Solomon Lew (born 22 March 1945) is an Australian businessman, and one of Australia's richest men. His principal commercial activities involve importing apparel, toys and other goods into Australia from China and share market investments, principally in retail companies.
He was formerly a director then Chairman of the board for Coles Myer (now known as the Coles Group) until voted out by shareholders after a series of controversies related to his private dealings with the company. He was also involved in an unsuccessful attempt to resurrect Ansett airlines with Lindsay Fox following its collapse in September 2001. In 2008 he returned to the board of his public company vehicle Premier Investments and became its chairman.
While Chairman of Coles Myer, Lew involved Coles Myer in a deal with a private company Yannon Pty Ltd which ultimately lost Coles Myer A$18 million. The money was used to help fund a company of Lew's called Premier Investments which in turn owned shares in Coles Myer. The money was used to help meet Lew's debt servicing obligations to banks, which were high due to his high level of indebtedness and high interest rates at the time. An internal Coles investigation endorsed Lew's claim that he knew nothing of the deal, and a subsequent four-year investigation by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) ended with no charges being pursued.
Alan Cameron, ASIC chairman at the time, acknowledged during the press conference to announce the outcome of the investigation that: "It is worth saying that the original loss suffered by Coles Myer was about $18 million, and the recovery made by Coles Myer was in excess of $12 million."  Mr Lew contributed to this 1996 settlement with Coles-Myer.
Cameron also said that it was "clearly true" that Mr Lew was not guilty of any breaches of the law. When asked if he believed Mr Lew was innocent, Mr Cameron replied: "of course."
"The Yannon deal was an undisclosed indemnity given by Coles-Myer to a shelf company called Yannon set up by CS First Boston. It bought shares in a company called Premier, a major shareholder in Coles-Myer controlled by then Executive Chair of Coles, Solomon Lew. It guaranteed Yannon against any losses in the share deal, eventually costing Coles $18 million. Coles retrieved $12 million in a later agreement between itself, Mr Lew and with other parties. The funding of the buying of its own shares, the apparent involvement of the chairman and the lack of disclosure raised serious governance issues for Coles-Myer, and ended with the replacement of almost the entire board of directors and the withdrawal of significant shareholder support."
When Coles Myer's chief financial officer, Philip Bowman, resigned and revealed the details of the transaction it brought a great deal of unwanted public attention to Lew. Bowman's revelations prompted an investigation into whether the Yannon transaction broke the Corporations Law or other laws that lasted five years and gathered a quarter of a million pages of documents and twelve thousand pages of evidence. The ASIC recommended criminal prosecution against Lew in its brief, although the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, who had the final decision, decided not to proceed with criminal charges against Lew, Lew's advisers, or those working within Coles Myer. The Chairman of ASIC told the ABC:
"I think where the community would have had concern is if the community had felt that a transaction was beyond investigation in some way. This transaction was not beyond investigation."
Another controversial business transaction involving Lew related to a single purpose trust called Etiket. The beneficiaries were Lew's family. The trust was used to acquire 2% of Coles Myer in 1989, at a time of high interest rates. Lew offered competing explanations for what happened next. But the end result was that the Coles Myer shares were assigned to Premier Investments for an $8 million profit. A Queen's Counsel who investigated the transaction said:
Well, he very simply bought them for $8.20. There was no substantial movement of the share price, but he sold them to Premier for $9.00. He made 80 cents a share, or $8 million, in four weeks.
Lew and Lindsay Fox formed a consortium to acquire Ansett Airlines after it had an Administrator appointed. They sought and obtained the exclusive right to negotiate to purchase the airline. They obtained the agreement of various stakeholders in the airline, including trade union members and their representatives. Greg Combet, the secretary of the ACTU said Lew had breached 'repeated commitments'. During this time spent negotiating, the administrators had been persuaded to continue to operate the airline despite heavy losses which reduced the amount ultimately available to creditors, which included employees owed entitlements. Lew and Fox had committed to take on $183 million of these entitlement obligations if they acquired the company. These commitments and their statements that they could and would proceed with the acquisition led the trade unions with members involved in the business to support the bid. The consequence of Lew's withdrawal was much embarrassment for the ACTU, which had strongly supported the Lew-Fox bid. Lew's withdrawal also cost 2800 people their jobs.
In September 2002, a resolution to remove Lew from the Board of Coles Myer was successful after Stan Wallis, the Chairman of the company and a former banker, campaigned for Lew's removal. Wallis successfully lobbied major institutional shareholders, including insurance companies, banks and large investment firms to take the rare action of voting against an incumbent director. Prior to the vote, Lew campaigned heavily spending an estimated $10 million campaigning for his re-election focusing mainly on smaller shareholders. He was successful in obtaining millions of proxies but they were ultimately insufficient.
In March 2008, Lew returned to the public company stage, rejoining the board of the listed company Premier Investments, as its chairman. At the same time, Premier announced a takeover offer for Just Group, one of Australia's largest retailers which owns Just Jeans, Portmans, Dotti, Peter Alexander, Jay Jays, Smiggle and Jacqui E. Analysts criticised the offer for being too low and comprising less than half in cash. In publicly explaining his offer, Lew said Just Group was trading worse than had been disclosed to the investment community. Just Group's Dr Pollard disputed this claim and threatened to report Lew for breaching the Corporations Law and rules relating to takeovers for making claims of this kind outside the formal documentation associated with his bid. Media commentators were strongly critical of Lew's tactics, with one describing him as "stunningly gauche".
In 1999, each of his children was gifted $170 million from the "Lew Custodian Trust" established to minimise taxes. The trust has become the main subject of the acrimonious divorces of two of his children.