… and what he’s planning next
Republished from THE AUSTRALIAN NEWSPAPER
Former FAI Insurance CEO Rodney Adler is squatting on the floor talking into a toilet bowl. It is the mid 2000s and he is in prison for crimes arising from his time at the insurance giant HIH.
He’s been moved into solitary confinement for reasons he won’t disclose. The guy in the cell next door is Muslim and he and Adler have developed a “deep friendship” despite Adler’s Jewish heritage. It’s an old prison trick: they scoop the water out of the metal toilet bowl in each of their cells with their coffee cups, sit on the floor and talk to each other down the bowl, which acts as a sound conductor.
The image is a long way from Adler’s current preferred mode of communication, a mobile phone that keeps ringing and beeping in a swish cafe in Sydney’s Double Bay. It’s a disconcerting experience trying to interview Adler in a public place; people keep turning to stare at us. Elegantly dressed in a navy suit and crisp white shirt, he nods politely to each person. “I try to pretend they are thinking nice thoughts about me,” he jokes. “I’m an optimist!” But later he admits how shaming it is for him. “There is not a day in my life that I don’t feel embarrassed, and sad I went to jail.” Sad for himself or others? “Both. I let a lot of people down who expected a lot more of me … I am sad for the people who got hurt, the misery I caused my family.”
It’s been almost eight years since his release from jail but the public memory of his very public downfall has not diminished. Overseas recently in the middle of nowhere with his wife Lyndi and kids, someone called out: It’s him. It’s Rodney Adler.“Punishment for white-collar crime is the punishment that keeps giving and giving,” he says. “If I were a blue-collar criminal I’d go home and people would forget. Not white-collar crime involving a high-profile person. With Google and the internet everyone all over the world can look me up. It makes it very difficult to do business anywhere, forever.”
HIH collapsed in March 2001 with debts of up to $5.3 billion; it remains the largest corporate collapse in Australia’s history. Adler pleaded guilty in 2005 to a number of charges including disseminating false information and obtaining money by false or misleading statements, while a non-executive director, which resulted in a sentence of four and a half years imprisonment, of which he served two and a half years. The collapse saw many shareholders and policy holders burned, and other people involved in HIH’s collapse go to jail. “I will always be ‘disgraced businessman’, or the pin-up boy for white-collar crime, corporate crook Rodney Adler,’’ he says. “I made a mistake, I pleaded guilty, I did my time. I was punished, as I should have been punished. I didn’t hide assets under my wife’s name as some have done. I paid my dues. I’ve changed a lot because of the experience. But it never stops and no one remembers me for the good things I did and still do. Philanthropy is a big part of Lyndi’s and my life.”
Their charity work spans many causes including children’s hospitals and medical foundations. There are also private causes they give to such as personal scholarships for kids in need. He reminds me of his business acumen: “I built FAI into a successful business. I tried to look after my shareholders and policy holders.”
Is that why he has finally decided to talk in depth about his ordeal? “Yes, I want a more rounded version of the story — the rest readers can Google.” I agree to not “overly recap” largely because Adler is a far more fascinating, complex and contradictory human being than his past deeds would suggest. His sense of humour is raw and candid. “I’m an acquired taste,” he says.
Adler laments that after all this time people are obsessed with one question. He cocks an eyebrow and says, mischievously: “‘What really happened to you in jail?’ Everyone wants to know that.” I laugh out loud, which draws more stares, but I want to know too. The answer later.
Rodney Adler is the second most eccentric character I’ve ever interviewed. The first, in 1985, was his late father, the ebullient entrepreneur Larry Adler, who arrived penniless from Hungary in 1950 and founded FAI.
“Young Rodney”, as he was known, was the youngest CEO of a top 200 company when he took the reins in 1988 after Larry died of a heart attack. In 1998, while he was chairman of the Insurance Council of Australia, he sold FAI to HIH, becoming a non-executive director. Adler was also a member of the Business Council of Australia and was an adjunct professor of business at the University of Technology Sydney. He was a big player in the day, worth a cool $85 million-plus.
“I see God’s hand in things. I lived a charmed life. For a decade, everything I did made incredible money. I had the Midas touch. I think that God — or a higher source — decided I was ahead of myself and decided to teach me humility,’’ he says, recalling a job he had in prison which involved picking chewing gum off desks. “Jail was a humbling, horrible experience. But it gives you a different denominator. It helped me to change.”
Change from what? He bravely lets me run through the possible psychological conditions that precipitated his downfall: Narcissism? “Possibly.” Charming manipulative? “I hope so,” he laughs, “in business you have to be.” Grandiose? Unlikeable? “Let’s say I have a certain ‘sense of humour’. I shouldn’t have been so flippant at the trial. I wasn’t feeling that stoic. I think the length of my sentence had a lot to do with my character,” he says. Indeed the smirking, arrogant persona he wore lives on in the minds of many, like Lindy Chamberlain’s scowl.
“I come with everything you know about me. Harsh-tongued, opinionated, outspoken, obstreperous, a perfectionist. I’m not an easy person to be a friend of. Oh, and I bite my nails,” he says, displaying the only part of himself which isn’t immaculately groomed. “But I do try hard to be a good person in my own way. I try to balance the ledger. I’m a chartered accountant by training. Debits and credits. If you do bad you have to find a way to do good to pay off the debt. It’s karma. I try to help a lot of people. But I’m not a fool. I know many people will never forgive me.”
How has he changed? “I’m a lot more tolerant and compassionate now. I see things differently. I’ve learned to be cognisant of other people’s feelings. To really listen to people,” he says, staring at his drink as if the answer to the mystery of his life is buried somewhere in the ice. “Dad taught me: ‘Life is what you make it, you can be anything you want. It’s your choice.’”
US author and orthodox rabbi, Shmuley Boteach, has been friends with, and spiritual guide to, Adler for 35 years. Boteach respects his commitment to “transform darkness into light” and help others. “He wants to use his experience to help rehabilitate other prisoners who are released. His mistakes can never take away from the fact he was always very charitable.”
Boteach believes Adler has grown in depth and maturity from his experiences. “What amazes me about Rodney is he is so honest; a lot of people would hide from the feelings of shame but for Rodney there was a need to talk about it, to make sense so he could do better. He’s looked deeply into this dark, painful chapter, so he could make amends. He is very courageous.”
At 55, Adler is an enigma. For 24 years he has held a secret that is largely unknown. He and Lyndi care at home for a daughter, Romi, with special needs. She has the intellectual age of a 12-year-old and suffers physical problems that require regular surgery. He reads to her every night. “No one can understand what it’s like unless they have a sick child. It teaches you unconditional love, and the fragile nature of life. That was the real suffering of going into jail. The others [he has four children, aged from 18 to 26] understood once I explained it to them, but she went hysterical, crying ‘Where is Daddy?’ every night. That was my punishment — what I did to her, to my kids, and leaving Lyndi alone.” Adler is very close to his wife of 27 years.
And then there was the four-hour brain operation last year. “I had a degenerative brain disease that was last seen 100 years ago, according to my specialist, and it was eating away at my skull. Lyndi called me the Elephant Man. I was scared I was going to die. But I thought, ‘Ah, just another battle to overcome.’ I’m good now. I think God is a sadistic comedian who keeps challenging me. But that makes us grow. When you’re denied your freedom, or health, or kids’ health, you don’t take anything for granted.”
“I realise the value of all this,” he adds, looking around the cafe. “It’s great, lovely, simple things now that please me, not expensive things. Money doesn’t make you happy. Pre-jail I’d be upset if I missed a deal; now I think, ‘So what?’”
Adler is still is a venture capitalist, financier and underwriter. He has investments in solar-power generation, alternative energy, food technology and cutting-edge medical technology — and due to the drop in the Australian dollar, he wants to invest in low-end tourism as it becomes too expensive for Australians to travel abroad. And although he lost a lot of his own money in the HIH collapse, he’s rumoured to be doing well again today — a fact he won’t confirm.
He is also working as a consultant, lecturing businesses on corporate governance and ethics. “Who better to look after the chicken coop than a fox, who knows how to get in or out?” he jokes with brutal candour. “I say the formula is simple: Are you proud to tell your wife and kids what you are doing? If not, don’t do it.”
Meanwhile his more personal life-wisdoms are, he says, in demand. “People want to know, ‘How did you cope?’ An interesting consequence of going to jail is it humanised me in front of a lot of people who now relate to me. My suffering and humiliation allows them to speak more freely. It’s surprising how many people I meet who went to jail, lost a friend, or a child, who are suicidal because of money problems. They need someone to talk to, they ask my advice. I
empathise. But where business is concerned I practise tough love. Lyndi’s parents went through the Holocaust. My experience is nothing, nothing compared to that. We have to keep those things in perspective.”
He says people stop him all the time, asking for advice. “It involves people often telling me their intricate legal issues while I’m jogging. I told one guy recently, ‘Sounds like you’re going to jail, don’t try to defend yourself with
expensive lawyers; admit guilt, apologise, and make the best deal you can.’ One depressed guy facing bankruptcy begged me to walk with him twice a week. I agreed. I should be paid for my time. I’m thinking about that,” he says. Although we joke about the job description.
A “Taking-a-Turn-for-the-Worse” consultant? A “Fall from Grace” expert? Or simply “The Oracle”?
His advice: “Don’t feel sorry for yourself; start again. Turn bad situations into a good opportunity. Keep mentally and physically fit to survive. Find something great in every day. Know which battles not to fight. Know it will end. You will have a good life after this at some point in time. Dad would say: ‘Take the hit the best you can and move on.’”
What he probably isn’t good at advising on is how to deal with guilt, especially regarding his family. He was recently used as a case study at a university lecture on corporate crime. His daughter, studying to be a lawyer, was in that class. “I told her to tell her lecturer that as a former adjunct professor I’m happy to come in and face the students myself.” The lecturer accepted but the university turned the offer down.
Lyndi, who’s a smart businesswoman and venture capitalist in her own right, was involved in a travel business that went broke in 2012 — a common enough occurrence, but the media jumped on the story. And their son attracted attention when he was involved in an alleged breach of contract that went to a Fair Trading hearing, and was subsequently settled. “He was 24, he did something silly. But if he wasn’t my son, it would never have hit the papers. It was an excuse to repeat all the old stuff. The media is relentless.”
And that question broached earlier? He says in the beginning of his time in jail he was nervous because the guys were using the condom vendor machine daily. Finally he asked a burly Tongan prisoner: “You don’t seem the type.” The guy laughed heartily. “‘It’s not for sex. We all scoop the jelly out and use it as hair gel.’ So no, I didn’t get raped.”
He befriended many hardened inmates, approaching them with an extended hand, saying, “Hi, I’m Rodney Adler, are we going to have problems? I’d prefer not.” He earned respect being so bold and guileless. He liked some of the crims and keeps in contact with those who were kind to him. “I’m an eclectic person. I met with the Pope in 2010 [Rabbi Boteach arranged an audience], I’m friends with politicians, people in the arts. And a couple of these guys.”
He’s lost a lot of friends too, and family. It’s common knowledge he doesn’t talk to his two sisters, but he says this happened over time. “It makes me sad,” he admits. Yes, he regrets his failures. He is disappointed in himself. “But I’ve also done well. I have good qualities. I’m excited to give it a go. I don’t fear failure. I care about the people I love. I’m a loyal dad.”
His latest venture from the US is a patch for home-use that indicates breast cancer. He becomes animated as he speaks, the breathless enthusiasm of the entrepreneur. “I love being a venture capitalist, I meet lots of people and hear great ideas. It’s the best job in the world.” And doors still open, despite the fact he tells potential partners the truth upfront. “Many will work with me at a distance but refuse to meet with me; those who do meet me seem to like me.
“You have to keep starting again and again. And savour every moment of being alive. Everyone suffers; when you scratch the surface of any family there are problems. It’s what you do with the suffering that counts.”