the mystery syndicate behind Clive Palmer’s nickel payday

A former stockbroker with links to Andrew Forrest, and a former president of CPA Australia are among the mystery syndicate behind the $1.5 billion deal to acquire Clive Palmer’s mothballed Queensland Nickel refinery.

On December 22, mining billionaire Palmer confirmed he would sell the nickel and cobalt refinery near Townsville, which was put into administration in 2016 with almost 800 workers laid off.

Palmer signed a deal to sell the refinery to an obscure Switzerland-based group known as Zero Carbon Investek, which doesn’t have a website and has only two directors: Australian David Rigoll, who lives in Switzerland, and Swiss lawyer and accountant Hans Josef Frey. Rigoll is listed as president of Zero Carbon Investek.

The head of the Zero Carbon Investek syndicate, is Canadian-born Australian, Richard Petty, who for decades has resided in Hong Kong. Petty is not listed as a director of the Swiss group.

The deal between Palmer and Zero Carbon Investek was contingent on the refinery gaining port access approval from the Queensland government, which it has. The deal is still to be ticked off by the Foreign Investment Review Board. The federal government now considers any investment in critical minerals, such as nickel and cobalt, as a national security sensitive sector.

Discussions between Palmer and the executives involved with Zero Carbon Investek began in 2021, according to Domenic Martino, one of Palmer’s closest advisers, who was involved in the deal. “The guys spent two months out here in September and October 2022, finalising the deal, but it began in earnest in early 2021.”

Zero Carbon Investek was founded in February 2021 and is the first foray for Rigoll and Petty together.

How Rigoll and Petty will secure the funding for the deal remains unclear.

When contacted by this masthead, Rigoll, who’s 60, and from his WhatsApp profile photo appears fit, tanned and balding, replied: “The money’s easy. The money’s committed. You could get investors to spend $7 billion on a refinery.” He would not elaborate further.

“I’ve got an amazing spending gene. Can you lend me $20?”

David Rigoll, Zero Carbon Investek director and president

Asked about his own wealth, Rigoll, who some years ago was speculated to be worth around $500 million by The West Australian, which the newspaper then revised down to $200 million, would not answer the question.

“I’ve got an amazing spending gene,” he told this masthead. “Can you lend me $20?”

The Queensland government and Townsville community, near where the refinery is located, will be hoping Rigoll’s spending gene is strong enough to lead to the creation of hundreds of jobs and investment.

Zero Carbon Investek has flagged that in addition to acquiring the refinery it intends to secure as much as $US800 million ($1.2 billion) in investment to replace the refinery’s coal and gas-fired power source with a large-scale solar panel plant and battery storage facility.

Rigoll began his career in Perth apparently as a plumber before becoming a junior investment banker after getting a break at the late entrepreneur Laurie Connell’s merchant bank Rothwells.

Before the 1987 sharemarket crash, Rigoll was recruited by a young Andrew Forrest to join him at the Perth office he was establishing of Jacksons, a rapidly expanding stockbroker that counted Alan Bond among its clients.

The ’80s were a heady time of big deals and fast, loose money. Young men like Rigoll and Forrest, who were reported at the time to drive a Ferrari and Jaguar respectively, were enjoying its spoils while it lasted.

In 1990, Rigoll even made the list of Australia’s 50 most eligible bachelors in Cleo magazine. “Lamborghini-driving David is a car-racing fanatic who also zooms around Perth’s social scene at a million kilometres an hour. He’s described as the life of the party,” was the magazine’s description of him.

After the sharemarket crash, Rigoll continued to be involved in mining deals and transition into executive, consultancy and investor roles with a number of small resources companies.

While Rigoll has lived for a long time overseas, based mainly in the Swiss tax haven of Zug, his career has not been without colour or controversy at home and abroad.

A trial of a Perth cocaine dealer Murray Cohen, who looked after Western Australia’s rich and famous, inadvertently revealed Rigoll as one of his clients.

The nickel refinery outside  Townsville.

The nickel refinery outside Townsville.Credit:Glenn Hunt

The West Australian newspaper reported how a police operation had intercepted hundreds of Cohen’s calls, when clients would ring with cocaine orders, using code names such as Napisan and champagne. In Rigoll’s case, the police said he used the code name Black and Decker, the company that manufactures power tools and appliances.

Cohen took a call from Rigoll on Boxing Day in 2002, which was intercepted by police. On the call, Rigoll was recorded saying he needed “some bloody help”. “I reckon you’d move anything close to 10,” Rigoll said. “Black and Decker and at least f…… eight to 10.”

Rigoll’s mining interests overseas have spanned Africa, Central Asia and south-east Asia, and stretched from investments in oil to critical minerals.

A number of the mining or holding companies that Rigoll has been involved with over the decades include: Colonial Resources, Growth Resources, Max Petroleum, Tantalus Rare Earths, ISR Capital and Veni Vidi Vici.

Max Petroleum, which had oil interests in Kazakhstan and was listed on London Stock Exchange’s market for small and medium size growth companies, AIM, is reported to be the company from which Rigoll made most of his money, but also headlines.

Max Petroleum’s chief executive, chief operating officer and five other employees, were dismissed for breach of contract and in certain cases breach of fiduciary duty in 2007. It followed an investigation by a law firm that primarily focused on certain related party transactions, including the undisclosed receipt of beneficial interests in options over six million shares in Max Petroleum by certain employees and members of senior management.

In a statement, the Max Petroleum board said it understood from management that Rigoll, one of Max Petroleum’s founding shareholders and a consultant to the company, was responsible for the grant of options to the group’s personnel with the assistance of management.

When asked about this, Rigoll, who speaks with a British accent, said: “They came up with some scandal to try and take the company off us.”

No action was taken against Rigoll.

“I asked him, I said, ‘Can you come and join the joyride?’ ”

David Rigoll, Zero Carbon Investek president and director

More recently, in 2017 Rigoll quit as an executive director and shareholder in ISR Capital, selling down his stake. The company had also been embroiled in a share scandal, but Rigoll was not involved. “It was just bad luck,” he says of that investment.

His recent directorships include being on the board of a company called Veni Vidi Vici, which is Latin for ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’. In June 2021, the company appointed Simon Clarke as a director, who was based in Hong Kong.

Clarke, a former partner of Allen & Overy, has also been a consultant to Andrew Forrest’s philanthropic foundation Minderoo.

By October 2022, both Clarke and Rigoll had resigned from Veni Vidi Vici’s board. “That was a little target company that we were going to throw some lithium into, but we didn’t go ahead with it,” explains Rigoll.

Rigoll says it was Clarke who would introduce him to Petty. He claims to have been keen to invest in the Queensland Nickel refinery ever since he’d heard it went into administration, as he says he could see the enormous growth in demand for cobalt and nickel with electrical vehicles.

“I’d been sort of boring people with this electric car world for a long time and he [Simon] said, ‘Look, this guy [Richard Petty] is a friend of mine, who’s written a book on it. He’s a futurist. He gets it. He speaks the same language as you’.”

“We [Richard and I] started talking, and I asked him, I said, ‘Can you come and join the joyride?’ And he said, ‘Delighted to.’ ”

David Rigoll

David RigollCredit:WhatsApp

Rigoll also knew Martino, a former Deloitte Australia chief executive, who was now running his own private advisory firm, Indian Ocean Capital.

Before the last election, Martino was the United Australia Party’s lead NSW Senate candidate. UAP was the party founded by Clive Palmer, whose fortune is estimated at almost $20 billion.

“David’s lived in Switzerland for the last 25 or 30 years, but I knew him from Western Australia, many years ago,” says Martino. “He has helped me with connections over there. There are some very serious investors [for Zero Carbon Investek] that I’m not at liberty to detail at this point. They have put some very serious people together who are funding and driving this.”

Rigoll says he hadn’t spoken to Martino for about 15 years, but got in touch after he found out the refinery had been mothballed. “I contacted Domenic. I contacted Clive, and I met Clive in Europe. And I was trying to buy it off him, and the reason I was trying to buy it off him is because I took a view that the world was going to electrify itself. I’d had that view since 2005, and it seemed to be a bit early for most people.”

Rigoll says the value of the refinery lies in the minerals in the tailings dam. He says by his conservative estimates this could be $6 billion worth of cobalt and $3 billion worth of nickel, and $1 billion of iron, based on the filings of BHP before the business was sold to Palmer.

“Forgetting the refinery, you’ve got $10 billion worth of inventory there on site,” says Rigoll. “Who’s out there mining and going to find $6 billion worth of cobalt drilling for it, and how much is that going to cost them? I’ve been knocking on his [Clive’s] door for five years and no one in Australia has been knocking on his door. It’s been staring everybody in the face.”

Palmer acquired Queensland Nickel from BHP in 2009, at the nominal cost of $1, although Martino says the price was higher because of the environmental and legal obligations requirements of the sale, largely to do with the tailings dam.

When Palmer bought the refinery the price of nickel was around $US10,350 a tonne, and today it’s trading at three times that value. The value of cobalt, a by-product of mining nickel, has more than doubled in the same period.

Both nickel and cobalt are core elements in the batteries needed for the booming electric vehicle industry and are considered critical minerals for the high-tech and green energy transition.

Queensland Nickel was 80 per cent owned by QNI Resources and 20 per cent by QNI Metals. Palmer’s nephew, Clive Mensink, who fled overseas after the refinery was put into administration, was the sole director of QNI Resources, QNI Metals and Queensland Nickel, when it was left with more than $200 million in debts.

After refusing to comply with repeated requests to attend the Federal Court for questioning about the Queensland Nickel administration, Mensink was hit with contempt of court charges and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

An Interpol blue notice was issued for Mensink after a request from the Australian Federal Police, and he was last reported to be in Bulgaria.

In June 2022, Mensink lost a court appeal against the court’s orders.

Palmer had been embroiled in litigation with Queensland Nickel creditors and the liquidator, since 2016 until most of it was resolved in 2021.

Asked whether Palmer, 68, would retain any stake in the refinery after the deal with Zero Carbon Investek, Martino says: “No, he’s agreed to do a complete straight sale.”

Domenic Martino, one of Clive Palmer’s closest advisers, was involved in the deal to sell the Queensland Nickel refinery.

Domenic Martino, one of Clive Palmer’s closest advisers, was involved in the deal to sell the Queensland Nickel refinery.

Palmer, who is sailing on his yacht in the Mediterranean, was unavailable for comment.

An ASIC filing in April 2022 showed Palmer as a director of QNI Metals. It required a correction as it wrongly stated his country of birth as Bulgaria. Palmer stepped down as a director in May.

Richard Petty, 52, has been based in Hong Kong since 1999. He’s a former professor of accounting and finance at the Macquarie Graduate School of Management, and a former president of CPA Australia.

In his online bio, Petty says he has “advised on projects with an aggregate economic impact in the hundreds of billions of dollars”.

Petty was deputy president of CPA Australia in 2007, when Alex Malley was president. Petty succeeded him in 2009, and became the first person to hold that role while living overseas.

In 2009, when Petty was president, Malley became CPA Australia’s chief executive. Petty would step down as president in 2010.

Malley remained chief executive until 2017, when reports in The Australian Financial Review questioned his $1.8 million salary and the use of CPA funds towards promoting his interests such as a paid television show and an autobiography. After a protest from members, and the resignations of the majority of the CPA board, and an independent review, Malley’s contract was terminated.

Petty, who today describes himself as a policy adviser, entrepreneur and awarded academic, would become the chairman of the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, and hold a range of directorships and advisory roles with companies from recruitment and software to financial services, including private equity.

He remained on the board of CPA Australia for 11 years before stepping down in 2017. Petty and another director were also criticised while serving on the CPA Australia board for receiving salaries exceeding the $100,000 limit set for CPA directors.

Canadian-born Australian, Richard Petty, who for decades has resided in Hong Kong, is the head of the Zero Carbon Investek syndicate.

Canadian-born Australian, Richard Petty, who for decades has resided in Hong Kong, is the head of the Zero Carbon Investek syndicate. Credit:Rob Homer

Petty, who was skiing in Canada did not answer his phone, has also co-written several books, including one based on research he was commissioned to do for CPA Australia.

Martino says the backers of Zero Carbon Investek are expected to present more details on the deal in late January. “By the end of January, they’ll be out here in Townsville and there’ll be a proper sort of release.”