Serious Fraud Office investigators seeking to piece together the life and times of DataSouth’s Gavin Bennett and locate $23.5 million of missing South Canterbury Finance money will be taking particular note of a lavish party held on the 37th floor of a swanky apartment building in Sydney.
Mr Bennett's apparently big-spending lifestyle reached its zenith on February 15 when the managing director of Christchurch-based IT firm DataSouth flew company executives from across to Sydney for a management meeting - but Mr Bennett seemed more focused on his 53rd birthday party planned for later that evening.
The National Business Review has talked a number of former DataSouth employees who paint a picture of Mr Bennett as a man with continually escalating tastes who was always in the presence of a posse of young blonde women known as “Gav’s girls.”
Mr Bennett has denied wrongdoing, and told the NBR last month he was co-operating with investigators.
He had founded DataSouth in 1993, but former staff members says he had becoming increasingly distant since he relocated to Sydney, ostensible to grow the Australian business, in 2007.
“Towards the end, we’d only see him once every three months,” one former staff member said.
Staff from Christchurch were put up in a Sydney hotel for the February meeting, and the team gathered at a $A2.5 million apartment in The Rocks that doubled as Mr Bennett’s home and DataSouth’s office.
There were concern that Mr Bennett’s recent disconnection from the business might create issues in holding his concentration, and these worries were proved correct, several former DataSouth employees say “While he didn’t fall asleep, he spent the whole time playing with his cats,” one source said of Mr Bennett’s involvement in the meeting.
Party at Bennett’s place
Mr Bennett had apparently spared no expense for his birthday party and gave the event a "paint the town red" theme. Dom Perignon was the drink of choice.
In attendance were a coterie of “Gav’s girls” - including DataSouth Australia co-director and self-described “success coach” and make-up artist Marlena Davis - as well as the DataSouth management team and an odd selection of hangers-on.
“There were a number of other tenants from the apartment block, caterers from the Belgian Beer Café downstairs, the Gav’s girls - it was quite an interesting mix,” one attendee recalls.
Also present that night were Mr Bennett’s ex-wife Jane, and their daughter Kate.
One attendee at the birthday party found the proceedings - and mix of guests - bizarre: “The farcical thing about this was he had this beautiful apartment - with views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge - and incredibly good looking women hanging off his arms, and his ex-wife and daughter were also there watching these shenanigans.”
Several DataSouth staffers in attendance say the party left them shaking their heads: “It was a surreal situation. We walked away as a management team saying ‘We’re very concerned about Gavin - he’s living in a dreamworld.”
One long-serving staff member of DataSouth says in hindsight there were plenty of warning signs - even in Mr Bennett’s evolving choice of plonk.
“Way back in 2002 we’d sit around after work and have a beer. The next year he moved to Lindauer, then Moet, then Verve and latterly Dom Perignon and even the occasional bottle of Cristal,” the source says.
"He'd drink champagne like it was water flowing from a tap," another source said.
Mr Bennett was also said to have a late-model Lexus parked in the apartment's garage, but rarely drove it himself. "He was chauffeur-driven all over the place," says a DataSouth staffer.
But staff had little time to act on their instincts following the birthday party, as less than a week later their business and, in many cases, homes were rocked by the February 22 Christchurch earthquake.
Shortly after the quake South Canterbury demanded repayment of its $26 million loan and appointed receivers when DataSouth defaulted.
Serious discrepancies were discovered - leases supposed to act as security for the loan totalled only $2.5 million 0 and two days after receivers BDO took over South Canterbury obtained a freezing order over Mr Bennett’s assets and the SFO began investigating.
After the crash, shared offices
In an ironic twist, South Canterbury’s Christchurch offices at Scales House were rendered unusable and the finance company’s staff moved temporarily into the building used by DataSouth.
The long-serving staff member remembers commiserating in the building’s café with one of the South Canterbury managers in the weeks following receivership and the launch of the SFO probe. “He shook his head and said; ‘Listen mate, this is only one of many hand grenades going off in our business at the moment.’”
An SFO spokeswoman said their investigation into DataSouth was ongoing and an update could be expected in early September.
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