SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Thousands of diamond and wine investors in Singapore and Malaysia who have been left high and dry by investment companies might have more in common than first thought.
A common thread has been found between at least five different companies that have received investor complaints over the past year: a man named Guillianno Norberto R Mata Pena, more commonly known as Guillianno Mata.
Mr Mata, a Dominican national, has been at some point director and shareholder of four Singapore companies - Australian Wine Index (Singapore), The Bottled Wealth Holdings, Emily's Fine Wines and Asia Fine Diamonds - and a Malaysia company, Exquisite Bottle Index, according to information from analytics platform Handshakes and the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (Acra).
The Business Times has learnt that the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) has received 81 complaints against the four companies in the past four years, with The Bottled Wealth Holdings and Australian Wine Index each chalking up 21 complaints since the start of last year.
The Straits Times had also reported earlier this month that investors of Asia Fine Diamonds have not been able to contact its owner, and its staff have been unpaid for two months. In October last year, it wrote that investors with The Bottled Wealth Holdings and Australian Wine Index had complained of hard selling and no returns.
In Malaysia, unhappy investors have taken their complaints to social media, voicing their experience and frustration on forums and forming a Facebook group.
Investors The Business Times spoke to tell the same narrative of being promised 15 per cent returns on their investment after a year. Some did not see the wines and diamonds they have bought, which were presumably kept in storage at external vendors.
With the offices of The Bottled Wealth Holdings and Asia Fine Diamonds now closed and owners uncontactable, many now find themselves without recourse. The Australian Wine Index, meanwhile, has been sold back to a former shareholder, Mr Alvin Lim Lye Soon, who told BT he is in the process of working out repayment agreements with investors.
In Malaysia, Exquisite Bottle Index is in the process of being wound up. An investor told BT the courts had ordered for the liquidators to move in after lawsuits from investors did not receive any response from the directors. The police there have advised investors to claim the losses through a civil lawsuit, as preliminary investigations have found no criminal element, he said.
Some 8,700 people have invested up to $160 million in the Australian Wine Index, The Bottled Wealth Holdings and Exquisite Bottle Index, according to estimates by Mr Lim who had access to a company system shared by all three.
Meanwhile, Mr Mata is said to have left Singapore. Repeated attempts by BT to contact him were unsuccessful.
The 45-year-old had studied in Puerto Plata, a city in the north of the Dominican Republic known for its beach resorts. He obtained master's degrees in public relations, management and international marketing from the first private university in the country, the Pontificia Universidad Catolica Madre (Mother and Teacher Pontifical Catholic University), according to a curriculum vitae page seen by BT.
After nine years working as a sales and marketing director for Marriot International in Spain, he moved to Singapore in 2002, his LinkedIn profile shows.
"In 2002 I relocated to Singapore after falling in love with this amazing trading gateway during a family holiday and Bottled Wealth Holdings was born," he wrote. "I am now able to indulge my passion for the finest wines from around the world while offering my clients fantastic investment opportunities."
Mr Mata listed himself as the CEO of The Bottled Wealth Holdings since the same year. Acra company records, however, show the firm to have been incorporated only in February 2014.
Mr Mata appears to have become active in the wine and diamond investment space in Singapore from late 2012.
It was during that period that the shareholders of the Australian Wine Index were first introduced to him, said Mr Lim, currently the firm's sole shareholder, in an interview with BT. Australian Wine Index was first set up in Sydney in 2002 by Mr Justin Alexander and Mr Jeremy Kasler before moving to Singapore the next year; Mr Lim became a shareholder in 2010.
Despite the debt of $800,000 that Australian Wine Index was carrying, Mr Mata bought over the firm in May 2013. Mr Lim said he received $15,000 for his 20 per cent stake, but is unaware of the terms that other shareholders received.
The firm made a loss of $221,111 in 2011, Acra records show. With total liabilities of $6.4 million overwhelming assets of $5.4 million, it was in financial distress. Its financial records after 2011 are not available.
The following year, in February 2014, Mr Mata also set up The Bottled Wealth Holdings, and combined the two companies' logos together in marketing collateral and documents.
Mr Lim returned to work as a freelance broker for The Bottled Wealth Holdings in November 2014 after a failed business venture, but disagreement over the way things were run eventually came to a head, leading to a confrontation between both. Mr Mata then offered Mr Lim to buy back Australian Wine Index - if he paid $40,000 and signed a letter of indemnity.
Despite his initial hesitation, Mr Lim eventually agreed to the deal, which was completed in April last year. He knew many clients personally, and hence did not want to let the company go, he told BT. "(If) I say no to this deal, he takes the wine and sells it, and he can go wherever he wants. No one will be able to find him."
Two months after Mr Mata exited from Australian Wine Index, he set up Asia Fine Diamonds in an office - described by an investor as "luxuriously decorated" in a Straits Times article - in Maybank Tower. He also opened offices in prime locations in Kuala Lumpur, Miami and Spain.
Less than six months later, the Singapore and Malaysian offices were closed. It is unclear if the others are still open.
The Bottled Wealth Holdings, which closed its office in One Raffles Quay about a year ago, has since been sold to a Briton called Bryan Henry Wilson, whom investors have also not been able to reach.
Mr Wilson had previously identified himself to investors as the regional sales director for Exquisite Bottle Holdings, and also worked for Asia Fine Diamonds. He did not respond to e-mails and calls by BT.
Investors in these companies are now in a fix, with civil lawsuits presented as the only recourse available.
The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) says these entities are neither licensed nor regulated by the authorities, while Case says investment matters do not come under its purview.
"Affected consumers should file a complaint with the police if there is reason to believe there is fraud involved," Case executive director Seah Seng Choon said in response to BT's queries. "Otherwise the consumer should seek legal counsel if he wishes to pursue the matter in court."
The police confirmed that reports have been lodged but declined to comment further.
MAS said it strongly encourages consumers seeking investments to deal only with entities regulated by the agency, so that they will be protected by the laws administered by MAS.
A spokesman said: "Our regulatory regime seeks to ensure that investors receive adequate information to make well-informed investment decisions, and are dealt with fairly by product distributors."