Matthew Perrin, the most successful corporate raider in the history of the surf industry
Matthew Perrin has been all over the news this week following a fraud case on the Gold Coast. The news coverage often includes references to Perrin's time at Billabong. But what was his role there? It's all a little mysterious.
In this extract from 'Salts and Suits' Phil Jarratt decribes Matthew Perrin's dubious entry into the surfing world and his head-spinnin', cash-grabbin' exit from it.
The second problem facing Billabong was even more wide-reaching and more insidious. Something big was going on and only Gordon Merchant seemed to know what it was. [Bob] Hurley had already felt it when he declined the license for Billabong Girls and Merchant set up his own operation in San Francisco. The wagons seemed to be circling even more when Doug Spong was granted the girl's license for Canada, but Spong, like most of the other Australia-based executives, wasn't sure what was going on either. The mystery deepened when Billabong's management team gathered at the Huntington Hilton in California for their annual global meeting. Billabong had become a big company, but not so big that the top brass didn't know each other. So who where those two tall guys lurking in the shadows and looking uncomfortable in Billabong beachwear right out of the box?
As it turned out, they were the Perrin brothers, Matthew and Scott, Gold Coast property developers, lawyers and racetrack touts who had been brought into the Billabong inner sanctum by Colette Paull, the long-time personal assistant to both Rena and Gordon Merchant. Paull approached the Perrin's initially because Billabong had run out of warehouse space, and they patched together an $11 million real estate package at Burleigh Heads. But the Perrins, who were known as aggressive deal-makers, had their eyes on a bigger prize.
It had been widely known for several years that Rena Merchant wanted to get out. Long after the Merchant marriage ended, Rena felt uncomfortable in the business relationship. According to one insider, she would sometimes surround herself with crystals at board meetings to protect her from 'Gordon's bad vibes'. After helping arrange finance in the US for Gordon Merchant's rebirth of the Billabong operation as a wholly owned division, the Perrin's turned their attention to Rena's forty-nine per cent stakeholding in the fastest growing surf company in the world.
In a rare interview with BRW magazine in 2004, Rena Merchant denied that she was stalked by the Perrin's, or that there was any pressure on her to sell. "Billabong had become a numbers game and I didn't want any part of it," she said. A consortium led by the Perrin brothers and including former Qantas chairman Gary Pemberton bought Rena's shareholding in late 1998 for $26.4 million, a figure Rena has steadfastly refused to confirm. After twenty-five years of hard work, she walked away to build a sustainable golf course near Noosa, giving a one percent holding to Collette Paull to prevent the Perrin bloc from gaining majority control. Billabong general manager Greg Woods, who was squeezed out soon after, told BRW: 'Rena was stitched up.'
Another Billabong heavy feeling the pinch was Doug Spong, whose licensed accesories division was a huge money-spinner for the brand. Spong suddenly felt himself an outsider. At a company meeting at the Sheraton hotel in Noosa, Spong was completely ignored by both the Perrin's and Pemberton. Outside the meeting, Scott Perrin came up to him in the carpark and said, "We'll get around to dealing with you in a couple of months. Until then, carry on as normal."
Spong soon realised what was afoot. No-one would admit it, but Billabong was centralising ownership in preparation for floating the company on the stockmarket. It was the end of the nineties, greed was still good, the dotcom bubble hadn't burst yet, IPOs were making new millionaires every other week, and if the Y2K bug didn't kill everyone, the future was rosy. The family, the surfing cowboys, the trusted retainers, the old salts....they all had to go to make way for the masters of the universe. And when Billabong's ducks were all in a row, the public would be invited to play and the A-team would make a shitload. Doug Spong eventually sold Thin Air, the accesories license, for $28 million, most of it in company shares at $2.30 which made him a very rich man after the succesful float. But not in comparison to the Perrin's, who would become the most succesful corporate raiders in the history of the surf industry.
In 2000, Billabong announced a $295 million float, debuting on the Sydney Stock Exchange later that year with spectacular results, soon achieving $500 million market capitalisation and sending Gorden Merchant's personal wealth into the stratosphere. Soon after the float it was valued at $255 million; by 2004, BRW estimated it at $491 million.
After the succesful float of Billabong, the Perrin's had become seriously rich, entering BRW magazine's 'Rich 200 List', alongside Gordon Merchant (the richest man in surfing), Quiksilver's [John] Green and [Alan] Law, Rip Curl's [Doug] Warbrick and [Brian] Singer, and Globe's Hill brothers, who were suddenly making a mint on surf and skate. The BRW 200 was an elite club, and some of the members were destined to be temporary, but for Matthew and Scott Perrin to be so rich so soon, on the back of Billabong, did not sit well with many people who had devoted their lives to the industry.
"I picked them for raiders the first fucking day," said Doug Spong. He was right. For two years, Matthew Perrin, aged just twenty-eight at the float, guided Billabong into better corporate governance, better financial reporting and better all-round performance. Despite the fact that he knew nothing about surfing he was potentially a great corporate leader for the brand. But Matt Perrin and his brother Scott liked fast cars, fast horses and fast money. From the day they came in, they were on their way out. In fact Scott Perrin took his profit and left before the float.
In January 2003, without consulting his board, Billabong CEO Matthew Perrin dumped eight million of his company's shares, realising more than $66 million in cash, causing the stock price to drop more than two dollars and prompting an Australian Stock Exchange investigation. While Billabong was still in recovery mode, with Perrin long departed, he sold his final five million stock, at a somewhat reduced price, but adding considerably to his wealth.
In the context of the plundering of Wall Street that was going on in the first few years of the new century, it hardly even rated, but the surf world was rocked, and rightly. The Perrins had been on a mission - to infiltrate surf, pick its bones dry and get the hell out of Dodge.
Extract courtesy of Phil Jarratt and Hardie Grant. 'Salts and Suits' comes with a double thumbs up recommendation from Swellnet. You can buy it here.