Friedland, Robert (Profile)
The taxi pulls out of Atlanta Airport and heads towards town, past an unfinished Olympic stadium, past the headquarters of Coca-Cola Co. "You goin' to Buckhead where the rich people live," the cabbie observes. Rich Republicans, judging by the crowd that has gathered for an investment conference here. They move in packs, clutching their matching delegates' tote bags. Some are sneakered; many sport a Brinks-load of gold jewelry. This is a hard-money crowd. They are long-term believers in gold, and they love the hit, when it comes, from a runup in a junior stock. And so, while their political sensibilities heighten the appeal of a scheduled appearance by Georgia boy Newt Gingrich, they are really here to touch the mantle of Robert Friedland, stock promoter nonpareil.
Two years ago, at this very same conference, Friedland was pitching a company called Diamond Fields Resources Inc. and its fabulous prospects for vacuuming diamonds off the shoals of Namibia. The following year, he was telling a very different story, of how Diamond Fields had struck the mother lode, not in Namibia but in Voisey's Bay, Labrador, and not on diamonds but on a most prosaic commodity - nickel. Hold on to your shares, delegates were told in '95. Diamond Fields was destined for takeover, and a high-priced one at that. This year, Friedland does not have to push Diamond Fields at all, because the junior company really did strike it rich on nickel, and not just run-of-the-mill rich, but the richest. And it did become a takeover target, with nickel giant Inco Ltd. of Toronto claiming the prize for $4.3 billion. Sometimes Friedland likes to say Voisey's Bay is the mine find of the half-century. Sometimes the whole century. It does not really matter. Big is big.
And so this year is cause for celebration. For Friedland, Diamond Fields has meant an increase in his net worth by about $500 million. The stock has also made some attendees a very nice sum, including one who does not like Friedland much, but who made a million and therefore has to give him credit for that. Another investor, Zim Boulos, president of an office-furniture company in Jacksonville, Fla., says Diamond Fields did not make him a million, but it did make him the equivalent of four years' salary. He has renovated his home and bought a retirement place in Aspen. The buzz in Atlanta is which stock will help investors go 10-for-1, 20-for-1, 100-for-1 on their money.
Everybody wants a piece of Robert Friedland. As he moves through any crowd, people tug on his arm, whisper in his ear, press cards into his palm. He has not changed much since he got into this game 15 years ago. Still slender; blond, not grey. Then again, he is just 46 years of age. As usual, he is bleary-eyed from his persistent transoceanic travel, his love of the deal, his insatiable desire to trump his latest score. Front and centre in this year's spiel is Indochina Goldfields Ltd., a soon-to-be public company on the hunt for gold and copper in Indonesia. Friedland crafts his promotions, talking them up in ever-widening circles. He has been working this one up for four years. By the time the company goes public, investors crave the shares as badly as a drug addict craves a fix. Or so he hopes.
In front of a crowd maybe 800-strong, Friedland outlines the merits of Indochina. Leaning against one wall, a man named Neil Salsich listens intently. Salsich is chief executive of Nescor Inc., based in Austin, Tex. Nescor has a copper project in Mongolia - not a mine, but rather a plan to "heap leach" copper from the waste dumps of the Erdenet mine. Nescor will leach the copper by sprinkling it with an acid-based water solution, extracting the metal from the rock. Friedland has 15 per cent of Nescor.
Outside the conference room, Salsich talks enthusiastically about his new partner. "You're not looking at a billionaire wannabe," he says. "You're looking at a billionaire gonnabe. By the time Indochina's done, it's there."
But Friedland's story is about more than money. Last week, when Inco met its shareholders at its annual meeting, there was no trumpet voluntary accompanying the approval of the Diamond Fields takeover. There was, instead, a lawsuit. No big mining tale would be complete without one. Filed the previous week in Dallas, the suit alleges that Jean Boulle, Friedland's partner in Diamond Fields, sold certain assets to the company, breaching his fiduciary duty to an inactive exploration hopeful called Exdiam Corp. The plaintiffs include a Dallas businessman, whom Boulle has been battling in the courts for 10 years, and the family of Kuwaiti businessman Farid Al-Awadi. Friedland is named in the suit for "participating and conspiring with Boulle." Further, the suit alleges that Diamond Fields used confidential Exdiam information to gain credibility in the marketplace, which, in turn, assisted the raising of financing for Voisey's.
Through the takeover negotiations for Voisey's Bay this spring, which pitted Inco against Falconbridge Ltd. of Toronto and both companies against the fearsome deal-making skills of Robert Friedland, attempts were made to settle with the American plaintiffs. Eric Fryar, a Houston-based lawyer acting for the plaintiffs, says talks were initiated by lawyers for Jean Boulle and subsequently pursued by Diamond Fields. A typically vituperative Friedland says Fryar is a "pathological liar," but a source close to the case says Diamond Fields did approach John Swanson, one of the litigants, with an offer of a $1.2-million settlement in January.
Jim Maloney, Diamond Fields' counsel in Houston, says the company's position is that the lawsuit is nonsense. "We listen to Mr. Fryar's anguished cries with some interest," he says. There could be more noise in the offing. Michael Burg, a lawyer based in Denver, says his client, Lydia Talmers, intends to sue Jean Boulle within the month if he does not hand over 600,000 Diamond Fields shares she says she is owed. Meanwhile, Adrian Duplessis, the famed Vancouver Stock Exchange fraud-buster, phoned Fryar last week. "He's anxious to get us to hire him," says Fryar. "He apparently knows all about Robert Friedland."
The lawsuit laid a shroud around Inco's annual meeting, which is a stolid, grey affair at the best of times. Friedland was in Singapore, doing the dog-and-pony tour for Indochina Goldfields. This week, he will be selling Indochina to audiences in New York City, San Francisco, Vancouver and Toronto. A cleanly executed takeover would have advanced the corporate ablution of Robert Friedland. It has not been granted yet.
Bob Friedland, fresh from a post-workout shower, slides his feet out of his black suede and gold-buckled French loafers and curls himself up in an armchair in his Buckhead hotel suite. He has, for the time being, finished with the requisite Voisey's speech, of how the ore body was not stumbled upon, but rather the result of diligent base-metals hunting; of how it is nickel that makes all those stainless forks and spoons; of how the 2 1/2 billion people in China and India will convert to stainless as their disposable incomes rise. The pitchman's delivery betrays a fatigue with the subject matter. It is not that the Voisey's tale has in any way diminished, but rather that Friedland's manifest destiny, in his own mind, is so much bigger.
Always has been. Today, Friedland runs nothing less than an empire: offices in Vancouver, Beijing, Singapore, Jakarta. His exploration interests are spread from Zambia to South Korea to Fiji. All of it is thematically pinned to pending explosive consumer growth in developing countries, into which he will lever Canadian expertise in mining and oil and gas.
At the top of Friedland's corporate pyramid sits Ivanhoe Capital Corp. One of the myriad interests under Ivanhoe is Shanghai Land Corp. Through Shanghai Land, Friedland is partnered with Toronto entrepreneur Vic De Zen and De Zen's Royal Plastics Group Ltd. Royal Plastics builds houses from panels of moulded polyvinyl chloride, which are slipped together and filled with concrete. They're cheap and easy to erect. "We don't cut no trees. We don't kill no life," says De Zen. "You tell me one thing wrong."
De Zen and Friedland figure that, for a country like China, the Royal house has enormous potential. "You can envision hundreds of thousands of Chinese people building their own housing," says Friedland. "The labor component is, like, nil."
The Chinese connection is typical of Friedland's venture capitalist style. While Royal Plastics holds 50 per cent of the joint venture, and Shanghai Land owns 40 per cent, the remaining 10 per cent is held by the China Disabled Persons Federation. The chairman of the China federation just happens to be Deng Pufang, son of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. Deng Pufang is a paraplegic, and on behalf of the China federation he is a powerful force. Friedland not only gave the fund 10 per cent of the joint venture, but 10 per cent of Shanghai Land as well. "We financed their entire participation," says Friedland. "They're a very good organization to have on our side just to get things done." Look at the numbers. "There are in China 60 million officially handicapped people. With 280 million immediate family members. Frequently, what you'll find is that the mayor of the town or the city has a son or daughter or cousin or mother who's handicapped and who is helped by that organization," which in turn can help Shanghai Land by facilitating, say, water permits or equipment imports.
Flipping through the Royal Plastics photo album, in Royal headquarters on Royal Gate Boulevard in Woodbridge, Ont., De Zen points out a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Shanghai featuring himself, Friedland and Deng Pufang in front of a Royal polyvinyl office complex. A factory is being built in the city's Song-jiang district, which will annually produce 450,000 square metres worth of polyvinyl walkups. Any hopeful growth company needs impassioned, powerful investors. Royal Plastics' largest, outside of management, happens to be Paul Stephens, managing director of Robertson Stephens & Co. in San Francisco. "This isn't a building products company," says Stephens. "This is a global growth stock. Most of the brokers I've met in Toronto told me that the stock was expensive at $13 a share. So as I was buying at 13, and 14 and 15, all the Canadian stockbrokers were telling me not to buy. They're still telling me not to buy at $22."
How a San Francisco fund manager hooks up with a Canadian entrepreneur like Vic De Zen has to do, in this case, with Robert Friedland. Stephens was with Friedland in China when he was setting up Shanghai Land. And why? Because he was already a devoted shareholder of Diamond Fields Resources. In fact, as of the spring of 1995, Stephens had 15 per cent of Diamond Fields. As Diamond Fields shares shot through the roof, the value of the holding grew to nearly 21 per cent of the fund. Under pressure from the trustee, Stephens sold a third of his shares. A year later, Stephens is clearly not happy with this decision. "You're supposed to let your profits run," he says. "I sold at $71 1/2. I left 90 points on the table," meaning the stock, on a presplit basis, moved to $160. On the other hand, "we made 35 times our investment in a two-year period of time."
Stephens, predictably, is a huge Friedland fan. He thinks it unfortunate that his friend still carries the "promoter" label. "From the first time I met Friedland four years ago, I said you're not doing anything any different than the best venture capitalists are doing in the United States in the computer business," he says. "The jerks in Vancouver that buy the cheap stock, take it public, and are selling their stock as the public is buying into the promote - that's what's wrong with the Canadian mining business."
Stephens sees Friedland as a visionary, and so his take on why Friedland has the right idea about Asian expansion pretty much echoes Friedland's own. "You drive through China for a couple of weeks and you see all these people watching Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous on television, and they're comin'. You've got billions of new consumers, and they're going to want to buy McDonald's hamburgers and Nike tennis shoes, but more than anything else they're going to want to buy an air conditioner."
Stephens is into Indochina Goldfields, and something called CD Radio, an aspiring commercial-free radio company. Friedland's Hawaiian-born wife, Darlene, has 29 per cent of CD Radio. Stephens is keen on its prospects. A couple of years ago, he was hepped up about a company called Venezuelan Goldfields Inc., which he bought because Friedland was behind it. As did many others. The problem was that no gold was found in the part of Venezuela where Vengold was looking. Stephens still has 16 per cent of the company, for which he paid as high as $8 a share. "It's two dollars and two cents today," he says bravely. But he does not fault his friend. "When the stock dropped from $16 to $4 1/2, the president of Vengold, Ian Telfer, was having trouble doing deals because some of the mining companies were saying, 'I don't want to get involved in a Friedland company."" But, says Friedland, it wasn't his company. "I merely helped introduce them to the opportunity."
Darlene and Robert Friedland and their very good friend Ben Johnson blow through the door of the Buckhead suite. They were off examining a Falcon 2000 business jet, which Friedland is thinking of buying. Johnson is an amateur pilot, and used to fly Friedland about in the early 1980s in a single-engine, four-passenger Mooney, looking for mining prospects. Johnson, who works as a stockbroker in Portland, Ore., says he has known Friedland since the "India days."
Robert Friedland was born in Chicago, son of a prosperous German-born architect. By the time he hit Bowdoin College, an elite liberal arts school in Brunswick, Me., he was a smart, long-haired Vietnam War protester. That he later led an ascetic journey through India before becoming a muesli-eating mine-finder is as tiresome a topic for Friedland as some of those speeches he has to give.
But Friedland carries a lot of biographical baggage. In December, 1969, he resigned from Bowdoin for what the registrar there calls "personal reasons." His grades were in good order. He is prickly about this passage. "When I was 19 years old, I got into trouble for an involvement with LSD," he says. That offence was later expunged. "Everybody has done something that's a youthful indiscretion," he says. "When you were 17 and stole a candy bar from a store. The fact that I was an antiwar protester. That I hung around with people from the Grateful Dead. That I smoked marijuana and took LSD. When you look at the state of the union address, you see three people there: President Clinton, Vice-President Al Gore and, in the background, you see this fellow named Newt Gingrich, who's the Speaker of the House. And all three of them in the 1960s were admitted marijuana smokers, at a minimum."
There is no time to examine the pathology of someone who compares selling acid tabs to stealing candy bars. Friedland does have a point about a statute of limitations on past transgressions. But there is much Friedland lore that sets him apart from the mining fraternity in which he operates.
Friedland switched to Reed College, in Portland. Friedland's 192-page undergraduate thesis, Tanzania: A Human and Democratic Socialism?, was a supremely self-confident analysis of Third World politics and development. There is a symmetry between the humanitarian thinking of the 24-year-old college student, his penniless wanderings and the developing world philosophies that would steer his billion-dollar venture-capital future.
Canada, and its freewheeling financial markets that ease the raising of equity capital, was the place to make the circle whole. Natural resource companies became Friedland's mètier. Both the Alberta and Vancouver stock exchanges are chock-a-block with so-called shells, moribund corporations with an exchange listing. Promoters take over the shell and plow in fresh assets. Private investors, who help finance the company before it goes public, are rewarded with so-called cheap stock. Like a golden messiah, Robert Friedland came unto Vancouver, a New Age promoter the likes of which had not been seen before.
In the 1983 prospectus for Galactic Resources Inc., Robert Friedland is described as president of that company, a self-employed tree farmer in Gaston, Ore., and a purchaser and developer of mining properties. Galactic was Friedland's first big stock score, and his most infamous. Through Galactic he oversaw the development of the Summitville gold mine, in the San Juan mountains of Colorado.
In 1986, Summitville Consolidated Mining Co., a subsidiary of Galactic, started production at the site. Summitville was a heap-leach project, with cyanide used as the leaching agent to lure the gold from rock piled in huge heaps atop plastic liners. The heap-leach idea in the early 1980s held enormous investor allure, reviving dormant ore bodies too expensive to mine by conventional means. Friedland projected that Summitville, which had been mined on and off since the late 1800s, was capable of producing 110,000 ounces of gold annually. The heap-leach facility was designed as a zero-discharge system; there was to be no runoff into the adjacent Alamosa River-Rio Grande watershed.
Summitville was plagued by problems from the start. According to documents filed with the department of health in Denver, pollutants from the leaching process were detected in water in the drain system in the summer of 1986. Between June and October of 1987 there were nine cyanide spills at Summitville. By the end of that year, the Water Quality Control Division of the department of health was issuing notices of violation. In September, 1990, the Environmental Protection Agency inspected the site after receiving anonymous calls about illegal discharges. The EPA warned the Water Quality Control Division to take enforcement action, which it did the following February. By November, 1992, the company was facing $40 million in costs for environmental stabilization. The following month, Summitville Consolidated declared bankruptcy. Galactic followed suit in January, 1993.
Much has since been made of the Galactic mess. A report on the site by Knight Piesold and Co., Denver-based consulting engineers, documents a complex history, including degraded water conditions, that long predated the arrival of Friedland. But it also clearly states that the activities of Summitville Consolidated caused further problems: acid contamination of the groundwater and metal contamination from the exposure of reactive sulphide rock.
Friedland has been saying for more than a year that he would contribute to a voluntary effort, independently arbitrated, to clean up Summitville. A "Good Samaritan" gesture, he calls it. But, he adds, "I am not responsible for any alleged or real environmental problems at Summitville. And I mean it. And it's true." Friedland resigned as chief executive of Galactic in June, 1990. In November, he resigned his seat on the board. After Friedland departed as CEO, Galactic continued negotiations to merge with a company called Cornucopia Resources Ltd., whose CEO was Ben Johnson.
As much as Friedland would wish the Summitville debacle to disappear, he has played a role in keeping the story alive. The week before the Atlanta gathering, Friedland and three other former officers of Galactic filed affidavits in the Supreme Court of British Columbia trying to block the release of documents from Galactic board meetings during their watch. Included in the court filings was a 10-page federal grand jury subpoena, issued last December to a Denver law firm that once represented Galactic. The subpoena calls for the release of documents exchanged between that law firm and Friedland and his co-plaintiffs. It is the most glaring evidence yet that U.S. authorities, who have indicted Summitville mine manager Samye Buckner and environment manager Tom Chisholm, want to find out what Friedland knew and when he knew it.
According to affidavits filed in Vancouver, Galactic's Denver counsel made a presentation to the board in June, 1990, at which Friedland was present, to report on evironmental matters at a number of Galactic properties, including Summitville. In November of that year, the Denver firm billed Galactic for a memorandum that "expressly dealt with the legal liabilities of Galactic's directors."
On May 2 of this year, the trustee in bankruptcy for Consolidated Summitville pleaded guilty on behalf of the company to 40 felony counts, the majority related to the earlier discharge of unauthorized pollutants. The fine was set at $20 million, the maximum. The plea agreement, says assistant U.S. attorney Ken Fimberg, "sets a tone that significant crimes were committed at the mine." Friedland maintains that it "is open to question whether any form of disaster, with a capital D, occurred."
No trial date has yet been set for the proceedings against Buckner and Chisholm. Buckner has since resurfaced, as a consultant to Neil Salsich's Nescor in Mongolia. "Robert had nothing to do with Samye being involved in this project," says Salsich, who met Buckner through Gerald Wyman, who, in 1987, was president of Summitville Consolidated Mining.
After Summitville, Friedland kept his head down. There was Vengold, but he ended up wearing the laundry on that one too. He grows exasperated. "It simply didn't cut the mustard," he says of that project. "We're not God." A longtime peer, who variously describes Friedland as "brilliant, ruthless, greedy and very nasty when he wants to be," says some investors shunned the former golden boy. "A lot of people wouldn't put five pennies with Friedland because he's bagged them in the past."
On April 6, 1993, a company called Rutherford Ventures Corp. became Diamond Fields Resources Inc., which then commenced trading on the Vancouver Stock Exchange. Friedland and Boulle got several million shares at 15 cents a share. When the Diamond Fields story first broke, Friedland could not have been surprised that detractors saw it, as he puts it, as a "promotion," an "exaggeration." The criticism was levelled not just at Friedland but at his Diamond Fields partner, Jean Boulle.
It was, in fact, Jean Boulle who brought the idea of a diamond mining partnership to Friedland in the first place. And while the mining crowd was very familiar with Robert Friedland, few had heard of Jean Boulle.
Jean Boulle is sitting ramrod straight in his Buckhead suite. He has jetted in from his home in Monaco, to which he moved a year ago from Belize. Born in Mauritius, Boulle attended school in Cape Town, and later spent the better part of a decade working for the De Beers diamond mining cartel in Zaïre and Sierra Leone and Antwerp, Belgium, before he established European Diamond Importers and Cutters in Dallas. Various Boulle brothers set up business there, too, including Benni, who established De Boulle Diamonds and Jewelry, an upscale Dallas shop.
In 1984, Jean Boulle started exploring for the gems, first in Minnesota, then in Arkansas. "I spent a little bit of time with Gov. Clinton explaining to him that this could be important to his state, and to the nation," says Boulle, whose manner is retiring, his speech soft-spoken. In 1987, Boulle formed a company called Arkansas Diamond Development Co., in which Exdiam had a one-third interest, to do exploration work on the Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas. The Al-Awadis invested just over $335,000 in the project. The Stephens family of Little Rock, Ark., whose Stephens Inc. is one of the largest off-Wall Street investment houses in the United States, took another third.
Two other companies, along with Arkansas Diamond, are still in the running to commercially develop the Crater of Diamonds, should Arkansas ever rev up mining again. "Jean did a phenomenal job in developing the Arkansas project," says a former partner who has since had a falling-out. In the 10 years before he moved to Vancouver with Diamond Fields, Boulle accumulated a mess of lawsuits, the Exdiam charges being only the latest.
At the gala dinner at the Atlanta conference, Jean Boulle and Robert Friedland presented the local autism foundation with 80,000 Diamond Fields shares, worth $3.2 million on that day. There will, says Friedland's public relations person, be some big donation in Canada soon.
Zim Boulos did not buy into any of Friedland's various stock ideas this year, but not because he has turned off the promoter in any way. In the early 1980s, Boulos was a Galactic shareholder. "It made a nice run," he said of the stock. "You had a chance to go 10-for-1 on your money before they had those problems with the mine."
That is the way this crowd sees it. Galactic, says Boulos, was not Friedland's fault. He says he did not buy the offerings because the junior mining game has been too frothy for too long. "Maybe we're in the 7th inning."
The elevator takes on a load of conference attendees. The rain has moved in. And outside on Peachtree, Atlanta's main drag, the traffic has been clogged by Freaknik, a spring gathering of black college kids held each year in Atlanta.
The more elderly, and far more white, investment crowd is perked up by one rider's assertion that "the smartest man here is Robert Friedland. And the luckiest." There is general murmuring agreement. The elevator stops. "All you crapshooters have a good evening now."
Maclean's June 3, 1996