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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.