Wendy Addison: Bringing down Leisurenet, two-faced Richard Branson, life after whistleblowing

It’s just over two decades since accountant Wendy Addison tipped off SA’s Exchange Control authorities that something smelly was happening at Leisurenet, owner of 87 gyms and a darling of the JSE. As a result of her whistleblowing, Addison, a CA (SA), was forced to flee to the UK, accompanied by hard evidence of the massive fraud. But her dream job with high-profile entrepreneur Richard Branson ended when the Virgin chief opted to do a deal with the fraudsters and marched his recently appointed group treasurer out of the building – and literally into the begging lane. SA’s first high-profile commercial whistleblower reflects on life-changing years when her testimony and subsequent pressure eventually put the company’s joint MDs Rod Mitchell and Peter Gardiner behind bars, explaining how she applied those experiences to shape a different life. She spoke to Alec Hogg of BizNews.

Timestamps for the interview below:

  • Wendy Addison on choosing to speak up – 01:05
  • On how she went about reporting the fraud – 02:05
  • On her life changing dramatically and deciding to leave SA to protect evidence – 06:30
  • On starting a new life in the UK – 08:40
  • On working with Richard Branson – 08:55
  • On calling Nelson Mandela to get Branson to buy the SA club – 11:00
  • On Branson supporting the fraudulent crooks – 14:40
  • On the massive betrayal – 15:30
  • On death threats and getting the FBI involved – 19:40
  • On her life right now – 24:10
  • On cultivating courage and The Heroic Imagination Project – 27:35

Some extracts from the interview:

On how she went about reporting the fraud 

In those days, even though there was an infant whistleblowing legislation mirroring the British Protect of Information Disclosures Act, whistleblowing was not on the radar. In fact, I didn’t even know what a ‘whistleblower’ was. What I did know was we were breaking the law. The person I reached out to was on the South African Exchange Control Board – and the reason I did that was because we had a legal caveat with the South African Exchange Control Board, where we were only allowed to transfer 50 million rand out into another country for development of new gyms. And I had discovered that there was more and more money going offshore, but into a Jersey bank account. I wasn’t 100% clear whose Jersey bank account that was.

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On her life changing dramatically and deciding to leave SA to protect evidence

I was devastated. And anybody who listens to this will remember me weeping uncontrollably. It felt like this was my family. I’d been with them for nine years and I saw my retirement there, and I saw my life being in South Africa and I felt like I had broken up the family – I really felt that I was that catalyst and it wasn’t a good feeling, and I was afraid as well. But I was also kind of bolshy. I felt that I still had some courage in me to pull the threads for things to unravel in a more transparent way. And why I say that was, Peter Gardener had already approached me to get access to the South African exchange control files, and I said no. So I knew that if I didn’t disclose all this information, a lot of it would be shredded and disappear. Hence my decision to take the large files overseas with me.

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On Branson supporting the fraudulent crooks 

But that meant that Richard Branson had to negotiate directly with Gordon and Mitchell. There was no liquidator in the middle. There was no attorney in the middle. It was between them. And I’ve been told by a party who observed this that my name came up in those negotiations and there was an invitation to Branson to get rid of me in my job back in Notting Hill Gate in London. And they would then negotiate rentals because, if Branson took over the health and racket clubs, with those kind of rental expenditures, there would be no company because they were robbing it. Gordon and Mitchell were literally robbing Health and Raquet clubs. And of course, Branson said, yes – I became collateral damage and he flew back and I was called up and literally marched off the premises without any explanation. 

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