A waterfront lantern festival powered by a ‘wind tree’ was the last gasp for a failing business. In the final in a three-part series, Jonathan Milne reports how Evan Price’s chickens came home to roost – on a steel tree.

JANUARY 2022 UPDATE: The liquidation of Evan Price and Leanne Townson’s company Latitude Dynamix Holdings continues – after Newsroom revealed the company’s collapse, more creditors have come forward. The unpaid debts are $600,000 and rising. Liquidator Simon Dalton reports that he has now written to creditors inviting them to fund potential recovery action; if that is unsuccessful then the file will be referred to the appropriate authorities.

THE FIRST time Michael Barnett recalls seeing Evan Price was across a slowly emptying function room. His business guests were drifting out, but the guest speaker Grant Robertson was still there, nodding and listening patiently to a voluble man who had buttonholed him as he prepared to leave. “He cornered Grant and he was really pushing his case,” Barnett recalls.

The finance minister was trying to leave for his next engagement. Barnett, the longstanding chief executive of the Auckland Business Chamber, knew his duty as host. He walked over and cut in on the conversation, allowing a relieved Robertson to make his excuses and leave.

The voluble man was Evan Price and, as always, Price was pitching a grand plan. Or two. Barnett promised him they could set up a meeting to discuss his ideas. “For those first couple of meetings I felt I had an obligation to Grant, because I’d said I’d look after the issue. And then I very quickly determined what he was.”

* Part 1: Big names and locations caught up in film company collapse
* Part 2: Hollywood producer’s legal warning to failed businessman
* Part 3: Prison advocate blows whistle on blowhard America’s Cup plan
* Do you know more? Email pro@newsroom.co.nz

This week, Newsroom has reported how the liquidation of Evan Price’s company has brought together everyone from a former city mayor, a well-known broadcaster and the family of Taika Waititi. The liquidator says Price’s parent company Latitude Dynamix Holdings owes more than $564,000 to creditors, big and small. They invested in bold dreams like a big budget Warner Bros Pokémon movie production in the Bay of Plenty, a 220-hectare Pokémon family fun park, a data hub to break the telcos’ retail headlock on tech exporters, and a winter golf tournament at Wairakei.

US TV producer Cassandra Cooper has told of her shock at discovering she is named as a business partner, and at undertakings given in her name in New Zealand.

But these were the final months before Price’s crazy and haphazard pile of enterprises came crashing down on his investors. He was still talking big, still pitching, still selling.

He came into Barnett’s office with a couple of staff, Ellie Stone and Varun Kumar, to explain his proposal. He had all the manufacturing rights and drawings to build Wind Tree electricity plants in New Zealand, he explained, starting on Auckland’s waterfront for the America’s Cup. (“That proved to be fundamentally wrong,” Barnett says).

Evan Price, left, and his partner Leanne Townson pose up for a social shot with Auckland Business Chamber chief executive Michael Barnett. Photo: Supplied

So what are Wind Trees? They are 8m steel structures – half sculpture, half power plant – covered in up to 63 small wind turbines called aeroleaves.

They briefly caught the global imagination in 2015, when French firm New Wind unveiled them with great fanfare. Two of them were erected in pride of place in front of the COP21 climate talks in Paris, in December 2015.

According to the publicity materials, each tree would cost US$20,000 to $50,000, depending on the model, and would generate about 3,500 to 13,500 Kilowatt hours annually – enough to power 15 street lamps, 83 percent of the electrical consumption of a typical family household, or one small electric car driven 40km a day.

But independent analysis by renewable energy experts soon identified that at US$56,000 retailed and installed, the Wind Trees’ power worked out six times more expensive than utility-scale turbines. As renewable energy policy analyst Simon Mahan wrote: “To generate as much energy as a single utility-scale wind turbine (or 7,008,000 kilowatt hours annually), you’d need a forest of 2,940 wind trees. With that many metal structures that attract birds, assuredly the bird deaths alone would be massive.”

The French company quickly went bust.

French industrialist Luc Eric Krief bought New Wind’s assets in early 2017, and developed new uses for the aeroleaves: rather than fitting them to expensive steel trees of dubious aesthetic merit, he would fit them direct to the roofs of homes and businesses at a much reduced cost. He admits the wind tree is still not cost effective. “Not yet,” he says. “We are at the same level of solar panels 15 years ago. They were not competitive and now they are.”

That didn’t stop Evan Price grabbing the idea and running with it.

In 2019, Price did a deal to develop the concept in Australia and New Zealand, as well as building a plant in Nevada with recyclable plastics, and sign up companies all over the world to represent New World Wind. Price also pestered Krief to invest in his own projects, but Krief declined.

“I lost my time with this guy and fortunately, not too much money – some parts he ordered and never paid,” the 62-year-old Frenchman tells Newsroom.

“With my partner, we had a bad opinion on him and that is the reason we did not give him any money and we requested payment before shipment. This guy is a shame for our community of entrepreneurs and I am really upset to see that many people lost money and maybe health due to his attitude.”

Despite asking for a deposit up-front, Krief says there is still 2500€ (NZ$4165) outstanding.

It was those aeroleaves that Price proudly showed to those he saw as potential New Zealand backers – but they had questions.

Michael Barnett was sceptical about his plan to install a wind tree at the Auckland Lantern Festival, being held on the docks in the weeks preceding the America’s Cup finals. “It was at that point I started challenging him,” Barnett says.

Barnett talked to him at the function with Grant Robertson, and then at two meetings in his office – before quietly calling time. That didn’t stop Price, though. By that point he had used his connection with Barnett to seek a meeting with Ateed event producer Eric Ngan, who was in charge of the Auckland Lantern Festival, New Zealand’s largest cultural festival.

Varun Kumar says it was Price’s biggest pitch yet: “Powering the America’s Cup!”

And there was a new twist: he would manufacture the structure for the turbines at the privately-run Serco prison in south Auckland, providing paid work and training to the prisoners. “We had plenty of meetings with the prison management and they were really keen on the project, but they just fell through. They wanted Evan to install a demo unit in the facility but again, he had nothing to back up his plan with anything concrete.”

“I have never seen Evan follow through with a project. There was always some excuse or the other.”

It is understood that Serco management were happy to meet Price and consider his proposal but, after doing due diligence, the company decided to walk away.

In the end, Eric Ngan confirms that despite the approach to Ateed, there was no formal proposal delivered, and no further correspondence was entered into – though Ngan did sent a thank you note to the whistleblower who warned him off dealing with Price.

“Thank you Ellie,” he wrote. “I appreciate your candid and honest appraisal of the situation, and the professional standards that you personally have adhered to. It is very unfortunate that you are out of a job, and I wish you well for your future projects.”

Ultimately, of course, the Lantern Festival had to be cancelled when an Auckland Covid outbreak escalated the city to Level 3.

A roll of the eyes

Ngan’s thank you note highlights the role that Evan Price’s employees played in ultimately bringing down his house of cards, at great professional and economic risk to themselves. The two at the forefront were Ellie Stone and Varun Kumar.

Both had histories that made them vulnerable to exploitation if an employer was so minded. Kumar was an Indian migrant on a working visa that was conditional on him retaining his job at Latitude Dynamix. And Stone was just out of prison after serving two years for mortgage fraud.

It was on the second meeting with Michael Barnett, Stone recalls, that she was unable to stop herself rolling her eyes at one of Price’s bolder claims.

Barnett had already been unimpressed at the way Price talked to his staff.  “The people that he brought to the meetings, I didn’t think he treated them with the respect that he should have. And one of the people that he brought to the table [Kumar] had an engineering background, and Price was almost dismissive of him. Dismissive in a way that was both unnecessary, and demeaned the guy in front of me. To make Price look good.

“I identified then that he lacked respect for the people around him. And it wasn’t just the way that you treat people in a public environment; it was about how you contract people to work for you.”

He noticed Stone’s eye roll, and when she contacted him a few weeks later, they arranged to meet. “I became aware that he was slow in paying,” Barnett recalls. “These were people with families and responsibilities, and there was absolutely no regard for them at all.”

Barnett looked more closely into Price’s background. Like Tauranga mayor Tenby Powell and others, he discovered problems. There were media reports in Australia of Price running a previous company into the ground, and failing to pay creditors.

His treatment of his employees was particularly material, because Barnett says Price was asking for help to hire 400 workers for his film and data hub. Depending on what mood he was in and who he was trying to impress, he was promising anywhere from 150 to 500 local jobs. In the end, those three or four people he did employ were paid little if anything. Ellie Stone, Varun Kumar, Derek Botha and Amir Yussof ended up just lines on the liquidator’s list of creditors – until this week, they all spoke out to Newsroom to warn others.

Barnett introduced him to a representative of Work and Income’s Mana in Mahi programme. That’s an apprenticeship scheme, in which employers are subsidised up to $2000 to train up young, unskilled workers. 

“I’m a great believer that if we can, we should get young people jobs, and so we went down the track of trying to introduce people to him,” Barnett recalls. 

“And both the number of jobs and the types of jobs that he suggested were going to be available was just absolute rubbish. Again, further proof of what he did: full of big ideas, sold the big idea, but when it came to the detail there was no substance.”

The whistleblower 

Ellie Stone thinks Evan Price misjudged her. She believes he hired her because he thought she might not ask too many questions.

But after serving her two-year prison sentence for her part in a multimillion-dollar mortgage fraud, Stone is upfront. She wants to make amends for her mistakes, and she is grateful for a job that allows her to keep working with prisons and prisoners. She wants to support other inmates back into society and employment.

So as strongly as she supports hiring ex-prisoners, she is dubious about her former employer’s reasons for offering her a job. She is dubious about the credibility of his plan to recruit apprentices. And she became doubtful about his plan to use prison labour to build his aeroleaf structures.  “As soon as I found out what sort of person he was, I cancelled the deals for all my clients,” she says. 

Stone and the other employees worked apart; they rarely had the opportunity to compare notes. Varun Kumar was anxious about his own working visa.

Amir Yussof was just hired on commission. A Malaysian-English recording artist, he was commissioned by Price to front the company’s ODBnewsblast.com streaming video site with his music videos, and to sell it to other musicians. But three years on, the only content on the site is pilfered without permission from media site The Spinoff. “Long story short, they failed to pay me close to $5000 in wages owing,” Yussof says, “and tarnished my reputation because I was the face of an online platform that was ‘stealing’ from people.”

Derek Botha was overseas in South Africa, waiting and hoping Price would get him a visa to join his family in New Zealand. “He was supposed to help me in getting across to New Zealand to be with my daughter and her family before my 56th birthday,” Botha says now. “He kept telling me it’s a done deal and after board meetings, that I had been accepted as a salaried employee but nothing ever materialised. Now, I have passed the eligible age of finding gainful employment.”

But eventually, Stone began emailing and messaging the others – and discovered that Price had paid barely a cent to his staff. Kumar had worked for him for a year, and been paid only once. Stone hadn’t been paid at all.

She also realised that Price had no cashflow to deliver on his promises to investors. So, in October 2020, she took action.

She began asking questions of US TV producer Cassandra Cooper, who was promising to team up with Price to bring the Warner Bros Pokémon movie project to New Zealand. Stone warned Sam Tomaszyk, the 18-year-old filmmaker who was doing a deal with Price to back his feature movie. She warned Ngan at ATEED. She warned Barnett. And slowly, she began talking to more and more investors, and potential investors.

Last week, the liquidation of Latitude Dynamix NZ Ltd was completed. Its parent company Latitude Dynamix Holdings Ltd was put into liquidation by court order following debt recovery proceedings brought by Devoli Ltd which was owed $31,000. Liquidator Simon Dalton is expected to file a further report this week.  

And what happened to the half-dozen aeroleafs shipped from France to New Zealand?

The only one that was actually installed was for a woman living at McLaren Falls, in Tauranga.

“The lady who paid for the product never got them installed properly,” Varun Kumar reveals. 

“Evan had supplied her with six turbines to power her whole house, even though we had advised him it wouldn’t be enough. It’s been seven or eight months and they are still to be installed as Evan kept changing the electricians and never paid them.”

The woman eventually paid another provider to come in to complete the installation.

“She has asked him for a refund,” Kumar says, “and he keeps singing the same song, ‘oh next week, next week….’ And now with the lockdown, he’s got another excuse.”

* Part 1: Big names and locations caught up in film company collapse
* Part 2: Hollywood producer’s legal warning to failed businessman
* Part 3: Prison advocate blows whistle on blowhard America’s Cup plan
* Do you know more? Email pro@newsroom.co.nz

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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