Thursday, November 14, 2013

An interview with Andrew Burrell

Andrew talks to us about his new book Twiggy: The High-Stakes Life of Andrew Forrest.

What drew you to write about Andrew Forrest?

I had been covering the resources boom as a journalist in Perth since 2006 (with both The Australian and The Australian Financial Review) and wanted a way of telling the story of the extraordinary economic and social events that have taken place during this period. In choosing to examine the life and career of Andrew Forrest, I had the ideal story of a man who became a multi-billionaire through a combination of good luck and great skill. Twiggy is also West Australian royalty; he is descended from Sir John Forrest, the state’s first premier and a legendary explorer. It also fascinated me that Twiggy Forrest was then taking the first steps towards transforming his public image from wealthy mining magnate to philanthropist. His championing of indigenous employment also set him apart from other mining magnates. Twiggy’s philanthropy has intensified in recent months, which I think makes his back story – how he achieved what he did in business – even more fascinating and newsworthy to a general audience.

What do you see as unique about Andrew Forrest, and why do you think he’s been so successful?

Like many who succeed in business, Andrew Forrest has enormous energy and drive. But he also has great charisma that creates an intense loyalty in many of the people working for him. Forrest is also an extraordinarily gifted salesman; I lost count of the number of times during my research that people told me he “could sell ice to the Eskimos”. This is even more notable given that he struggled with a debilitating stutter throughout his childhood and in his early adult years. There are countless examples in the book of Forrest using his self-belief and verve to achieve things that others could not. (He was thus able to transform himself from a corporate pariah in 2003, after the failure of Anaconda Nickel, into a major success by 2008, when Fortescue Metals Group began exporting iron ore from the Pilbara.) Forrest is also a unique subject for a biography because he is driven to succeed by the legend of his forebears. Twiggy was actually christened John Andrew Henry Forrest, being named after Sir John Forrest, Western Australia’s most important historical figure. Even though he chose as a boy to be known as Andrew, many who know him believe he is inspired to take risks and pursue grand dreams by seeking to follow in the footsteps of his great-great-uncle. 

What are some of the more explosive things you discovered about Twiggy during your research?

I was fascinated to discover that four judges in four separate court cases have cast doubt on Forrest’s truthfulness over the years. This is a very unusual record for someone who has run a major listed company in Australia. Forrest’s links to a far-right group, the Australian League of Rights, were also a surprise to me, given his reputation these days as a humanitarian. The book details how he invited his then business partner, Warwick Grigor, to a League meeting in Sydney in the 1990s, and later hired the former national director of the League as his head of external relations at Anaconda Nickel.  Another revelation in the book concerns Forrest’s parlous financial situation in 2001, which led him to borrow money from Shayne Heffernan, a convicted drug dealer.  The chapter on his dealings with former West Australian premier Brian Burke is also revealing. For the first time, Burke speaks about how he was able to use his brilliant lobbying skills and his contacts in the then state Labor government to secure key approvals for Forrest in the early days of Fortescue Metals Group.

Who are some of the more dubious characters that Andrew Forrest’s done business with?

Alan Bond and Laurie Connell: Twiggy traded stocks for Bond and Connell in Perth when he ran broking firm Jacksons in Perth in the 1980s. He later went into business with Bond in the 1990s, just before Bond was declared bankrupt and went to prison for Australia’s biggest corporate fraud.

Rodney Adler: “Rocket” Rodney Adler bankrolled Twiggy’s alpaca import venture in the 90s and later invested millions of dollars in Anaconda Nickel.  Adler also served on the Anaconda board but resigned around the time that he was charged with crimes – for which he was ultimately jailed - over his role as a director of HIH Insurance.  Forrest remained close to Adler, whom he visited in prison several times.

Marc Rich: When Forrest needed to raise money for Anaconda in the late 1990s, he turned to Marc Rich, who had fled to Switzerland after being charged in the United States for tax evasion, fraud and illegal trading with Iran. Rich became a billionaire by doing deals with regimes including Augusto Pinochet’s in Chile, Nicolae Ceau┼čescu’s in Romania, Fidel Castro’s in Cuba and apartheid-era South Africa. He later admitted to bribing officials in countries such as Nigeria, and to helping the Israeli spy agency Mossad. Rich was pardoned by Bill Clinton on the US president’s final day in office in 2001. But when he did business with Forrest, he was still on the FBI’s “ten most wanted” fugitives list. 

Shayne Heffernan:  Twiggy took loans from Heffernan, who had been charged with selling heroin but was convicted on the lesser charge of supplying marijuana and sent to prison. Heffernan also came to the attention of the Australian authorities in 2003 for running a boiler-room scheme in Asia.

Brian Burke: The former West Australian premier was jailed in the 1990s over WA Inc-era offences but emerged in the 2000s as a lobbyist and a key adviser to Andrew Forrest.

Twiggy has had some volatile business relationships, some of which have ended up in court. Why is that?

Andrew Forrest is a deeply polarising figure. At one extreme, those who have done business with him regard him as someone who can’t be trusted to deliver his promises, and as someone who does not always repay the loyalty shown to him. But at the other extreme he is seen as a genius who cares deeply for those close to him and wants to change the world through his philanthropy. Forrest has a track record of falling out badly with people he has done business with. As the book documents, his alpaca import venture in New South Wales ended up in a long-running court case.  And his two major business partnerships in Sydney in the 1990s – with Warwick Grigor at Far East Capital and with Albert Wong at Intersuisse - both ended in acrimony and almost in litigation. He was later forced out as chief executive of Anaconda Nickel because he alienated the major shareholders. Twiggy’s forceful personality plays a part in these conflicts. But it is also the reason why he has been ultimately so successful in business.

Twiggy: The High-Stakes Life of Andrew Forrest is out now in print and ebook.

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