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05 May 2012

High roller at the helm of troubled truck firm - 5th May 2012

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Stephen Brown used to give each of his staff a ham at Christmas. He was a knockabout bloke, a generous boss who insiders say was always willing to put a hand in his pocket to help a friend in need.

But in the wake of his company's collapse this week - leaving hundreds out of work and out of pocket - new details have emerged of a troubled man wrestling to keep his family together and struggling to keep a gambling addiction at bay.

Most alarming are questions as to how the 1st Fleet boss used money from the company to fund his gambling. One insider said his company credit card was regularly used to withdraw cash at The Star, where he poured thousands of dollars into the pokies. He was a regular feature of the high rollers area at the casino, known as the Sovereign Room.

This is not necessarily why 1st Fleet collapsed this week. It was seized by administrators ultimately because its backers, a large French finance company, had made a strategic decision to exit Australia, and an eleventh-hour attempt to sell the logistics firm to a private equity firm failed.

But neither do such large transport companies collapse overnight. Brown's loose salary arrangements and failed attempts by his confidants to stop him gambling suggest entrenched problems with the way the business was managed.

There were other warning signs, too. The biggest flashpoint in fact was not the gambling but a falling-out between Stephen and his son Regan, who had run the recruitment arm of the business called Labourforce Solutions Pty Ltd. Both men deny the dispute. Stephen says it is ''rubbish''.

''I love my son, he loves me. You should see some of the text messages I get from him.'' Regan says his father was an ''upstanding person who has provided many jobs for many people''.

Nevertheless, some say the rift was widened when Stephen's father-in-law stepped in. Bill Marinic had also made his fortune in transport. His firm Rapid Transport Industries eventually employed 700 people and turned over millions of dollars. He sold it to Mayne Nickless in 1988, but not before his daughter Corinne met her future husband when he was also working at the business.

Employees say Marinic used the sale to help Corinne and Stephen set up 1st Fleet. The business inherited Rapid Transport's clients, and for many years was a success. It has only been in the past few years that red has seeped into the company's books.

In an effort to get things back under control, 1st Fleet sold two divisions to logistics giant Toll. It stemmed the bleeding for a time. There were also efforts, including very recently, to sell the company's express division to Allied Express. But these came to nought.

At least by the time the economy began to spiral in 2008, a company insider says 1st Fleet stopped paying some of the bills Labourforce would submit for the supply of drivers and warehouse staff. By 2010, after being unable to strike a deal to defer their tax debts, Labourforce was placed into voluntary administration.

Marinic wanted to protect Regan, who was then 32 years old. He agreed to bail the company out of administration for about $1 million on the condition that the new entity be under Regan's control. By the time the new company surfaced, Stephen's shareholding would be reduced to a sliver with the rest of the company carved up between Marinic's daughter Corinne and Regan, who was also appointed sole director.

These frictions may have been exacerbated by Regan's new-found religiosity. The young company director, who describes himself on his LinkedIn profile as a ''third generation Logistician'', became involved with the Church of Scientology following a recent trip to the US.

Employees and associates of the company said his relationship with his father was made more difficult by his desire to send money to the Church. Regan has declined to comment further to the Herald.

One well-placed source among the company's staff said the relationship between father and son deteriorated to the extent that for the past 10 weeks, 1st Fleet would not hire drivers or workers recruited by Labourforce.

It was amid this kind of board-level turmoil that some very senior people became increasingly concerned about Stephen's gambling.

One Star source confirmed that Stephen came in most days except Sundays: ''He used to come in every morning with between $5 and $10K and virtually dump it in slot machine … he only liked to play certain machines and these were reserved and had higher limits.''

A 1st Fleet source says another company executive about three years ago approached Corinne to discuss it with her. ''At various stages senior executives in the company have [tried to intervene],'' this source says.

But he doesn't believe the amount of money Stephen was taking out of the company led directly to its financial woes. There were other ''deeper'' issues at the heart of the collapse, he said.

''He never took a direct income out of the business. He would run his life … and he would claim his expenses back and that would be his income per se.''

The Herald does not suggest Mr Brown has misappropriated any funds from 1st Fleet.

''Was his gambling problem $100,000 per year? Yes, potentially … It would be more than that … Did he get the money from 1st Fleet? Yes. But it was probably within his entitlements at 1st Fleet.''

Such ad-hoc governance might also have been part of the reason a last-minute deal to offload the company failed in the past few weeks. The Herald has been reliably informed a private equity firm was up until very recently performing due diligence on a buyout that would have left the shareholders with very little, but would have at least taken on the company's debts.

Justin Ward, of deVries Tayeh, 1st Fleet's appointed administrator, says the company was appointed on Wednesday night after a week's preliminary investigation of the books.

''The result was not a good result and hence we were called in. [French finance company] Coface needed their money … and they wanted us to check the recoverability of those debtors,'' he said.

''To do a forensic review takes months and it is almost impossible with the directors there watching you. That has not been done and won't be done until the company is in liquidation and that is what I am looking forward to, to be honest.''

It is an ignominious end for what many describe as a wonderful place to work. ''We had a fabulous company,'' says one former employee. ''It was terrific; he gave away driver of the month and driver of the year awards; he knew everyone by name.''

''The man was very generous,'' another says. ''At Christmas time all members of his staff, everyone, he would give a whole ham to.''

But at the gates of 1st Fleet's Smithfield depot on Thursday, hours after learning they would be out of a job, workers Alan Pollard and Gerry Fitzgerald lamented year-long gaps in their superannuation payments.

When Brown emerged from the depot gates on Thursday, harried and running his hands through his hair, he hugged some of these men and women. He waved questions away when asked about the missing super, and instead put the blame for his company's collapse on his financier.

Approached at home yesterday, he declined to comment further. (Fairfax Media)

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