From Billabong to bust: ex-wife brings surfwear millionaire to new low

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The Independent Online

Matthew Perrin became a multi-millionaire at the age of 28, when the popular surfwear brand Billabong was floated on the stock market. Less than a decade later, he crashed equally spectacularly, forced to declare bankruptcy after an ill-advised business venture in China.

Now the former Billabong chief executive is being forced to endure lurid details of his private life being aired in court, where his ex-wife, Nicole, has accused him of having an affair and forging her signature on documents jeopardising her ownership of the family home on Queensland's Gold Coast.

The A$15m (£9.85m) waterfront house was bought in Mrs Perrin's name shortly before the Billabong float in 2000, which her husband helped to mastermind. Two years later, he sold off two-thirds of his stake for A$66m. With their new-found wealth, the couple went on expensive holidays, sent their three children to private schools and bought racehorses and a A$130,000 Mercedes coupe.

A few years later, though, Mrs Perrin began to suspect her husband of having an affair, she told the Queensland Supreme Court. According to yesterday's Sun-Herald, she found a diamond bracelet in his suitcase during a family holiday in Hawaii, along with a Gucci dress two sizes too small for her.

The former lawyer-turned-entrepreneur eventually admitted he had been seeing Belinda Otton, whom they knew through their children's school. Mrs Perrin decided to stay and try to make their marriage work. But in 2008, as his financial world collapsed and his debts mounted, her husband borrowed A$13.5m from one of Australia's biggest banks, the Commonwealth, using the house as surety.

Mrs Perrin knew nothing of this, she told the court, where the bank has launched an action to repossess her home. Having found out about the affair, she said, she would never have signed the mortgage documents. Indeed, when the couple's marriage appeared on the brink of collapse, her husband had told her: "You've got security. You've got the house. The house is yours and the kids."

Billabong was a global success story worth about A$1.7bn following its public listing. It was founded on the Gold Coast in 1972 and in 1998, Mr Perrin, his brother, Scott, and another businessman, Gary Pemberton, bought a 49 per cent stake in the company. The float followed two years later.

The Perrins were teenage sweethearts and bought their house in Surfers Paradise in 1999. But in 2005, Mrs Perrin became suspicious of her husband. He would pull out of holidays at the last minute, claiming he was too busy at work, she said, and was constantly on the phone. She heard rumours he was seeing Ms Otton.

Mrs Perrin told the court her husband bought a second mobile phone, which he used to send secret text messages during a family holiday. She twice hired private investigators to follow him, but they found nothing untoward. He accused her of being "paranoid", telling her she had "no reason not to trust me". On Boxing Day 2007, after finding texts on his phone from Ms Otton, Mrs Perrin confronted the latter's ex-husband. Finally, Mr Perrin admitted to the affair, although he claimed it had ended more than a year earlier. "I was paranoid for the right reasons," Mrs Perrin said. "Matthew was a liar and a cheater."

The couple were still wealthy enough to feature in the 2008 Australian rich list, which estimated their fortune at A$150m. But Mr Perrin was already having financial problems, following a failed investment in Chinese supermarkets. A keen gambler, he also owed A$1.7m to bookies.

In January 2009, fearing her husband was about to leave her, Mrs Perrin transferred A$10.6m from the family's bank account into her personal account. She also withdrew A$3,000 in cash and went shopping. When she returned home, she said, Mr Perrin was crying and shaking. He told her he had "done a lot of bad things", and said he feared he would be going to jail. She replied: "Whatever happens, we've still got our house." He then told her about the Commonwealth loan. Two months later, he was forced to declare bankruptcy, with total debts of $28.2m. The couple separated later that year, and are now divorced.

Mr Perrin has signed a statutory declaration confessing to forging his wife's signature. But the bank has questioned the confession's reliability, arguing it benefited his family and contradicted his testimony in a separate case.

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