Any other business : Digging under the pitch

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The Independent Online
Former England cricketer Phil Edmonds never could limit himself to one thing. Even when playing county and test matches, he would use his spare time to make million-pound deals on the clubhouse pay phone. One nearly fell through when he ran out of change.

Today the left-arm spin bowler is well known as chairman of Middlesex Holdings, a metals and oil trader with interests across the former Soviet Union. But his eye is still roaming. It has already settled on mining projects in the Philippines and is now perusing Burma.

He doesn't go in for just another business - so much as any other business. No prospect is too obscure.

"I know sweet Fanny Adams about mining,'' admits Mr Edmonds. "The trick is to surround yourself with people who do know the business.'' In the case of Middlesex, the expertise resides with Masoud Amir Alikhani, an expatriate Iranian who has been dealing in Russia and the Central Asian republics of the Confederation of Independent States since 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell.

One of the company's main activities is importing alumina to a giant processing plant in Tajikistan, then reselling the finished aluminium around the world. It has a similar operation for oil. A fortnight ago, it secured 20 per cent stakes in two gold mines in eastern Siberia and is now looking at a copper prospect in the Ural Mountains. Mr Edmonds is confident that, thanks to the efforts of Mr Alikhani, Middlesex will be worth £500m within a couple of years.

Tracing his other business interests is much more difficult, however. At one time or another, he has been reported to own ventures ranging from a classy West End restaurant to a slaughterhouse, a Birmingham department store and a Belgian market.

For most of his 16 years at Lord's, Mr Edmonds contented himself with buying and selling properties. But in the mid-1980s, he started investing in shell companies. Since then, he has concentrated on taking control of firms that were languishing on the stock market, hunting down aggressive private businesses that were eager to go public the easy way, and marrying the two together through a reverse takeover.

One such deal involved Woodington, an Irish shoe-maker from Drogheda. He turned it into a leisure company, converting properties such as Stocks Country Club, which was formerly owned by the Playboy executive Victor Lowndes, into conference centres with all-weather cricket pitches.

London Fiduciary Trust was another shell he took over. He reversed Luxembourg Estates into it, gaining control of a mothballed gold and copper mine in the Philippines. He expects to produce 90,000 ounces of gold next year. The company is also negotiatingfor mineral rights on 20,000 hectares of unexplored land around the mine and is looking at picking up a nearby processing plant.

His latest shell, of which he gained control on Wednesday, is Silkbarn. The company trades on the Stock Exchange on the Rule 4.2 matched-bargain basis and operates in the financial services sector. "We're looking at Burma - doing something similar to what we're doing in the Philippines," he said.

The trip from cricket pitch to gold pit is unusual, but not surprising to anyone who knew Philippe-Henri Edmonds at Cambridge, or earlier in his native Zambia. His father was in the property business, and Mr Edmonds was determined to follow in his footsteps. At university, he studied land economy, considered an easy course for those who were more athletes than scholars.

Throughout his controversial playing career he demonstrated a flair for promotions. Knowing that he would be barred from wearing a wrist-watch during a game against New Zealand, he cut a sponsorship deal with Swatch. Sure enough, the cameras zoomed in ashe handed the offending timepiece to the umpire and strapped it back on at the end of the innings.

That sort of entrepreneurial flair, the contacts he made at Cambridge and the fame of his sports career, give him an edge in the business world. On the downside, playing cut into his business activities, he said. Eager to catch up with contemporaries, MrEdmonds has every intention of making more deals.