Charm runs from father to the son

A Geelong businessman's bankruptcy reveals a tangled web of investment in limbo and a dark family past

The Geelong Advertiser, New Zealand/January 20, 2008

Businessmen dealing with Geelong entrepreneur Ravi Narain describe a charming man who stands by his ventures with passion.

They say the personality of the man behind North Geelong's Citrofresh shines through and his confidence and acumen in turn breed trust.

But it was similar qualities seen in his father that lured hundreds of people from rural New Zealand to join a dangerous religious cult and be subjected to kidnap and assault.

Ravi Amrit Narain declared bankruptcy last month leaving in his wake legal struggles over millions of dollars, a failed Italian restaurant and an ongoing court battle with the corporate watchdog.

But it wasn't always this way-two years ago Mr Narain was in full swing promoting his wonder disinfectant spray claiming he spent 10 years inventing the orange-derived mixture to replace harsh chemicals in his seafood operation.

Business then went through the roof when Citrofresh told investors the spray could act as an "invisible condom", and cure HIV, SARS and common colds. In the ensuing market scramble two firm directors allegedly sold their hugely over-priced shares and escaped before a company retraction forced shares plummeting.

The director stood by his product, never backing down from the miracle spray.

More than 20 years earlier Mr Narain also stood steadfastly with his father during one of New Zealand's most infamous religious cults.

Andy Narain was a property developer in rural Greytown when he began preaching teachings from Indian guru Sai Baba. Mr Narain became so involved he claimed to have mystical healing powers-newspaper reports said Andy claimed he was four million years old and had a third eye to see into a spiritual world.

Hundreds joined Mr Narain, forming a tightly-knit cult. But there was a dark side to his persuasive powers and genuinely ill people died when his miracle hands failed to heal, the Wairarapa Times-Age said.

A 1998 report soon after Andy's death said police on both sides of the Tasman became interested when "the sly, smooth-tongued charlatan" brought the cult to Sydney before Kiwi followers escaped with tales of "horrifying cruelty and humiliation".

The article said the subsequent trial heard evidence of cult members "being beaten morning and night", a child slapped for hours on end and Mr Narain threatening the genitals of others with a heated metal poker.

Andy Narain was sentenced to three years' jail on 24 charges including kidnapping, indecent assault, cruelty to children and assaults on females. A Times Age reporter who followed the story said yesterday the "Manson Family"-like cult made national headlines and enraged the Maori community.

The paper said a teenage Ravi Narain acted as the cult's "heir apparent" with "an air of invincibility'. In his father's 1984 True Initiation book, Ravi tried to convince readers of his father's benevolence: "all of these people regard Dad as their Spiritual Doctor and Guide and have the utmost respect and loyalty for him."

The Times-Age said Andy Narain never recovered from his jail stint and his wife took her two sons to Sydney after her husband's death, with Ravi moving to Melbourne.

Yesterday, Mr Narain said he did not "have any dealings whatsoever" with Sai Baba before referring the Geelong Advertiser to his lawyer.

Since the cross-Tasman move, Mr Narain set up his Golden Dragon Abalone business in Geelong. Yesterday, the parent company of a Melbourne vintage wine shop confirmed it was involved in legal battles to recover funds after the Supreme Court wound up the abalone firm in August 2006.

It was understood Euroasia (Pacific) recovered some of the original $1.5 million, but was still owed "a substantial amount". Mr Narain's lawyer Michael Main said Euroasia bankrupted his client and it "will have to join the other creditors."

Meanwhile, Mr Narain used another business, Cassava Corporate, to manage the Il Primo Ristorante on Carlton's Lygon Street. The Italian bistro and bottle shop previously existed for about a decade, but under Mr Narain's recent care it officially went into liquidation this week with $1.3 million debts to creditors including the landlord, tax office and bank. Mr Main explained the closure as simple, saying "it wasn't trading well enough."

Also, accountancy firm Draper Dillon was "taking an interest" in the sale of a group of Albert Park apartments owned by Folda - a company of which Mr Narain was a 100 per cent shareholder and his wife Edwina director. A Draper Dillon spokesman said Citrofresh was one of the apartment venture's creditors.

Mr Narain has since left his Citrofresh post and the firm moved to distance itself from him, despite his wife maintaining a role.

In the months after the Australian Securities and Investments Commission investigation into the firm's miracle claims, Mr Narain was accused of misleading the market. The Federal Court found Citrofresh guilty but cleared Mr Narain. The watchdog has since appealed the decision in a bid to ban the Geelong businessman from directed companies. Mr Main said "that appeal will be strongly contested" by his client.

No doubt creditors entangled in Mr Narain's web of entrepreneurial ventures will pay close attention.

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