The Sydney woman accused of targeting the lucrative international student market for unenforceable fees in the eastern suburbs has been slapped with a travel ban in China amid fresh allegations she ripped off a business partner.
In a significant escalation of the business woes of Ashleigh Howe, a 29-year-old alumnus of SCEGGS Darlinghurst, a series of court cases in Shanghai and Beijing have detailed allegations that Ms Howe failed to pay suppliers.
It comes after the Herald revealed in April that Ms Howe failed to adhere to a NSW Supreme Court order to repay nearly $700,000 to liquidators of an accommodation company that helped students find lodgings around the University of NSW.
Around 100 mostly Chinese students attending university in Sydney had claimed they were gouged fees by Ms Howe's businesses. Legal advocates say these fees were unenforceable.
Ms Howe now faces a mountain of legal trouble in China after travelling to Shanghai early last year to establish a string of high-end businesses targeted at the city’s expanding luxury market, including a children’s art school led by marquee artists charging up to US$12,500 a semester.
Instead, the ventures collapsed in acrimony over allegations of unpaid wages and debts.
Wage disputes, a rental dispute and multiple complaints of non-payment against Aima Shili Real Estate, a company Ms Howe claimed to represent in correspondence sighted by the Herald, are among five cases lodged with courts in Shanghai and Beijing over the past six months.
At the same time, liquidators were circling in Sydney, securing a court order for Ms Howe to pay $689,000 over unreasonable director-related transactions, insolvent and uncommercial transactions in relation to a student accommodation business she helmed.
Liquidators confirmed last week she has still not paid and they have been unable to serve a creditor's petition on her, believing she had been in China. But the Herald last week photographed Ms Howe leaving her eastern suburbs apartment block in a white BMW.
'She never paid'
Businessman Johan L.E. rented his Xikang Road property in Shanghai’s Jing’an District to Ms Howe in July 2018 for her to use as a showroom and artists’ residence. Johan was particularly keen to have Ms Howe on the lease after she introduced him in person to a prominent Australian designer who Ms Howe said would work on plans for the renovation of his property to accommodate for her business needs.
Johan said he met with Ms Howe at the St. Regis Hotel early in the month to hammer out the details. He agreed to contribute ¥532,000 – or more than $100,000 – towards the total cost of the renovation after Ms Howe signed a contract agreeing to contribute ¥1,000,000 of her own.
But Johan would never see a return on his investment.
“She never paid, she just swallowed it,” he said. “She took the entire amount.”
Renovations would proceed on his property just long enough to see the kitchen, bathroom and living room gutted before the contractors working on his house stopped turning up as Ms Howe had not paid them, Johan claimed. And then, he said, the rent failed to come through.
Ms Howe did not respond to questions regarding the money and renovations put to her lawyer.
“She always said: ‘We’ll pay you, we’ll pay you, we’ll pay you, blah blah blah, I’m travelling’, Johan said. “She’s got a long list of excuses.”
Johan commenced legal proceedings against Ms Howe in November, pursuing her for ¥610,350 in alleged damages. She did not appear at the court hearing date in January, he said.
“It would be nice to get the money paid back, but I feel sorry for her life, given the situation."
'It was a shambles'
Meanwhile, Ms Howe was busy assembling a team of staff based in Shanghai to help get her businesses off the ground, including her art school Look Learn Do.
“Look Learn Do came from an ambition of mine where I felt that there was a real lack of creative practice and play in the development [of] young children in China,” Ms Howe explained in a video posted to the school’s website, which has since been taken down.
“In the Western world, growing up in Australia, we’re really fortunate that the environment and our social engagements are a big part of our development.
“In China historically, because of the landscape, that hasn’t been possible.”
A number of those Ms Howe had brought on to work for her from mid-2018 said the trouble started almost immediately, and no site for the school was ever formally secured.
“It was a shambles,” one former employee said.
“If you ever asked Ashleigh where the space was she would say, ‘Oh we’re signing the lease today, we’re signing the lease tomorrow’,” another said.
Visits from local police to their Shanghai office, and issues with visas and pay were also not uncommon, they said.
In November, frustrated staff made a phone call to the Melbourne-based accountant they believed they had been communicating with via an email carrying the domain name of another family business, Global Education Advisory, regarding arrears with their pay.
The phone call was the first time the accountant had heard of the email address.
By the end of the month, almost all of Ms Howe’s staff had walked away from their roles.
The most recent action brought against Ms Howe in Shanghai on March 21, 2019, was over unpaid commission to a recruitment agency.
Ms Howe was sued by her former business development manager in Shanghai, Chen Xiqing, in July for illegal termination of labour, after he was dismissed without notice via an email.
Ms Howe was ordered by a Shanghai court to pay compensation, but refused and appealed. After mediation, the court ordered Ms Howe to pay ¥42,000 in salary by September 21.
But within days of the appeal verdict, the Shanghai Yangpu court ruled again, issuing a travel ban on Ms Howe, and giving the reason that: “Without any proper reasons the person subject to enforcement rejected to implement the reconciliation agreement.”
This exit ban is still listed on Chinese court websites nationally, stating: “The entity subject to enforcement – Shanghai Aima Shili Real Estate Consulting has refused to fulfil its obligations as determined by legal documents, and the court in accordance with laws has restricted its legal representative Howe Ashleigh Margaret from leaving the country.”
An outsourcing company that provided finance administration services for Aima Shili told the Herald they were also looking for Ms Howe over unpaid fees.
“We don’t know what happened … there are quite a lot of due commissions unpaid,” the Shanghai company said. They had never met with her in person and only occasionally received replies to emails.
Despite the exit ban against her name, Ms Howe has reached out to at least one other artist this year, inviting them to be a part of her business.
Australian designer Trent Jansen received an email in January regarding Look Learn Do from Ms Howe that read: “I am an Australian; slightly crazy, definitely daring and limitless entrepreneur based in Shanghai, China.
“It is our expressed wish to make contact with and ascertain your interest in joining us in collaboration for this bold and defining project.”
Mr Jansen did not pursue the opportunity.