Christmas tree planting company ‘smacked’ by Covid-19, director tells court

The director of a Christmas tree planting company has told the High Court that its primary objective is to ensure investors are returned their money.

Craig Hands said his company, WFS Forestry Ireland Ltd, has been “smacked” by Covid-19 and “strangled” since a High Court application was made seeking the appointment of an inspector to the company.

A number of alleged investors claim WFS Forestry, with registered offices in the Fitzwilliam Business Center, 26/27 Pembroke Street, Dublin 2, has failed to deliver the returns they were promised upon maturation of their investments.

Mr Hands blamed cash flow problems and transaction delays on Covid-19. He acknowledged some investment returns have been late, but he said “late is not fraud or intention to defraud”.

“The most important people here are investors,” Mr Hands told the court on Friday. “I have put eight years or more of my life on this … I want to carry this business on. It has been everything to me. ”

Mr Hands was representing himself as director in objecting to the application by alleged investor John Kearney seeking to appoint an inspector to the company under section 747 of the Companies Act 2014. The director said he will “cooperate with anybody” but he did not see how a court-appointed inspector would be of assistance.

Mr Justice Michael Quinn noted that the hearing was not going to determine any allegations made but would decide if an inspector should be appointed.

Mr Kearney, of Ballyroe, Tralee, Co Kerry, wants the court to appoint Declan de Lacy, of accountancy firm PKF O’Connor, Leddy & Holmes, as inspector of the company, which purports to plant, manage and harvest tree farms.

Mr Kearney also wants an order directing the inspector, if appointed, to report on whether the affairs of the company have been conducted with an intent to defraud creditors, for a fraudulent or unlawful purpose, or in a manner that unfairly prejudices some or all of its creditors.

His counsel, Frank Beatty SC, with Neal Flynn BL, instructed by Peter Boyle & Co Solicitors, said the alleged issues bringing rise to the application are “significant” and there is a public interest in appointing an inspector.

He said the primary intention for seeking the appointment was to “find out what is going on with the company”. His client also “obviously” wants a return on his investment, he said.

Investments

Mr Beatty said Mr Kearney’s application is supported by 17 other alleged investors in the company. These investors claim to have invested a total of € 1,486 million in WFS Forestry through various loan agreements and crop purchase agreements, which tie their investments to the growth and harvest of the trees. One of these investors has received € 29,500 back, but he is the only one of these to see any return, said counsel.

One of the investors reported her concerns to gardaí but they would not investigate her claims as they said it was a civil matter, the court heard.

There were “serious” issues regarding the ownership of certain lands, which some of the investors were told they were obtaining an interest in or a partial ownership of, Mr Beatty went on. This included in plantations in Co Offaly and Co Waterford, but the applicant does not believe the company has acquired any lands in Ireland.

Among the alleged investors is a retiree who claims the company is indebted to her in the amount of about € 396,000 on foot of alleged investments and a € 50,000 loan.

She claims her late husband arranged to make multiple investments in the company forestry projects in 2017-2020 and these have now matured.

She said she believes her late husband was “vulnerable to manipulation” and she is now “deeply concerned” as to what has become of the funds they allegedly invested.

Mr Hands and the company deny the allegations.

The case will continue before Mr Justice Quinn later this month.

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