation is concerned,” says Beyer. He will, she believes, feel “ashamed and embarrassed”.

Brierley guilty – READ MORE
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“He’s a very intelligent man, very meek in lots of ways.”

Of all those who surrounded Brierley and helped found Brierley Investments Limited, he was the “most conservative and withdrawn”.

Many had gone to Wellington College, as did Brierley. Shared schooling and families growing up together forged bonds that carried through to their business lives. It was a characteristic of Brierley, she says, that “he could pull people together”.

Collectively, though, they were filled with hubris and were the “Brat Pack” of Wellington. They roared around the city with their egos and successes, their enthusiasm for the new type of business they were practising.

They butted against the establishment and, in a way, inhabited so much of Wellington’s available space that they became a new establishment. It was very male, and the smell of testosterone trailed their path through the city.

And, says Beyer, that would have included to the door of Carmen’s International Coffee Lounge, where patrons arranged coffee cups to signify what sort of sexual assignation they sought.

Not Brierley, she says. “He would have been discreet and secret. That’s always been his nature. He’s a private man. People wouldn’t have known about his private life.”

Whatever fired Brierley’s blood, there was no sign of it then. If there was any hint, it came in a biography almost two decades later by journalist Yvonne van Dongen.

“Brierley has travelled frequently to Asia, mostly to Thailand,” she wrote. “Most Western social and moral conventions are meaningless in Asia and, like many Western men, Brierley revels in the luxury of freedom run loose.”

It continued: “he enjoys encounters with young women, often teenage prostitutes, in Thailand”.

These new gods, they ascend on high and become constrained by the life they have created. Beyer says: “They build a prison for themselves in the end.”

The charges to which Brierley pleaded guilty carry a maximum of 10 years in prison. That’s what he faces now, after three guilty pleas delivered at the Downing Street Local Court this morning, more than a year after his only previous appearance.

Clutching a carry bag, using a walking stick, he was excused on the grounds of his age from standing as his guilty pleas were delivered. He admitted possession of images of children ranging in age from 2 years through to 15 years. The other charges – which described tens of thousands of potential offending images – were withdrawn.

“My client admits he is in possession of some of the images,” his lawyer, Lisa-Claire Hutchinson, told the Downing Centre Local Court, saying there was a dispute over the actual number of images on Brierley’s devices.

It was over in moments. The next court date was set for April 30 and Brierley rose, donned a surgical mask, and left the court in the company of another lawyer, Penny Musgrove.

Outside, he ignored media and made his way to a car, waiting at the kerb, to be driven away. He made no comment and has yet to respond to Herald requests for an interview.

The aftermath was swift. Cricket Wellington, of which he had been patron, is now debating whether to remove his life membership. It’s a sport in which he had found so much pleasure, his aptitude for numbers and love of order fitting with a sport that relies on a careful tally and deliberate structure.

At Wellington College, where Brierley’s first entrepreneurial stamp-collecting business came to life, the board of trustees issued its verdict. Silent since his December 2019 arrest, it did not receive the usual $100,000 donation last year.

“I think you should take whatever action you consider appropriate now,” Brierley wrote toschool principal Gregor Fountain in February, a few weeks after his first court appearance.

Instead, the school waited until three hours after the verdict was known. It then announced Brierley’s name would be removed from all facilities to which he had contributed to over the years.

New Zealand has seen increasingly less of Brierley since the 1970s. He had effectively moved to Sydney, Australia, by then, well adept at identifying businesses rich in assets yet offering poor returns to shareholders. In New Zealand and in Australia, he was known as a “corporate raider” for his ability to soak up enough shares to gain control of a company, and then reorganise the components of that business to enrich shareholders and force otherwise moribund concerns to be nimble.

That image took a turn in the 1980s, with van Dongen proposing that the “greed is good” culture of the day saw Brierley portrayed more as an entrepreneur. In 1984, Brierley Investments Ltd was the largest company in New Zealand. At one stage, one in 20 New Zealanders owned shares in the company.

His links to New Zealand endured even as he forged a path across the globe. He was made chairman of the Bank of New Zealand and, despite the sharemarket crash of 1987 and the calamity it visited on the bank, was knighted two years later.

Brierley’s interests sprawled beyond Australasia to London and European markets. He spent almost two decades leading Guinness Peat Group, standing aside as chairman in 2010.

It’s a career in business with a history of philanthropy that is now a “tarnished” legacy, says van Dongen.

Brierley’s choices were limited, she said, with the option to plead guilty to some charges rather than facing a trial in which evidence for all 17 charges would have trailed through court for days on end. In saying so, she’s not offering an out for his behaviour. The detail attached to the 17 charges was compelling, she said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has put in motion the process that assesses whether Brierley will lose his knighthood.

The process includes triggers, such as being sentenced to more than three months in prison or where “the offence involved other disgraceful conduct such that public opinion would consider it wrong for the offender to hold a royal honour”.

Ardern will get the outcome of the formal process, and will then have to decide whether to ask the Queen to remove the honour.

“It would have meant a lot [to be knighted],” says van Dongen, “especially as his mother [May Brierley] was alive then.” To lose it now will be devastating.

She wonders why, or how, Brierley came to collect such imagery. “He was so loyal to his friends but there must be some kind of emotional bypass that he can’t empathise with children.”

Those around him will step back, she predicts. “They would want to distance themselves, because everybody does. It would be self-protection.”

They do so now, she says, but asks: “Did they care about his trips to Thailand?”


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