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Tech & Science Retirees lose life savings in motorhome company collapse

17:10  09 december  2019
17:10  09 december  2019 Source:   abc.net.au

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a person posing for the camera: Beth Stephensen is just one customer who is owed money by Motorhome Conversion Company. (ABC News: Michael Atkin)© Provided by ABC NEWS Beth Stephensen is just one customer who is owed money by Motorhome Conversion Company. (ABC News: Michael Atkin)

Grey nomads are among scores of people who say they have lost tens of thousands of dollars after the collapse of a motorhome dealer and conversion company.

Motorhome Conversion Company, founded by John Jeffreys, went into liquidation in July with debts of $3.6 million owed to unsecured creditors.

"There's over 100 people out of pocket, and they are unlikely to see their money," barrister David Morrison told 7.30.

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A new, separate business called Lifestyle Motorhome Conversions is operating from the same premises on Brisbane's southern outskirts as the old motorhome conversion company.

Lifestyle Motorhome Conversions was registered just weeks after the Motorhome Conversion Company went into liquidation.

The director of Lifestyle Motorhome Conversion is Sophia Smith, who runs another unrelated business nearby with John Jeffreys's son.

Mr Jeffreys has told 7.30 he is now working as an employee of Lifestyle Motorhome Conversions.

Mr Morrison is calling on corporate regulator ASIC to investigate if Mr Jeffreys has any involvement in running this new business.

"I have great concerns because if Mr Jeffreys is effectively operating the same business and isn't identified as the owner of that business, then he's still a shadow director," he said.

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In a statement, liquidator Nick Combis told 7.30 his investigation into the company's collapse was ongoing and it included examining the relationship between Mr Jeffreys and the new business Lifestyle Motorhome Conversions.

Mr Combis said he had recently agreed to sell the failed company's operational assets to Lifestyle Motorhome Conversions for an undisclosed price above valuation.

'A lot of money to lose'

Ellen and Ron Stewart had been enjoying a quiet retirement in rural NSW when, last year, they decided to spend $100,000 on a motorhome bought through Motorhome Conversion Company.

They never had a chance to take delivery of their motorhome and never saw their money again.

"We certainly feel ripped off," Ms Stewart told 7.30.

"I mean, it just took over our lives for so long. You thought of it every day.

"It's a lot of money to lose."

After the purchase, the Stewarts asked for modifications to be made to the motorhome before it was delivered.

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Months later they were told the modifications were not possible, but were refused a refund of what they paid.

Reluctantly the Stewarts agreed to let Motorhome Conversion Company resell the vehicle.

But as time passed, and with no word of any sale, they became increasingly worried.

"I rang John and said, 'We're coming to pick it up'," Ms Stewart said.

"'Oh, alright, that'll be fine. Are you sure you want it?' 'Yes.'

"Within an hour he rang back and said, 'You wouldn't believe it, we've sold it'."

But still they received no money.

After months of chasing the payment over the phone, including via text messages which have been seen by 7.30, Ms Stewart threatened to send a relative to the Brisbane showroom.

Suddenly Mr Jeffreys travelled almost 900 kilometres to visit the Stewarts in person.

"He put it into our bank, $10,000," Ms Stewart said.

"And [he] signed a letter to say he would put $10,000 in every month from then on.

"But he never did and since then he's gone into liquidation.

"It just goes on and on."

Possible breaches sent to Fair Trading

"They're dealing with other people's money," automotive law specialist Brian Smith from Bennett and Philp Lawyers told 7.30.Motor dealers in Queensland are under strict legal obligations regarding the handling of money when a vehicle is sold on consignment.

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"It's absolutely imperative that the dealer complies strictly with the terms of the act."

He said any breaches of those laws could result in fines of $26,000 and jail terms of up to two years.

7.30 has obtained the latest report by liquidator Mr Combis which states he has confirmed a number of converted motor vehicles were subject to registered security arrangements and were still sold by the company to third parties under the dealer's licence.

Mr Combis has referred what he has identified as possible legal breaches to Queensland's Office of Fair Trading.

The liquidator's report also states Mr Jeffreys may have broken several corporate laws, including unreasonable director-related transactions, uncommercial financial transactions and insolvent trading.

"Insolvent trading occurs where a company is effectively making transactions that is taking money from customers incurring debts, with creditors without any real prospect of being able to make good the promises that they've made," Mr Morrison said.

In a statement to 7.30, a spokesperson for Queensland's Office of Fair Trading said:

"A complaint which indicated a motor dealer had sold a vehicle on consignment for a client and then did not disburse the money to that client within 42 days (or within 14 days of the client's written request) would be assessed as a possible breach of both the Motor Dealers and Chattel Auctioneers Act 2014 (MDCA) and Agents Financial Administration Act 2014 (AFAA) and it would be investigated."

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'He should be made accountable'

Beth Stephensen arranged for Mr Jeffreys to sell her converted bus on consignment earlier this year.

Mr Jeffreys told her he had sold it, but Ms Stephensen is still waiting for full payment.

"He just kept saying it was sold, it was sold and that someone was trying to get finance," she told 7.30.

"It just got non-believable and then he'd get himself confused.

"I don't think he knew what vehicle was mine in the end."

After months of chasing, Ms Stephenson finally received a third of what she was owed.

"He paid me $20,000 as saving grace, he called it, just a week before he went into liquidation," she said.

Now she wants authorities to investigate Mr Jeffreys to determine whether he has broken any laws.

"I would like karma to get him," Ms Stephensen said.

It is a sentiment echoed by Ms Stewart.

"He should be made accountable for this," she said.

"You just can't do this to people."

'All I can do is make these people are going to get paid'

The Motorhome Conversion Company was jointly owned by Mr Jeffreys and his wife Yvonne Prole.

Yvonne Prole is a secured creditor owed $245,000 by the company after she provided it with finance. According to the liquidator, she will be treated as a priority compared to unsecured creditors like motorhome sellers.

Mr Jeffreys declined to be interviewed on camera for this story however he did speak with 7.30 briefly over the phone.

He expressed frustration his customers had gone public about the money his former company owed them because, he said, he continued to regularly call them.

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"It's bloody disappointing to think that they're coming to you," he said.

"I'm just disappointed to hear that there's people complaining to you when I'm ringing.

"People who were owed money for vehicles, I understood they were all happy but obviously they're not. They're certainly not telling me that."

Despite his former company being in liquidation, leaving unsecured creditors owed millions of dollars, he maintained he was committed to paying people back.

"I haven't walked away from the responsibility of paying our customers," he said.

Mr Jeffreys also said he was personally bankrupt and Lifestyle Motorhome Conversions had purchased the former businesses assets from the liquidator. He said he was now employed by this new business.

"I'm still working, you know. I'm 70 next month and that's why I'm still working, to solve these issues for our customers," he said.

"I'm very sorry for the customers that got involved, wrapped up in it through no fault of their own, and the only thing I can do is make sure these people are going to get paid.

"That's the biggest issue, the money that they're still owed.

"That's my mission. If nothing else happens for the next 10 years, if they get paid, well, I'll be a very happy boy."

Mr Combis confirmed Mr Jeffreys became bankrupt on October 11, and said the bankruptcy may impact unsecured creditors getting their money back.

"It is highly unlikely there will be any return to unsecured creditors in the liquidation," Mr Combis said.

"I do not know whether the trustees can or will make any recoveries or realisations in the bankrupt estate that will be sufficient to enable the declaration and payment of a dividend to ordinary unsecured creditors."

Mr Jeffreys declined to answer written questions from 7.30. Ms Smith also declined to answer detailed written questions.

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