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Investment executive's charmed life unravels
Profile of Ian Thow.
Berkshire Investment clients sue high-flying Ian Thow


By David Baines


Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The boat -- a Sea Ray 560 bridge sedan -- and the locale -- B.C.'s Gulf Islands -- were so spectacular that the Sea Ray boat company featured both in a full-colour spread in its winter 2002 edition of Sea Ray Living magazine.

Ian Thow, senior vice-president of Berkshire Investment Group Inc. of Victoria, had bought the 56-foot yacht, which he named Swept Away, a year earlier for $1.5 million.

It had become one of the favourite playthings owned by Thow and his wife, Teresa, who also worked as a broker at Berkshire. Other expensive toys included a $3-million Citation 11 jet, which Thow used to fly friends and family to Las Vegas and Cabo St. Lucas, and a $900,000 US Bell 206 Jet Ranger helicopter he parked on a pad at his two-acre, $4.6-million waterfront home in Saanichton.

"The way I see it, a boat this grand deserves such a family," wrote the author of the Sea Ray article. "A charmed life indeed, but only because the Thows make it that way."

That charmed life has since fallen to pieces. Thow's marriage has crumbled, and on May 31 he wrote a letter to his clients saying he was "terminating" his employment with Berkshire and relinquishing his licences "to pursue other business interests."

"It has been difficult for me to make this decision to leave Berkshire," he said. But it is not clear that it was his decision to make.

Since his departure, Berkshire clients have filed four lawsuits against him, claiming he induced them to buy what he purported to be shares of the National Commercial Bank of Jamaica, then told them they were making huge investment returns, but failed to redeem their investments when requested. They are claiming combined losses of $3 million.

These alleged losses, however, may be just the tip of the iceberg. Other Berkshire clients, some of them prominent Vancouver Island businessmen, invested millions more and haven't got their shares or their money. With Thow's fortune -- if he ever had one -- dissipating, they are looking to Berkshire for answers.

Berkshire, named as a co-defendant in all four suits, has quickly moved to distance itself from what it characterizes as Thow's "outside business activities."

Meanwhile, M&P Mercury Sales Ltd. -- which sold the Sea Ray to Thow -- has seized the boat, claiming he still owes them $525,000. The Citation 11 has also been grounded by litigation launched by a co-owner. Thow is not returning calls.

Local authorities have started to probe the matter. On Monday, B.C. Securities Commission investigators were interviewing some of the plaintiffs, and on Tuesday, police said they were also getting involved.

"We have read recent media reports and are reviewing the situation," said Sgt. Tim Alder of the Vancouver RCMP Integrated Market Enforcement Team.

Thow, 44, began his career as a mutual fund salesman for Investors Group in Victoria and was quickly promoted to regional manager. In October of 1998, he suddenly resigned. Investors Group officials refused to discuss the circumstances of his departure.

"The reason for his resignation is between Mr. Thow and the company," a spokesman said at the time.

Thow said he resigned for "personal reasons," but it was clear the relationship had badly deteriorated. According to the Victoria- based Business Examiner, Investors Group filed a lawsuit against Thow and his wife, alleging breaches of confidentiality and fiduciary duty. The Thows denied the allegations, and the lawsuit, although technically still alive, has since gone into hibernation.

The following month, Thow resurfaced at Berkshire as a vice- president and he quickly emerged as one of Victoria's most successful and community-minded businessmen.

His biggest philanthropic gesture was a $500,000 personal pledge in February 2004 to the Greater Victoria Hospitals Foundation, in memory of his mother. Nearly a year and half have passed and the foundation has not received a cent.

In March 2003, Thow purported to have coordinated $1.1 million in pledges to the Royal Roads University Foundation, specifically for a fund in the name of Thrifty Foods president Alex Campbell Sr.

"Alex has given so much to the community in so many ways," said Thow at the time. "This was a wonderful opportunity to give something back to him, to recognize and pay tribute to his contributions."

However, Stephanie Slater, the university's communications manager, said Tuesday that the university confirmed pledges totalling only $141,000, of which $77,000 cash has been collected to date.

"We were unable to reach Ian Thow last year to confirm the status of the rest of the pledges," she said.

She added that, as a result of this experience, the university no longer announces donations until it receives a signed pledge.

Berkshire is part of the AIC Ltd. group of companies, a Burlington, Ont.-based mutual fund company. Its founder and chairman is Michael Lee-Chin, a self-made billionaire from Jamaica.

In 2002, under Lee-Chin's direction, AIC acquired a majority interest in the National Commercial Bank of Jamaica, a run-down bank that he hoped to rejuvenate and use as the linchpin to kick-start the Jamaican economy. He met with some success: the bank's shares tripled in value within a year.

According to interviews with several of his clients, Thow constantly invoked Lee-Chin's name and wealth, and Thow claimed his personal wealth was the result of his rapidly appreciating investments in the Jamaican bank.

That Thow was genuinely wealthy was not in dispute. In addition to his Citation 11 jet and his helicopter, he acquired a $4-million Citation Bravo, a $12-million Citation X and at one point talked Bombardier into allowing him to take a $30-million Global Express, a small jet airliner, on extended test flights, ostensibly with a view to buying it.

There were other smaller, still ostentatious displays of wealth. In the fall of 2003, when he renewed his wedding vows with Teresa, he gave her a six-carat diamond ring. ("The size of a jawbreaker candy," said one client.) That Christmas, he gave her a 17-carat diamond necklace. He also acquired an armful of expensive watches for his personal use: Cartiers, Breitlings and Rolexes.

Thow shared his wealth with family, friends and clients. He took them on junkets in his jets and placed his personal limousine at their disposal. He took them to NHL games and to concerts, including one featuring Nickelback, whose lead singer, Chad Kroeger, became one of his trophy celebrities. Thow bought $1,000 bottles of wine and tipped lavishly.

There was no question that he was a very wealthy man. The source of his wealth, he assured clients, was the Jamaican bank.

"He asked me whether I wanted to invest in the National Commercial Bank," recalled Derek Stimson, a businessman from Coaldale, Alta.

Stimson had earlier sold Thow a Citation Bravo jet for $4 million, and now Thow was offering him a special deal. "He said I could buy $132,000 US worth of shares for $100,000 US," he said in an interview Tuesday.

Stimson said Thow assured him he worked closely with Lee-Chin. "He said when Mike zigs, he zigs, and when Mike zags, he zags," Stimson recalled.

In a lawsuit filed in B.C. Supreme Court, Stimson said Thow told him only Berkshire clients were eligible to purchase the shares, and "such a purchase must be done in Thow's name due to restrictions on the shares." Thow said he would hold the shares in trust for him.

Stimson said that, in April 2004, he wrote a cheque for $100,000 US to Thow's numbered company in B.C. The following month, he wrote another cheque for the same amount. He said Thow told him the shares would triple in value within three months.

Stimson said he became worried when he did not receive the usual paperwork, including trade confirmation slips, but he said Thow allayed those concerns by flying him to a waterfront villa in Jamaica so they could personally inspect the bank.

But his fears soon re-emerged and in January this year, Stimson asked for his money back. He said Thow invited him to fly to Victoria where he promised to "straighten things out." At the same time, he could meet Lee-Chin, who was the feature speaker at an AIC- sponsored conference.

"Thow picked me up at the airport. On way to the conference, he said, 'Don't say anything to Michael about these shares.'

"I said, 'Aren't we going to be discussing it?' He said, 'No, I have your money for you, so you don't need to say anything to Michael about these shares'."

After the conference, Thow invited Stimson to his waterfront home. "Thow said, 'So when do you want the money?' I said, 'Are you dense? I want the money now, that's why I flew out here.'

"He said, 'I don't have the money now, but I have $49 million coming back from Jamaica and I will have the money for you in a couple of weeks.' That's when I lost it . . . ."

Among the more prominent Vancouver Island businessmen who bought shares of the Jamaican bank are Alex Campbell Sr., in whose name Thow was purportedly raising money for the Royal Roads University Foundation.

Campbell is currently travelling in Russia with George Thomson, another former client who has filed a lawsuit against Thow, and was not available for comment.

Another prominent investor is Tom Harris, owner of the Tom Harris Chevrolet dealership in Nanaimo. Harris declined comment on Tuesday. "I'm trying to get this sorted out with Berkshire," he said.

Meanwhile, Thow's playthings are being quickly scooped up by creditors.

On Friday, the Citation 11 was grounded by court order after Thow's partner, Victoria-area businessman Donald James, filed a lawsuit claiming he gave Thow $713,000 to help purchase the Citation 11, but Thow failed to use it for that purpose.

James accused Thow of fraud and wrongful conversion, and described Thow's conduct as "scandalous, outrageous and high- handed." Thow filed a statement of defence denying the allegations.

The status of the Citation Bravo and the Citation X is not known.