The phones were ringing hot last week after the announcement that Richard Chandler was investing A$150 million ($193 million) in Gunns. Tasmanian journalists were scouring this country for information because Gunns is a Launceston-based forestry company and Chandler is a New Zealander.

But Chandler is virtually unknown in this country even though he is our second wealthiest individual, according to last year’s National Business Review Rich List, with an estimated fortune of $4 billion.

His brother Christopher is in fifth position with an estimated fortune of $1.5 billion.

Where did they make their money? How did the Chandler brothers go from a small Waikato town to become the country’s second and fifth wealthiest individuals?

The story begins in the early 1900s where their Chicago-born grandfather emigrated to New Zealand and went into advertising. He married his secretary and they had three sons.

The three boys fought in World War II but the two eldest boys were killed when their Spitfires were shot down. Robert, the youngest boy, who was a lieutenant on a Royal Navy minesweeper, returned to New Zealand after the war and began working as a beekeeper with Edmund Hillary’s family business.

Robert went on to establish his own beekeeping operation and also built houses and apartments.

In 1955, during a round-the-world trip with some old military comrades, he met Croatian-born Marija, his future wife.

Robert and Marija returned to New Zealand and raised three sons, George, Richard and Christopher. Their home was in Matangi, a small rural town east of Hamilton.

Robert and Marija bought a Hamilton building and in 1972 launched Chandler House, a department store specialising in domestic, European and Asian merchandise.

Meanwhile Richard and Christopher boarded at Auckland Grammar and went on to Auckland University.

Richard developed a passion for the sharemarket and corporate governance and his masters thesis discussed corporate directorship practices.

Chandler sent questionnaires to all NZX-listed companies and to 200 individual directors and concluded that a dangerous rift was growing between ownership and control of companies.

After a brief period in London Richard returned to run the family business, opening another Chandler House store in Auckland, followed by eight more around the country.

However, retailing was far too dull for the Chandler boys and they convinced their parents to sell the 10 enterprises store by store.

Richard, Christopher and their parents then moved to Monaco and the sons formed Sovereign Global Investment in 1986 with start-up capital of $10 million from the sale of the stores.

The Chandler brothers adopted a value-based, contrarian investment style with a strong emphasis on ethics and world class corporate governance practices.

They have thrived whereas none of the 50-plus investment companies listed on the NZX in the mid-1980s has survived, partly because the NZX companies placed little importance on ethics and good corporate governance.

Sovereign’s first big investment was the highly leveraged purchase of four office buildings in Hong Kong. They chose Hong Kong because property prices had fallen 70 per cent through fears that the territory would be taken over by China when British rule ended in 1997.

The brothers sold out of their Hong Kong property portfolio in 1991 for a large profit and their net wealth surged from $10 million to $40 million. This was their last highly geared investment and they have had minimal debt since then.

Sovereign’s first important equity investment was a 1.5 per cent stake in Telebras, Brazil’s telephone monopoly. The Brazilian sharemarket plunged after this purchase but they held their nerve and exited with a substantial profit when the market recovered.

The Telebras investment boosted Sovereign’s net wealth from $40 million to around $150 million.

Sovereign’s other investments included:

–          In the mid-1990s it became one of the first foreign investors in the Russian sharemarket. It invested in electricity utilities, a steel company and Gazprom, the oil and gas producer. The Chandlers also played a role in trying to improve corporate governance in Russia.

–          Sovereign began investing in South Korea in 2002 and became involved in a clash over the corporate governance of SK Corp, the country’s largest oil refinery and telecommunications company.

–          In 2003 Sovereign began investing in a number of Japanese banks before these banks made a strong recovery.

In 2007 the brothers split their assets 50:50 with Richard forming Richard Chandler Corporation and Christopher creating Legatum Group.

The websites of the two organisations indicate that Christopher is averse to publicity and has a strong social bent (Legatum comes from the Latin word for legacy or gift) whereas Richard is more willing to appear in public but still has a strong interest in corporate governance.

In 2008 Richard helped his mother Marija establish an upmarket art gallery in New York City selling her own paintings. Marija has changed her name to Ana Tzarev, which was her mother’s name.

Ana, who has obviously been a driving force behind the family, makes no mention of New Zealand and the two brothers don’t seem to have made any important investments in this country since they left more than a quarter of a century ago.

Ana told London’s Financial Times in a 2008 interview: “When I moved to New Zealand at the age of 19 it was a great culture shock. I really felt I was thrown into a very primitive ‘wild west’ society. I was born in a double-storey house in Croatia, in a very historic city where the gothic cathedral is world famous, a United Nations heritage site. I was steeped in classics, architecture, opera and literature. No one in New Zealand was talking about things I wanted to talk about – just farming, wool production and how much mutton and beef was exported.”

The only recent reference to New Zealand in media reports is that Richard, Christopher and their father have enjoyed going to Twickenham to watch the All Blacks play England.

However, Richard Chandler is coming closer to his country of birth with the A$150 million investment in the troubled Tasmanian forestry group Gunns.

This will be through the purchase of A$75 million worth of shares and a bond worth up to A$75 million with attaching convertible warrants.

Gunns has been in the wars with its share price plunging from A$4.80 in 2005 to a recent low of 9c. The company reported a loss of A$355 million for the June 2011 year and it has been bedevilled by its proposed A$2 billion pulp mill near Launceston.

The project is supported by the Tasmanian State Government but has met strong opposition from environmental and other activist groups.

Alan Kelly, a senior adviser to Richard Chandler Corporation, is reported as saying that we “propose to work with Gunns management to catalyse the Bell Bay pulp mill. The pulp mill project is expected to create over 3000 jobs, significant bio-energy power generation, strong export revenues and approximately A$1 billion in federal and state taxes. We believe it will make a significant long-term contribution to the Tasmanian and Australian economies.”

The Gunns investment will give us an opportunity to assess how New Zealand’s second richest individual operates and whether he makes every post a winning post.

It would be great to see him invest in New Zealand because we badly need cornerstone investors who place a strong emphasis on ethics and world class corporate governance.