19/10/2011 - 10:33

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19/10/2011 - 10:33

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Retired insolvency expert Geoff Totterdell, who has worked on some of the state’s best-known company collapses in a long career, has stepped into the job of overseeing development in the Peel region.

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GEOFF Totterdell might, at first glance, seem like an odd pick to head the board of the Peel Development Commission.

Best known as one the state’s leading insolvency practitioners, Mr Totterdell retired five years ago from that field, ending a professional career which had overseen elements of some of Western Australia’s biggest corporate collapses.

Ask him about Laurie Connell, Teachers Credit, Bell Group and, most recently, Westpoint, and he’ll tell you he played some role in the aftermath of all these business failures and many others. 

But what has that got to do with Mandurah and the region surrounding it?

The logic is there, according to Mr Totterdell, in direct connection with both his past in the insolvency sector and his most recent activity.

Notably, the former PwC partner owns a home in Yunderup, an area full of lifestyle homes that has typically attracted those, like Mr Totterdell, who have boating interests – although it’s possible not many are life members of the Freshwater Bay Yacht Club. 

Mr Totterdell also has significant experience in this type of boardroom, having been a director of the Rottnest Island Authority, Dairy WA and Swan River Trust as well as an adviser to co-operative United Farmers and a director of private seafaring group MG Kailis.

But he also notes his past professional work includes dealing with the aftermath of several property developers who had gone under. 

Mr Totterdell sees a connection with that work and Peel. There is no secret that a vast sum of development capital has gone into the Mandurah area, including several big apartment complexes, which have had troubled times since the market stalled after the global financial crisis.

These days there are plenty of for-sale signs, fire-sale advertisements and other, more subtle, evidence of a property market with more supply than demand.

Mr Totterdell says, as he takes up his role with the Peel commission, his big concern is what has been taking place under the guise of development, something he is familiar with from the 1980s, early 1990s and in the early part of this century.

“We are seeing the same wave of money going in,” he says.

That new money has fuelled a host of new high apartment developments, which are coming on the market just as the first group of owners of the city’s canal developments retire and look at downsizing.

“They’ll all be competing for the same buyers,” Mr Totterdell warns.

“You have to ask yourself what Mandurah is going to look like in 10 to 15 years.”

“There are a lot connections there,” he says, referring to his life in examining the outcome of financial exuberance, not just on the entrepreneurs who failed but the investors, their families and communities who have been affected as a result.

Mr Totterdell feels that experience is important in the context of Mandurah’s medium to long-term future.

That experience started when he graduated from the University of WA in 1969 with a commerce degree, which the federal government had helped pay for. As a result he was bonded to the federal auditor-general and ended up going to Canberra for four years, working for that department and also in Treasury.

He admits he was not a big fan of Canberra so he returned to Perth where he joined the federal bankruptcy office for four years. In the late 1970s he moved to private firm Melsom Wilson and started working with well-known insolvency practitioner Rod Evans.

In 1983 he joined Price Waterhouse (since merged with Coopers & Lybrand and now called PwC), the partnership where he would spend the rest of his professional career. 

Working initially under partner Simon Fraser, who ended up being absent because of other state government-related duties, Mr Totterdell had been brought in to help build the insolvency practice, the first attempt by an accounting major to move into an area then dominated by second-tier firms in Perth.

A highlight of his early period at Price Waterhouse was being granted permission to act as a trustee in bankruptcy, a role that had not previously been available to anyone beneath partner level. Mr Totterdell believes that was a national first.

He became a partner at Price Waterhouse in 1986.

Mr Totterdell said the insolvency world was somewhat different in those days due to the nature of the businesses that were collapsing, mostly involving the bankruptcy of the individual heading the enterprise.

“Certainly, in the mid-1980s there were a lot more Part X administrations involving entrepreneurs who had given a lot of guarantees,” he said.

An early appointment was in relation to the affairs of Ted Sinnathamby, whose Murdoch Group had built high-rise buildings on Adelaide Terrace and the Blue Bay apartments in Mandurah’s Halls Head.

“In today’s public company scene, guarantees are not given and you don’t get the bankruptcies of that time.”

He also thinks the Bankruptcy Act was more flexible in those days.

Mr Totterdell recalls the market changes that were taking place as the big accounting firms sought to bring in the sector’s best operators to establish themselves in the market. 

Charles Fear joined Peat Marwick, which later became KPMG, while Jeff Herbert and Ross Norgard went to Hungerfords, which ultimately became part of Arthur Andersen.

In the meantime, Ian Ferrier came over from Sydney to oversee the collapsed WA Inc-era merchant bank, Rothwells, recruiting Garry Trevor and Alden Halse from Pannell Kerr Forster to establish Ferrier Hodgson’s Perth practice.

Another major early role for Mr Totterdell was overseeing a big debtor to the failed Teachers Credit Society, the first of the WA Inc insolvencies that he was engaged in. 

Plumber turned property developer Peter Tilli had, Mr Totterdell recalls, investments in an automatic ironing machine and time-share resorts. Mr Tilli was one of the society’s biggest debtors when it collapsed.

He was also ‘informally’ appointed as a trustee of the affairs of LR Connell and Partners, a partnership which had become a major debtor to Mr Connell’s collapsed bank, Rothwells.

His other high-profile jobs included a Manjimup co-operative cannery, Albany Woollen Mills, mobile telecommunications group Unilab and, the biggest matter of his career, Bell Group.

The latter case remains in the courts today.

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