By Adele Ferguson and Naomi Shivaraman
Former financial adviser Kris Ridgway. The background in this image has been altered. Credit:Louise Kennerley
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For years, Kris Ridgway lived a double life. There was the charismatic, fast-talking financial adviser whose family loved him, clients trusted and friends envied.
And there was the other Ridgway, who was secretive, duplicitous, unethical and ruthless. That Ridgway forged signatures, lied effortlessly, cheated and conned.
When his two lives collided in February last year, triggered by his sacking from the prestigious Sydney-based finance house Shaw and Partners, he packed a bag, jumped in his black Porsche with “Ridgy” number plates, and left his family high and dry. No explanation, just a pile of unpaid bills, shattered trust and broken hearts.
Now he wants to confess.
“I don’t want to think of myself as a crook but some of my actions in recent times have been terribly unlawful. I’m ashamed and sorry,” he tells an investigation by The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and 60 Minutes.
Ridgway, 53, used his position at the Brisbane office of Shaw and Partners as a middleman in a global investment scheme to lure unsophisticated investors to buy shares in unlisted companies with the expectation that they would soon be listed and deliver a windfall. Years later, the companies haven’t been listed.
“I have no self-respect or no self-worth,” he says. “I struggle to look at myself in the mirror.”
Ridgway’s confession – a bid for redemption – is gobsmacking. “I’ve decided to speak out now because I believe it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “I need to be honest and open with everybody about what’s happened.”
It is part of a year-long media investigation into a global investment scheme – supposedly backed by billions of dollars in assets – that is still in play and has embroiled potentially thousands of investors from Australia, the United States, Britain, New Zealand, China and the Middle East.
Ridgway describes his role as “a little guy in a big machine”.
The role of ASIC
The Australian Securities and Investments Commission has been investigating Ridgway, and the scheme, for more than a year but has done little, despite evidence of unethical conduct and breaches of the law.
It has also been investigating one of the scheme’s key associates, Australian David Sutton, who sits on at least one of the investment company boards. Sutton has been on ASIC’s radar for years.
As the corporate regulator’s investigations drag on, investors are losing patience after putting their money into products that they cannot sell and which have not been demonstrated to have any real value.
Investors are now trying to pick up the pieces of trust broken, savings lost, marriages destroyed and retirement plans ruined.
David Sutton is a director of companies that are yet to be listed.
Ridgway exploited his position as a senior financial adviser at Shaw and Partners to deceive investors into believing the shares were endorsed and backed by Shaw, which made them easier to sell. But he sold them off the books, circumventing compliance systems, and pocketed a hefty secret commission, which is illegal.
Ridgway isn’t the only financial adviser selling the dodgy products. This investigation uncovered a number of other Australian financial advisers still practising but who used their trusted positions to convince clients to buy the same dubious investments.
The investments are based in opaque tax havens, making it virtually impossible to trace the relationship between the different entities and, ultimately, the underlying assets.
Investors were told that the shares in asset-management companies were about to be listed on exchanges such as Australia, the Cayman Islands, Frankfurt, London and Luxembourg, and by getting in early, they’d make a fortune.
Years later, the companies still have not been listed. The excuses are many, and frequent company name changes, restructurings and share transfers between entities add confusion to an already complex structure.
No office and unaudited accounts
Behind the glossy brochures and dense financial spreadsheets these companies – which are supposed to be backed by billions of dollars in assets – have no evidence of a central office; the investments are minority holdings in private companies domiciled in tax shelters; and the accounts are unaudited.
Company documents and shareholder updates are signed by an entity and not an individual, with no details provided of company directors or the leadership.
The only people some shareholders have contact with are their adviser and two others, Sutton and British-based Andrew Turner. They claim not to work directly for the parent entities, which include the Marshall Islands-based Trinus Impact Capital, the British Virgin Islands-based Steppes Alternative Asset Management and ASAF Critical Metals.
Andrew Turner at his home in England. Credit:Nine
Sutton is a director of the unlisted Australian-registered company ALT Financial Group, which is part of Steppes, and under his McFaddens Securities business promotes the scheme and does the administration, while Turner is a consultant to them all, answering questions and sending the financials.
Someone who worked on the inside is Stephen Helberg, a trained auditor of 40 years who had held senior roles at corporate giants including Rio Tinto, Orica, and Ernst & Young. He joined one of the entities in 2016 after being targeted by Sutton and Turner.
Six months later he became concerned about the existence, value and ownership of the assets. When he asked Turner and Sutton for certain details, he says he was stonewalled. He left, still owed $250,000 in unpaid salary.
“It’s a global organisation that they’ve set up in order to mislead investors,” Helberg says. “Not only investors, but the external auditors as well.”
Now, Ridgway concurs. “It looks 100 per cent a sham,” he says, stressing that when he started selling the products, he did not hold that belief.
Turner says he has worked with Sutton on different projects since 2014.
“I was not a founder of any of the companies mentioned, and the only renumeration (sic) that I have received for services provided from any of the companies mentioned was in shares of the companies,” he writes in an email.
“As far as I am aware [shares] were all sold to sophisticated investors who were fully aware of the risks involved in purchasing shares at a deep discount to net asset value. Unfortunately, due to COVID and the subsequent financial markets turmoil of the past 18 months the market for IPOs has dried up with London recording its worst market for IPOs for 14 years.
“The investors should be fully aware that any public offering is subject to market conditions.”
Investors, Turner says, can sell their shares on a secondary placing market.
Sutton says: “My legal advice is not to speak to the media.”
David Sutton near his home in Sydney.
When the penny dropped
Ridgway says he became concerned in 2020 when the shares had still not been listed, despite plans for that to occur years earlier. He figured he had too much to lose by speaking up. “At that point, you’re kind of in too deep … you hang out for the next bit of information because you’re almost like an alcoholic or a drug addict, you know?” he says. “You just got to get that next bit of information and put the story together and then it’s all going to be fine. You stick your head in the sand and eventually it doesn’t work any more.”
He was paid 17 per cent in secret commissions via one of Sutton’s companies, pocketing at least $1.6 million, which he used to fund an extravagant lifestyle that included overseas family holidays, private school fees and suits befitting a senior adviser at a top-tier wealth management company.
“I figured, ‘Well bugger it, I’m going to do something for myself’, and it was a wrong decision to make,” Ridgway says of the commissions.
Every time he signed an annual declaration form at Shaw and Partners, he lied about the kickbacks he was taking.
He brought clients to the Shaw and Partners office, where he would also host one of the scheme’s masterminds. It was there Ridgway and Turner met clients such as Darren Walker, who blew hundreds of thousands of dollars on the products.
The victims unite
Darren Walker met Andrew Turner in Ridgway’s offices.Credit:Paul Harris
“I met Andrew Turner in the Shaw’s offices in Brisbane, twice,” Walker says.
“And sometimes I’d go there to see Kris and I could hear him talking about Steppes [one of the products] out the back with other clients who were doing hundreds of thousands of dollars in terms of transfers.”
Clients were beguiled by Ridgway’s charm and perfect life, and he encouraged them to dream big. Promised their investments would deliver many times their original value and had the backing of Shaw and Partners, they fell for it.
For Leith Reynolds, the betrayal still stings.
Leith Reynolds felt betrayed by a friend.Credit:Paul Harris
“Betrayal of a friendship,” she begins. “Obviously the loss of hope is a close second there … For me, it was a lot of money. But the betrayal is very difficult to process.”
Instead of enjoying retirement, Reynolds has to work as a courier to help pay the bills.
Her friendship with Ridgway dates back more than 30 years. Ridgway was a friend of her late husband Mark, who gave the future adviser an entry into the finance world. He reappeared when Mark was on life support after a brain aneurysm. Ridgway was a pall-bearer at the funeral.
Kris Ridgway, right, was a pall-bearer at Mark Reynolds’ funeral.
Now, Reynolds thinks the friendship was motivated by greed. “It’s horrible to think he was grooming me from then,” she says. “But he would’ve been aware that I would have some sort of insurance payout, I’m sure.
“It wasn’t like we’d met at a hotel somewhere over a beer, and he’d said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a good deal here.’ No, I was in the office of a huge national company, a respected company. He was a senior adviser … If you can’t trust a senior adviser in a national company to help you with your finances, who can you? And clearly, I needed help.”
It was 2016 and Reynolds says he emphasised, again and again, “what I want for you, Leith, is to have your own house again, your own apartment, your own space”.
She invested the last $20,000 from her late husband’s life insurance payout in shares that were about to be listed on an overseas exchange. If she got in early, she would make a fortune.
Days later, Ridgway asked for more.
“He rang me and he said: ‘Are you sure you haven’t got any more money? This is just such a good deal’,” she recalls. “He told me he’d invested his whole inheritance in it and he convinced me to transfer about $20,000 out of my super fund as well. Being a stay-at-home mum, I wasn’t exactly flush with money.”
Like everyone else, Reynolds was strung along with the line that the shares were about to be listed, which would enable her to cash in at a huge premium.
She accepted the delays — and there were many — in the belief her investment was safe and was growing.
“We’d get the reports of what the shares were now worth,” she says. “Which is what kept us all there, probably, kept us all quiet.”
At its peak, her wealth was said to be $1.5 million.
Jason Hermann blew the whistle to Shaw and Partners when Ridgway did not sell his shares. Credit:Paul Harris
Jason Hermann, a father of two young children, lost his home, along with savings of more than $200,000, and is riddled with debt thanks to Ridgway.
“We’ve still got half-a-million dollars of bad debt that I’m servicing,” Hermann says. “We’re going backwards, thousands of dollars a month. The emotion, the stress, ripped our family apart.”
Like Reynolds, Hermann believed the spin. “I have a statement of advice from Shaw’s from that period that suggested the shares were north of $2 million,” he says.
He bought a house on the back of the shares and Ridgway’s promises that if they had not been listed when settlement was due, he would organise a bridging loan from Shaw and Partners. “It didn’t list,” he says. “Well, here we are now in 2023. It still hasn’t listed.”
And Ridgway couldn’t organise a loan through Shaw’s so went onto the grey market and found one for 12 per cent interest for six months. He did not tell Hermann he was paid a commission for organising the loan.
Struggling to repay the loan, Hermann sold the house and is still in debt. “We had to cut it loose,” he says.
Ridgway was sacked in February 2022 when Shaw and Partners learnt he had been pushing clients into products including Steppes, ALT Financial Group, Trinus and ASAF Capital, which it had not authorised nor recommended, in breach of company compliance.
The revelations blindsided his colleagues, who had worked with him for almost a decade.
Shaw and Partners immediately reported him to ASIC in 2022.
ASIC did take action against Ridgway, banning him for life as an adviser after he failed to disclose the commission payments. But it came more than a year after the Herald and The Age first exposed his misconduct, announcing it after a 60 Minutes promotion for this story aired.
ASIC says: “This matter is complex and multi-jurisdictional, involving companies and conduct across multiple countries. Our investigation into David Sutton, as well as companies associated with Sutton and Ridgway, continues.”
Almost two years ago, ASIC received a report by accounting giant PwC, which was appointed by the Supreme Court of Victoria as a special-purpose liquidator to find the assets. PwC had spent a year trying to track down the assets of one of the companies in the empire, Aus Streaming Limited, but could not locate them.
It found a “deliberate opaqueness in the structure, management and business activities of what appears to be a large group of interconnected organisations registered in a number of jurisdictions spanning the globe”.
It expressed “significant reservations as to the value attributed to Aus Streaming’s Investments in the Investment Companies” and “found no evidence to substantiate the underlying business and/or assets”. The report went on to say the valuations do not appear to be based on any independently verifiable information and therefore appear to be pure speculation.
The report says: “Andrew Turner was central to all aspects of the company’s business” and “we consider Mr Turner is likely a director” and “potential claims may exist against the directors (including Mr Turner)”.
A lifestyle lost in an instant
Kerrilyn Ridgway, whose husband Kris walked out when his family questioned him on his sacking from Shaw and Partners.Credit:Paul Harris
Ridgway’s sacking brought an end to more than his wheeling and dealing in the business world. It exposed a deeper betrayal. His wife Kerrilyn says she had no idea he was living a double life.
“There was obviously two distinct sides to him,” she says.
Kerrilyn found out he was sacked three days after the fact.
“He’d been acting weird all morning and I kind of felt like something was off,” Kerrilyn says. “And then the text came up on my phone and I recognised the name as the CEO of his company [Earl Evans, from Shaw and Partners] and we were just blown away, completely blindsided.
“We were all shaking and crying and my eldest daughter was very upset and she said, ‘What have you done? What have you done?’ He just said, ‘Oh, they don’t understand my business model’. I just remember him just turning and walking out, and that was it.”
Left without any money for seven months, the rest of the family sold furniture, clothes and lived on food vouchers from her daughter’s school. “We just did what we could to survive in the early months,” Kerrilyn recalls. “And in about September, he started helping out with money but it wasn’t reaching the table because there’s just so many debts. There’s massive interest repayments on credit cards and car loan repayments, and things that I’ve tried to pay in the time that he was gone. We just really struggled.”
Shaw and Partners paid the rent to help the family.
The betrayal was far worse than the family ever imagined. Ridgway had embroiled his wife in his web of lies for years.
When she trawled through old emails, she found one that mortified her. Dated September 2013, about the time Ridgway had been suspended from trading at his then workplace Bell Potter, it pleaded with Bell Potter for money to help pay for treatment for her breast cancer. Yet she never had breast cancer and she didn’t write the email.
Kris and Kerrilyn Ridgway on their wedding day.
“I have recently been diagnosed with a large tumour in my chest and require urgent medical tests,” the email says. “Last month’s suspension and non-retainer payment have left us in a position of extreme financial hardship … I need the pay issues sorted out as a matter of urgency so that I can have the required medical tests and surgery.”
Days later, Ridgway reiterated the plea in an email of his own.
But Ridgway now confirms he hijacked his wife’s email and made up the cancer. “I made some really stupid decisions,” he says. “But, you know, I’d been under a bit of stress to make sure that my family was, you know, fed and watered.”
He made other poor decisions. Kerrilyn says as she pored through their accounts after he left in 2022, she found forged signatures on financial statements, going back years.
“There were hundreds of signatures that weren’t mine,” Kerrilyn says. “There had been 15 years of him signing things and using my name for things that I was completely unaware of. I couldn’t understand why because this is my husband. I trusted him. I thought we lived a pretty open and honest life, and I don’t understand why he felt the need to do that.”
Ridgway confirms he forged her signature, knowing it was illegal. “The sad thing is that if I’d put those documents in front of Kerrilyn, she would’ve signed them, but I was too up myself and arrogant and lazy to be bothered to take documents home and get them signed and send them back. So I just did it,” he says.
In December 2020, after Ridgway became suspicious of the investments, he sold thousands of shares to a Shaw client at $1.15 each. The shares were in his wife’s name but he transferred them to a company called Vindication Nominees and signatures in her name appear on the document. “They are not my signature,” Kerrilyn says.
Ridgway agrees. “She owned the shares and I sold them without her knowledge. I just told her I was selling some shares. I didn’t tell her that they were coming from our investment company or her name or whatever. I made the decision to sell them out of her name from a tax point of view, but I didn’t discuss it with her. I just went and did it,” he says.
He also put her on company boards without her knowledge or consent.
“The companies that I set up were legitimate investment companies. I just couldn’t be bothered going home and explaining it to her and telling her to sign it. So I just did it, and it’s wrong,” he says.
One of the companies in which he installed her as a director was KKR Holdings, which appears on a loan agreement with Ridgy Enterprises, and includes her signature, which was not hers. Another is a deed of assignment of debt and release, which includes her signature and her mother’s signature as a witness. Ridgway confirms he forged them both.
Earlier this year, Ridgway sent Kerrilyn a series of text messages asking her to lie if the regulator queried her on the forged signatures.
In one text, he tells her: “You don’t have to lie you just gotta say I don’t know and be vague and confuse them. You are a smart girl.”
In another text, sent on February 22 this year, Ridgway tells her: “Just remember I have looked after you and protected the kids all my life. Now I need your help to protect me from my evil boss and the shit he has stirred up.”
Ridgway says he asked her because he was afraid.
“Fear of the regulator finding out who I really was, and it’s come back to bite me 10 times,” he says. “I never should have put my wife in that position. She’s a good, honest, loving, trusting person and I’ve let her down because of this situation I’ve created. And I need to be honest and open and say I should never have put her in that position at all.”
Shortly after the scandal became public, ASIC spent three hours interviewing Ridgway but took nine months to send him a transcript of the interview to review.
Since the interview with ASIC on April 14, 2022, Ridgway has transferred at least 10 parcels of the same unauthorised investment products he was secretly selling to clients during his eight-year stint at Shaw and Partners.
In a statement, Shaw and Partners say: “Without our knowledge or approval, Mr Ridgway introduced parties to investments that now appear to be fraudulent. He deliberately circumvented all internal processes, systems and procedures to deceive us and his clients. This was all done outside of Shaw and he worked with external parties to facilitate his disgraceful activities.
“It is our hope that the regulators and other authorities use the full force of their powers and quickly to hold those ultimately responsible to account and bring this all to an end with justice being served.”
Ridgway on holidays in Rome.
Ridgway says he’s truly sorry for what he’s done. But most of all he is sorry for himself.
In a follow-up interview with this investigation on March 26 this year – three weeks after the initial interview – he wants to make it clear he is no longer living, as he puts it, “the life of Riley”.
“Everybody’s pointing the finger at me,” he says. “But I want everyone to know that I’ve been gypped as much as anybody else. I’m the biggest victim here because I’ve lost absolutely everything … I’ve got to start from scratch at 53 again in a new industry with no family, no friends, no support, no ability to go back to what I’ve done for the last 25 years, so I’ve lost a lot.”
Unlike his 90 or so clients, who were told by Shaw and Partners in March they will receive a share of an estimated $10 million in remediation, Ridgway wants it known he isn’t eligible.
Most of all, he’s worried about the consequences of his action. “I may end up being charged with fraud and I may end up going to jail over this,” he says.
“I’m terrified. I’m terrified … I’ve tried to raise money for charity. I’ve tried to be a good person, a supportive person in my life. And through my own stupid actions and greed and arrogance, the last two or three years, I may end up being the exact opposite of what I’ve tried to do in my life and have criminal charges and go to jail. I’m horrified and I’m ashamed. And I brought shame to my family and my friends and my employer. And I’m sorry.”
– with Latika Bourke
Tomorrow: Inside the global scheme and how it all came undone.
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