real life

He lost their fortune and family home - and his wife thought they were rich.

Relationships can survive infidelity. Many a relationship has. But the final straw for one of Australia’s most high-profile couples wasn’t cheating but financial infidelity so extreme it would lead to the loss of an approximate $130 million fortune.

Matthew Perrin, former Billabong CEO, father-of-three and once one of Australia’s richest men, was found guilty yesterday of nine counts of forgery and fraud in Brisbane District Court. The jury was unable to decide on an additional three charges.

Perrin now faces a possible 12 years in prison.

One of the charges he faced was for forging then-wife Nicole Bricknell’s signature on documents which used the family home as security to defraud the Commonwealth Bank of $13 million. The home was in her name at the time. However, Bricknell testified in court that she placed her trust in him to manage their money after leaving her career as a beautician to raise their three children, and he betrayed her by forging her signature, placing their children’s futures at risk.

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Perrin was also accused of forging the signature of his brother Fraser Perrin as witness to Bricknell’s signature on the documents.

I’ve followed this case since the very beginning, after Perrin was declared bankrupt in 2009, mainly because my husband declared personal bankruptcy that same year. While our fall from grace wasn’t as dramatic as that of Perrin and Bricknell because it didn’t involve any allegations of illegal activities, nor was I deceived in any way by my husband, the loss of every single cent we’d ever earned still hurt – a lot – and it was made much worse by the fact we had young children we still had to try and provide for.

During his trial, Perrin never denied he signed his wife’s name, stating he had her permission to do so in her absence. The jury didn’t believe his defense and instead accepted the emotional testimony of Bricknell who said when her former husband called a family meeting in 2009 she expected him to confess to yet another affair. Instead she said he collapsed sobbing as he explained he’d lost every single cent of their approximate $130 million fortune, including the family home she thought was in her name.

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Perrin began his career as a lawyer but made his fortune as CEO of Australian surf wear brand Billabong. He bought a 49 per cent stake in the company in 1999 and received a windfall when the company floated on the stock market in 2000, subsequently receiving $60 million.

He eventually sold his shares and traded stocks before entering into a Chinese business deal involving a supermarket franchise that left him heavily in debt. It was during that desperate time he allegedly signed his then-wife’s signature on documents he used to obtain $13.5 million from the Commonwealth Bank using the family $10 million Gold Coast mansion as security.

Bricknell testified she wasn’t even aware her home had been effectively mortgaged, until the 2009 confession at the family meeting.

Nicole Bricknell cried in court as she described the family meeting that took place in 2009, attended by the then-married couple, her father, his brothers and a Chinese business partner. Bricknell says Perrin started the meeting by saying he’d done something “really bad”. She says she expected him to confess to having had another affair. The truth was far worse.

It’s hard to imagine the betrayal Bricknell felt at that 2009 family meeting. She testified he’d cheated on her before and as any woman whose been cheated on can confirm, it’s an incredibly painful experience to be betrayed by your husband and the father of your children. To then learn that your cheating husband lost all of the family fortune including the home that provided you and your children with your only security, is unimaginable.

Is spending lots of money on toys for our children justifiable? Listen to our parenting podcast This Glorious Mess to hear what co-hosts Holly Wainwright and Andrew Daddo think.

“I left Matthew in charge of our financial affairs,” she told the court, saying she thought they were in good shape financially. She said as far as she was concerned they were “very financially wealthy” and didn’t have any money problems.

It emerged during the trial that Bricknell not only had the family home in her name – a common decision made by wealthy couples in order to protect the asset from possible financial threats – but she also transferred $10.6 million from their joint account into her own personal account. Perrin testified he was going to use that money to complete the supermarket franchise deal, a move he claims would allow him to recoup $50 million.

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When questioned by her former husband’s lawyers about the transfer and the fact that money could have been used by her then-husband to help dig himself out of the very deep financial hole he’d dug for himself, Bricknell pushed back, saying she didn’t feel inclined to assist him financially as he had mortgaged the family home without her permission and she needed the money to ensure the financial future of their three children.

Perrin, 44, was supported in court by partner and former mistress Belinda Otton and his daughter. He remained composed during the reading of the verdict according to The Courier Mail reporter, Vanda Carson, however Otton cried as he was placed behind bars where he’ll remain until early next year when he is sentenced.

Despite it being seven years after his confession, Bricknell is still clearly traumatised by it, breaking down in court during her testimony, at one stage having to take a break in order to calm herself down.

The former beautician had given up her career to raise their three children, thinking they were financially secure thanks to her husband’s success with Aussie surfwear brand Billabong and his subsequent buy out of $56 million. It was that money he used to invest in a Chinese deal which subsequently failed, placing him in a situation of severe financial distress that he tried and failed to dig himself out of.

At any stage he could have kept her informed of his financial dealings on their behalf, but he chose not to and it seems Bricknell never asked, assuming they had enough money not to worry.

Looking back at my own family’s financial disaster, I’m still surprised our marriage survived but consider us lucky to have come out of it stronger. At the time it was terrible but we loved each other and kept on reminding each other that we loved each other, we had a beautiful family, we had our health and we just needed to get through the three-year bankruptcy and then we could begin to rebuild our lives.

'Looking back I still can't believe our marriage survived extreme financial hardship.' Image: iStock
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Now that we're on the other side we are still waiting to rebuild our lives but it's much harder to save the deposit for a home when you have three children who aren't willing to eat two-minute-noodles and live reclusive lives in order to come up with that sort of money again.

Reading about the accusations against Matthew Perrin at the time of our own financial hardship and the alleged dodgy dealings such as this, we were constantly reminded that it could be much, much worse.

What the Billabong case and its sad end reminds us all is that couples should both keep their careers intact, regardless of how much money one or the other is earning, because you never know when the next GFC is going to hit or the next business deal is going to collapse.

You also need to remind yourself that it takes more than extreme wealth to maintain a marriage. Money doesn't buy you love or happiness.

The love and happiness needs to be there before.

And finally, you have to remind each other that it's just money. It comes and goes.

Most of us already have all of the things money can't buy. Money just makes it a little more fun.

Frugal mum Wendy Gower writes a blog called My Abundant Life where she shares tips and tricks for families to save money. It was extreme savings tips like these that saw me through our own financial hardship and I still use many of them. CLICK THROUGH to learn how to stretch every single dollar of your family budget.