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Niagara financier’s big money propositions leave entrepreneurs with ruined dreams

A dozen Ontario entrepreneurs trickled in to a Jack Astor’s in St. Catharines one busy Saturday night in February.

Some came alone; some knew each other. Some wore red, as they’d discussed online — as a way to find each other.

They hadn’t counted on there being so many people in red cheering Canada as they watched the Olympics, but in time, the business owners found each other and began to share their stories.

They had a common denominator – they’d all trusted the same Niagara financier, Peter Corbière, to help them realize their business dreams.

And they all were angry.

In hindsight maybe we should have seen it. But he presents himself as credible enough.– Ty Shattuck , aerial drone entrepreneur

They compared notes about the money – stretching into the tens of thousands of dollars each – they’d given Corbière based on his offers to provide the loans they needed to grow their businesses. 

Some hadn’t realized there were others in the same boat. That night, they found solidarity and support and discussed their options.

Veteran Burlington, Ont., businessman Ty Shattuck was one of the ones wearing red that night. He said Corbière got past even skeptical investment bankers on his team.

“He did a good job, right? In terms of pulling the wool over our eyes,” Shattuck said. “In hindsight maybe we should have seen it. But he presents himself as credible enough.”

7,000 text messages

In 2015, Karl Hollett was primed for a major expansion of his solar panel business in Napanee, east of Belleville, Ont., and signed a deal with Corbière for due diligence on a $ 3.6 million loan Corbière offered.

Corbière said he just needed a lender’s fee of $ 47,460. Hollett sent him the fee – the first of a few transfers he’d make as Corbière’s assurances that the funding was coming grew.

But the money never came. Hollett’s company has gone bankrupt. He’s putting together paperwork to sue.

As months wore on, Corbière reassured him often that the loan was on its way, Hollett said. It never materialized.

“He continued to lead us down the garden path,” he said.

Karl Hollett speaks with reporters after a press conference for his company, Strathcona Energy Group, in 2016. Hollett says he’s out tens of thousands of dollars after trusting Corbière to arrange a loan. (Strathcona Solar/Twitter)

Hollett kept all his 7,000-plus text messages with Corbière. He said Corbière has sent him 88 different texts suggesting Corbière was at the bank, sending him the loan money. 

“In hindsight, we can always look back and say, ‘You know what? I was a fool,'” he said. “But I didn’t think I was.

“I felt this guy had some issues he was dealing with at home,” he said. “I had to cut him some slack. But I guess I cut him too much.”

After they cut a cheque, something always comes up

Hollett’s experience with Corbiere mirrors that of a number of entrepreneurs CBC News has interviewed.

To entrepreneurs eager for cash, he’s proposed huge loans in exchange for a lender’s fee sent directly to him, his “Snow Angels Management Services Inc.” or his numbered company.

Many are on the cusp of rapid growth, and the financing is the key to unlock it.

Don Nott, a 71-year-old farmer in Clinton, Ont., says he paid Corbière a fee of $ 38,000 for a loan two years ago. Nott was looking for financial help to convert his farm operations into a recycling company for hay bale plastic. The loan money never came through, and Corbière’s promise of a refunded deposit in such a case has gone unfulfilled.

Don Nott tells the CBC’s Stephanie Matteis about the $ 38,000 he gave Peter Corbière in exchange for a loan to grow his agriculture waste-recycling business. 0:44

After the entrepreneurs like Nott cut Corbière a cheque, something always comes up.

They call him; he says their money is imminent. Eventually they give up on seeing the funds as the business opportunity passes. They start to work on at least getting their deposits refunded.

Even as their faith wanes, they still text him and he almost always texts them back. Most have been waiting months, even years, without seeing their money back.

A financing expert who owned the room

Corbière presents himself as a veteran business financing expert. To the entrepreneurs he’s signed deals with, he seems to know exactly what he’s talking about, no matter the industry at hand.

Peter Corbière speaks to business owners at a 2013 event hosted by the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce. (Jane Jarvis/Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce)

For several years he worked as a senior partner of consulting at the government bank set up to help small businesses – the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC).

He has spoken at economic development events in Niagara and Norfolk County. He’s been quoted in the Toronto Star.

Corbière told CBC he was fired in 2014 from the BDC.

The BDC says it doesn’t comment on current or former employees, nor does it address situations regarding specific clients.

But the bank quietly tried to clean up a mess he’d left, according to court documents.

The BDC says it doesn’t comment on current or former employees, nor does it address situations regarding specific clients. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

And the trail of broken dreams and frustration in Corbière’s wake continues.

CBC News has learned at least nine small business owners in Ontario and the U.S. have given more than $ 650,000 to Corbière in exchange for investment loans or deals.

Lawsuits and interviews show that the money never materialized, and most didn’t get a cent of their money back.

And for several years, he’s been proposing these deals while his personal finances crumble. Court documents show that since 2015, two credit cards and two mortgages on Corbière’s Niagara-on-the-Lake house have gone into default when he failed to make payments.

Despite making several appointments to speak with CBC News for this story, Corbière ultimately sent an email last Friday saying there are many reasons why companies do not get funding, or why funding is delayed or “actually collapses during the process.”

Just because somebody doesn’t get funding doesn’t mean that they were ripped off.– Peter  Corbière

Corbière said there were “several ongoing issues” that kept the Holletts’ deal from going through. He declined to comment on the specific allegations the other owners raised, citing client confidentiality.  

Corbière told CBC News in an interview last summer he’s never refused to refund anyone.

“Just because somebody doesn’t get funding doesn’t mean that they were ripped off,” he said. “It means there’s a reason that they’re not getting their funding.”

But the business owners say he never communicated that to them, leaving them waiting for the money he’d said was imminent.

Businesses who trusted Corbière

Meanwhile, some business owners have taken Corbière to court. 

Just last month, a Toronto court awarded a Maryland logging company $ 89,389.01 Cdn plus another $ 8,000-plus in legal costs on their claim against Corbière and his partners.

The company transferred him $ 57,500 US as a fee deposit for a $ 5.75 million loan in 2016, according to the lawsuit.

Corbière didn’t do the due diligence, the loan never came through, and though he didn’t dispute that Corbière owed the company a refund, the refund never came.

At the other end of the equation, a Niagara Falls investor transferred $ 250,000 to Corbière as investment capital for his “business ventures” in 2015 after being “impressed by Corbière and his business acumen,” according to another lawsuit filed last year. 

The investor alleges Corbière executed a promissory note that he would pay back the money with 10% interest, but there was never any money paid back.

Peter Corbière worked for the Business Development Bank of Canada before he was fired in 2014. (Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce archives)

Other business owners who have struck deals with Corbière include:

  • Shattuck, an aerial drone entrepreneur in Burlington, who says he’s owed nearly $ 15,000 after a $ 7 million loan never came through.
  • A blow mold factory in Hamilton said it paid Corbière $ 169,500 for a fee to Corbière; the company alleges in a lawsuit he didn’t come through on what he’d promised.
  • A farmer in Clinton says he paid Corbière $ 38,000 in 2016, didn’t get his loan and hasn’t been paid back his deposit.
  • A voice recognition software company in St. Catharines filed a small claims suit for $ 7,500 the company paid Corbière on the side while he was at the BDC. The company wasn’t paid back for at least three years when he didn’t find them the promised investors, it alleges in the lawsuit, which was resolved before the matter could be heard in court.
  • A construction contractor in Grimsby gave $ 10,000 to Corbière on the side to arrange a loan while Corbière worked for BDC. BDC ended up refunding him the deposit when Corbière didn’t.
  • Hollett’s solar panel company in Napanee has transferred more than $ 70,000 in fees to Corbière for loans that never materialized. Now the company is bankrupt, and they blame Corbière.
  • Just in January, owners of a pasta sauce company in Niagara Falls gave Corbière $ 6,500 as a fee for a $ 150,000 loan he told them he could easily arrange. The loan never came through, and two of Corbière’s cheques bounced when he said he’d get them a refund.

In many cases, the business owners signed paperwork with Corbière outlining the terms — timelines, interest rates and payback policies — of the loan he proposed for them.

Many said he appeared confident and reassured them the funding was imminent, that there would be no issue getting them the thousands or millions they needed within days, in some cases.

But in the documents CBC has reviewed, Corbière often noted the deal was conditional on “due diligence.” If that business research wasn’t satisfactory, or if the loan didn’t come through, Corbière pledged to refund the fees. 

But the business owners say getting those refunds is impossible — and many say he never told them there were any issues with the due diligence. Some wonder if he did any research at all.

Corbiere said “refunds generally consider the reasons, time and effort” in an email to CBC News.

Why a business expert says the deals might seem attractive

François Neville, assistant professor at McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business, said small business owners who need money to help them grow or take on a bigger contract that will take their business to the next level often look too risky to traditional banks.

But they’re too small to go to venture capitalists looking to sink millions into a project.

“I can see how it would be attractive for a small business owner or an entrepreneur because people are very hesitant to give up any equity in their business – because they’re afraid to lose control,” Neville said.

People are very hesitant to give up any equity in their business – because they’re afraid to lose control.– François Neville, assistant professor at McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business

In an interview last July, Corbière said he had arranged financing for more than 100 companies successfully. CBC asked for names of some or all of those businesses. To date, he has not provided any.

In an email, he said 10 to 15 per cent of companies that start “the process” with him for funding “end up in failure due to a variety of reasons.”

A deal on the side, to a numbered company

In 2013, Matthew Della Valle, a construction contractor in Grimsby, was about to take on the most ambitious projects of his career. His company, NuFusion, was to become the exclusive contractor for World Gym Canada.

As a client of the BDC, Della Valle was assigned to Corbière’s portfolio. He trusted him when Corbière said he could line up the $ 1.5 million in financing Della Valle needed to take on the projects, according to a lawsuit Della Valle filed.

Matthew Della Valle is broke and his construction company NuFusion is out of business after he trusted Peter Corbière to arrange a $ 1.5 million loan in 2014. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

But Corbière told Della Valle to make out his cheque for the $ 10,000 fee to a numbered company, one that Della Valle later learned was registered to Corbière’s wife. Then, Corbière never arranged the loan or paid Della Valle the $ 10,000 back, Della Valle alleges. 

Now, nearly five years later, Della Valle’s business has crumbled. He’s laid off all of his workers. He’s suing the BDC, arguing the government corporation should have protected him.

And he’s livid to hear stories like the ones shared at Jack Astor’s from others who made deals with Corbière.

“It’s brutal. It’s unbelievable,” he said. “I know some of these people, they’ve got families and stuff. It’s just – I get emotional. You expect this money, you’re telling your staff. It’s terrible.”

You expect this money, you’re telling your staff. It’s terrible.– Matthew Della Valle , owner of NuFusion construction contractor

If the BDC had been public about Corbière’s departure in 2014, Della Valle said, perhaps that might have given other businesses a warning.

Corbière told CBC the BDC fired him shortly after Della Valle complained. He said his termination was for a “breach of employee conduct.” But Corbière said BDC management knew everything he was doing.

Della Valle is suing BDC for breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation, saying the BDC should know that Della Valle would rely on Corbière’s word for what the agency could offer.

Della Valle met Corbière when he worked at the BDC in Hamilton, a government bank meant to help small businesses. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Ultimately, the BDC paid Della Valle back the $ 10,000 he’d paid to Corbière, the corporation admits in its defence filed in court. But it also notes that action was done “without any admission of liability or wrongdoing.”

The BDC says if Della Valle didn’t have the money in hand, his company took on contracts “at its own peril and without any fault or responsibility of BDC.”

A court date on Della Valle’s lawsuit has not yet been scheduled.

A veteran business owner caught up

Shattuck said he’s frustrated to be among the entrepreneurs who trusted Corbière after he left the BDC.

“I’m not an expert financier, but I’m not a complete newbie; you know, I’ve raised capital in the past,” Shattuck said. “It’s embarrassing to get caught up in one of these things.”

Shattuck says Corbière still owes him nearly $ 15,000 from a deposit he put down to obtain a $ 7 million loan Corbière said he could provide him. Shattuck owned a company making aerial sensors for drones and helicopters, and was trying to buy an American company.

Shattuck said Corbière kept telling him that a loan agreement was imminent, and the funding, but none ever came.

Burlington, Ont., businessman Ty Shattuck says Peter Corbière still owes him nearly $ 15,000 from a deposit he put down in exchange for a $ 7 million loan Corbière said he could get him. But the loan never came through. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

“He just couldn’t close; there was always some issue,” he said. “Every time you’d be like, ‘Peter, what’s going on?’ you’d get some sort of story,” Shattuck said.

Texts from Corbière continue

For those business owners who trusted Corbière, they’ve lost both opportunity and money. The dreams are gone.

But Corbière continues to send text messages, saying he’s working on giving their deposits back or has a new idea on how he can help.

Nott, the farmer in Clinton, Ont., says he has a cheque from Corbière for the full $ 38,000, but every time Corbière told him he could cash it, the bank said there were insufficient funds.

?Don Nott is a farmer in Clinton, Ont., who said he gave Corbière $ 38,000 in 2016 to line up a loan that never materialized. (Don Nott)

“He told us story after story – you should just see the list of texts,” he said. “I’ve been in contact with that man once or twice a week, every week, for the last two years almost.”

Karl Hollett, the solar energy entrepreneur, has gone bankrupt.

“The long and short of it is – (if) Peter had come through on the things we were told weren’t even questionable, we wouldn’t be here right now,” Hollett said.

Shattuck says Corbière texted a couple of weeks ago, to say he was “leveraging some assets” to get Shattuck his money back.

“It’s exactly the same stuff he’s been saying for a year-and-a-half now,” he said.

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca

CBC | Toronto News