Obituary

Mark Wellesley-Wood: Mining boss who halted Kebble plunder

In the face of threats and dirty tricks he just did not blink

05 May 2019 - 00:00 By Chris Barron


Mark Wellesley-Wood, who has died in Scotland at the age of 67, was an English-born mining executive who brought about the downfall of two of SA's most notorious corporate crooks, Brett Kebble and his father, Roger.
A big, straight-talking former prop forward rugby player with a cauliflower ear to show for it, Wellesley-Wood was sent to SA in 2000 by London-listed majority shareholder Mercury Asset Management (MAM) to sort out the Durban Roodepoort Deep (DRD) gold mine in Johannesburg, which had become a mess under executive chairman Roger Kebble's leadership.
DRD was part of Brett Kebble's mining "empire", and Kebble, a politically protected bully, called the shots. MAM told him they wanted Wellesley-Wood on the board and they met in London to discuss it.
Kebble seemed surprisingly amenable. Wellesley-Wood suspected Kebble thought he'd be able to manipulate him like he did everyone else. He told Kebble: "Brett, I don't blink, you know". If Kebble thought he was going to be his "patsy, somebody you can push aside, or bribe, or whatever, you've got the wrong man". Kebble said afterwards he thought Wellesley-Wood was "slimy" but unavoidable. "The organ grinder had appointed its monkey," he said.
It didn't take Wellesley-Wood long to uncover a "truly malodorous" situation at DRD. With no more than a 5% shareholding and a "crony" board, the Kebbles had been running it like "a family company" for their own enrichment. Wellesley-Wood reported that DRD was technically insolvent.
He then forced Roger Kebble to step down as chair, but agreed to keep him on as deputy. Wellesley-Wood became nonexecutive chairman and CEO after suspending the incumbent while he investigated "certain financial irregularities".
When he went home to England to sort out his papers, Kebble retaliated by getting his contacts in the home affairs department to withdraw his work permit, declare him a prohibited immigrant and deny him re-entry.
The director-general announced that Wellesley-Wood was "the kind of executive SA can do without".
While he fought to return, the Kebbles used their considerable influence to spread malicious rumours about him. Brett referred to him as "the pin-striped bandit from London".
The Kebbles tried to call a board meeting to expel him from the company. He promptly issued an order from London prohibiting Roger Kebble from carrying out any executive functions on behalf of DRD, banning him from the premises and from contacting any employees or contractors.
After five days working round the clock, he got home affairs minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi to overturn the banning order.
He said it was the worst time in his life.
"If I'd lost I would have just been a nonentity, some silly little Pommy little director who came in and tried to f*** around in SA. That would probably have finished my integrity, my reputation, and my career in one stroke."
When he got back to SA he laid charges against Roger Kebble, who in 2002 was arrested at OR Tambo International Airport, charged with 62 counts of fraud, and jailed for the night.
Wellesley-Wood's investigations into the Kebble mining empire revealed that it was a glorified pyramid scheme. He said their operations could be summed up in two words: asset stripping. He predicted there'd be a "tipping point" and, of course, there was.
The Kebbles tried to block the investigations with an army of lawyers and "ex-BOSS [the former Bureau for State Security] agents," according to Wellesley-Wood, who employed his own intelligence outfit to spy on them.
His house was bugged, his wife interviewed by "phony journalists", and his company books and bank records scrutinised. It emerged later that he was on a Kebble hit list.
In 2005 he began proceedings to liquidate Brett Kebble's mining house, JCI, for ignoring a court order to pay a R26m debt. This precipitated a plunge in JCI's share price.
Meanwhile, Wellesley-Wood was accused of pursuing a vendetta against the Kebbles, but he said he believed in good corporate governance - whatever it took.
"Corporate governance is not about having King codes and subcommittees," he said. "What you actually need is directors with balls who exercise their fiduciary duties."
Kebble's friends in the ANC Youth League and National Union of Mineworkers accused Wellesley-Wood of being anti-South African for laying off 7,000 workers, and agitated for his licence to be revoked.
"I am here to run safe, profitable mines," he responded. "We run a business, not a charity."
Months after Wellesley-Wood began his liquidation action against JCI, Brett Kebble was killed in an alleged assisted suicide.
Restructuring saw DRDGold enjoy a brief resurgence. During one lucrative quarter Wellesley-Wood played the Pink Floyd song Money in the auditorium as analysts and media took their seats. But the resurgence couldn't be sustained, and he retired from DRD in 2006.
Wellesley-Wood was born in England on November 2 1951 and spent 10 years moving around the world with his father, who was in the Royal Air Force, before attending a minor public school - St George's College in Wainbridge.
He qualified as a mining engineer at the Royal School of Mines and continued his studies in SA on an Anglo-American bursary and worked at the company for six years. To "know the financial side of mining", an MBA in London followed.
He worked for an investment bank before starting his own consultancy "as one does".
At the time of his sudden death he was chairman of UK-listed Kefi Minerals. He is survived by his wife, Shona, and four children.
- 1951-2019

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