Brian Grow of Reuters: The ATM of deep dives

Brian Grow

Brian Grow of Reuters is an unusual business journalist because he came to the field after a career in corporate America.

The co-Business Journalist of the Year for 2012 by Talking Biz News, Grow began his work career as a government relations executive at The Coca-Cola Co. and Philip Morris Cos. in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

It is perhaps this understanding of how companies work from the inside that makes Grow such a great journalist.

Grow joined BusinessWeek as a staff writer in 2004 covering retail, airlines, telecom, immigration and computer security. At BusinessWeek, he won several awards including a 2007 New York Deadline Club award for “Meet the Hackers” and a 2008 Association of Healthcare Journalists award for “Fresh Pain for the Uninsured.”

He worked on BusinessWeek’s special projects team, where he wrote a range of investigative feature stories about topics such as medical finance, digital currencies, counterfeit drugs, high-cost loans, and the trading of expired debt.

During the last three years at BusinessWeek, stories authored or co-authored by Grow have won a staggering 18 journalism prizes, including two Society of American Business Editors and Writers awards, two Deadline Club awards, an Overseas Press Club award, the Barlett & Steele Award for Investigative Business Journalism, and an Investigative Reporters and Editors award.

After BusinessWeek was acquired by Bloomberg, Grow left the magazine and went to work for The Center for Public Integrity in Washington, where he investigated FHA mortgage lending with The Washington Post, and litigation finance with The New York Times.

Grow joined Reuters in 2010 and is now a special enterprise correspondent out of Atlanta.

His 2012 began with numerous awards for his 2011 work on shell companies. A Reuters investigation led by Grow traced the myriad ways that U.S. laws enable corporations, international and domestic, to operate secretly within the country — sometimes protecting themselves from exposure, sometimes insulating themselves from alleged wrongdoing, sometimes perpetrating scams that have bilked millions from U.S. taxpayers.

“Brian is a first-rate journalist,” said Kelly Carr, one of the journalists who worked with Grow on the shell game series. “When you list the attributes of the best investigative reporters — from a dogged digging mindset to foresight for seeing the bigger picture to an ability to work as a true team player on big-time projects — he’s got them all.”

The shell game series won the Foreign Press Association Media Awards 2011 for financial/economic reporting, and a Loeb Award in the news service category. It also was awarded first prize in the Consumer Journalism, Periodicals category, by the National Press Club.

“Brian is one of the most productive and creative investigative reporters I have ever had the pleasure to work with,” said Jim Impoco, the former enterprise editor of Reuters who is now executive editor of Thomson Reuters digital, in an email to Talking Biz News on Sunday. “He’s an ATM of deep dives.”

It was the stories on shell companies that resulted in Grow’s series of stories in the past year about Chesapeake Energy, the second-largest natural gas producer in the United States.

“We began to look into how the CEO of Chesapeake used three LLCs he controlled — and we stumbled on the loan documents in county records,” said Grow in an email on Sunday.

In April, Grow reported that Chesapeake’s CEO borrowed as much as $1.1 billion over the last three years against his stake in thousands of company wells – a move that analysts, academics and attorneys who reviewed loan documents say raises the potential for conflicts of interest. The company disclosed the loans in a regulatory filing after the Reuters story appeared.

A follow-up story noted how a former Chesapeake board member lent money to the CEO at the same time the board member was helping to determine the executive’s pay.

After another story by Grow, the company agreed to an early end to a controversial program that granted the CEO minority stakes in Chesapeake’s wells, a perk that had sparked investor anger and inquiries from U.S. regulatory and tax agencies.

A June investigative story led by Grow disclosed that Chesapeake Energy plotted with its top competitor to suppress land prices in one of America’s most promising oil and gas plays.

Finally, in October, Grow led reporting on a story about how the company has been using a loophole in a Texas law to drill for gas below the land of other property owners without paying them anything.

The reaction has been significant. The CEO was stripped of the chairmanship; two shareholders took effective majority control of the board; two directors were ousted at the annual meeting and pay packages have been rejected by shareholders.

In other words, it’s the kind of business journalism that we all aspire to one day. And that is why Brian Grow is the Talking Biz News co-Business Journalist of the Year for 2012.