PRIVATE BIN: Dominion Finance: From Rich List to wanted list

Four years ago Dominion Finance owners Terry and Ann Butler were flying high after successfully listing their company on the stock exchange but now their company is on the top suspects list of financiers under investigation.

And as the blame game plays out, Mr Butler is distancing himself from the company, telling NBR in response to questions on Dominion's loan book, "I hadn't been chief executive for two years and I wasn't on the credit committee - I had no management controls whatsoever for the past two years."

Media profiles of the Butlers at the time they listed Dominion lauded their down-to-earth approach to their fortune.

But adviser Chris Lee says Dominion's journey after listing - which brought Mr Butler instant riches - saw the company take on bigger projects.

"He was a small backstreet operator who got far too big too quickly."
Today Dominion's subsidiaries owe debenture investors $326 million.

The Butlers were last profiled on the NBR Rich List in 2006 with $55 million net wealth.

Their fortune took a king hit this year - Dominion shares, worth as much as $1.50 in the past year, last traded at just 1c.

With Butler family interests totalling around 65% of the listed Dominion Finance Holdings, they could have lost more than $69.3 million.

Mr Butler says the year has been the worst he can recall. "I just don't want to repeat it, thanks."

But the Butlers' wealth is still propped up by some prime real estate, including a $6.9 million Remuera property and a $1.8 million Parnell office.

They earned a share in $10 million in dividends returned to shareholders over the past three years, though the company also retained more than $60 million earnings.

A 1c a share dividend was declared in May, though the Butlers say they reinvested their $462,000 share into the company.

The Butlers, who celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary this year, bought Dominion in the late 1980s.

Dominion's rocky share price has been just one of its problems on the stock exchange this year.

It was fined $65,000 in October by the market regulator for filing its final annual accounts late.

The stock exchange also passed its investigation file to the Securities Commission to consider charges under section 19B of the Securities Market Act, relating to continuous disclosure requirements.

Breaches of this section can result in fines of up to $1 million.
This came after the company reported an $8.95 million profit in May, only for skyrocketing loan provisions to slash the final audited result to a $108 million loss by September.

Ten days after it released the May preliminary result, the company received a report from Deloitte raising questions over provisioning. This was not disclosed.

The company was negotiating for a moratorium from June right through until its trustee placed it in receivership shortly after the September result was revealed.

Dominion's directors argued the reporting delay was due to uncertainty over the company's future, making it unclear what values should be placed on certain items. Its auditors gave evidence at the NZX hearing.

Meanwhile, at Dominion subsidiary North South Finance trustees have raised concerns about alleged related party loans that may breach the company's trust deed.

Despite all these events, after subsidiary Dominion Finance Group went into receivership, Terry Butler conducted an extraordinary campaign to try to reverse the decision.

Mr Butler's blog says the trustee's decision was "arrogant" and argues that the receivers put in charge of DFG were "very inexperienced and know little about the operations of finance companies."

This week he was still defending this view, saying the rejected moratorium package that got put together "was a hell of a lot better than what those other companies [Hanover and St Laurence] have come up with."

Asked whether any extra capital would have been contributed by shareholders under the plan, he said, "everything I've got is in the company anyway," he says - including significant debenture stock.

But Perpetual Trust chief executive Louise Edwards says the plan did not include any extra money going into the company, which was a factor in the decision to call in receivers.

"To be honest, we had lost some confidence in management and directors and their ability to manage the company."

Receiver Deloitte also fired back its own broadside to investors in response to Mr Butler's campaign, saying his criticism of them was "entirely without merit."

Deloitte's latest report provided another politely-worded rebuke - the reason for the up to 90% losses was only partly the rapid property market downturn.

Dominion's lending decisions were a much more significant factor - the high-risk loan book remaining by September had a strong showing of second mortgages, development lending and defaulting loans.

The receiver said many loan valuations on file were out of date.

But Mr Butler disputes this, saying company policy was to have valuations current to within a year. He says problems with second mortgages are a "sign of the times."

Given standard loans before the credit crunch, second mortgages became impossible to refinance after bank funders pulled out of projects.

He also distanced himself from the controversial North South Finance related party loan question - saying the "shared loans" were "a new thing" that came in after his tenure.

He claims that directors found out about the arrangement after the event.

Not surprisingly, as official investigations loom, Mr Butler says his relationship with company management is "not terribly good."

Others involved with the company were also reclusive this week.
Chairman Rick Bettle says he found the Butlers good to work with, but he did not want to elaborate further.

Ex-chief executive Paul Cropp, who heads up North South, did not return NBR's call.

But to the market, the dire report from Dominion's receiver may have come as a surprise given that there weren't the same kind of rumours swirling around Dominion before it asked for a moratorium as there were with companies like Lombard and Hanover.

Their management had been well-regarded and company shareholders included respected South Island entrepreneur Allan Hubbard.

Mr Bettle told NBR he did not want to comment on the picture painted of Dominion Finance Group's book by the receiver.

"I was surprised," he says. "I would expect that amount [forecast recovery] to increase."

Dominion Finance propectus questioned - see www.nbr.co.nz/dominion-finance

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