A master of the reverse pass

Profile: Nigel Wray; Patrick Hosking meets the businessman bringing his Midas touch to rugby union
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The Independent Online
FOR a man worth pounds 50m (on conservative estimates), Nigel Wray's tastes are comparatively modest. True, he drives a Porsche, but it's 11 years old. He lives in a Jacobean mansion in the affluent North London suburb of Totteridge. And he has an eclectic collection of cricket memorabilia, where WG Grace's last bat takes pride of place.

But there is no Caribbean hideaway, no Rembrandt, no yacht and no plane. Then, in November, he blew his reputation for moderation, paying pounds 2m for the ultimate rich man's toy - a sports club, in this case his local rugby side, the Saracens.

"With rugby going professional I could see there were openings for someone to get involved," he says. "Over the next five to 10 years, things will have altered dramatically. The guy who has shown us that is Rupert Murdoch."

He doesn't see Saracens in quite the same light as his other investments - property, mobile phones, pharmaceuticals, publishing - but he still believes it can be a commercial proposition.

"London is a sleeping giant," he says, where no one goes to watch rugby. That can change. Saracens needs a decent ground and is talking with other sports clubs about sharing. It needs some star players and has already signed up the Australian Michael Lynagh. And it needs to exploit its name commercially: "I see it as a brand - like the Savoy or the Independent."

Wray loves rugby and was a centre for Old Millhillians and Hampshire, although at 47 he no longer plays. "I played till I got so slow that even I wasn't enjoying it. No that's not true. I played until players I thought were dreadful were better than me."

Surrounded by sporting pictures in his office in Marylebone, he comes across as direct and amiable. He is slim, tanned and bouffant haired. The suit is immaculate, the shirt monogrammed. He has been dubbed "the small investors' pin-up" and likened to Warren Beatty, though he actually looks more like Jonathan Aitken.

The love affair with sport goes back to his school days at Mill Hill, the North London public school. "I'd just wait for lessons to end so I could go off to play squash, fives, cricket, rugger, anything. Every time I batted in the garden I was Ted Dexter."

How much would he trade to have been a professional and opened the batting for England? "The answer would have to be quite a lot." (This from a man with pounds 50m to trade.)

His was a prosperous upbringing. His father owned a small print works. "He wasn't in the slightest bit interested in making money. If the business ever made pounds 10,000 in a year I'd be astonished. He enjoyed the type and the machines - all the things I don't like. But I could work a Heidelberg letter press."

He got A-levels in Latin, Greek and Ancient History - "I was into Alexander the Great" - and went on to Bristol University. In vacations, he worked as a rep for his father. "I was hopeless at it. I had no method, no direction."

At Bristol, he studied economics. The first year was "shatteringly boring - all about crop rotation in Norfolk". But then he started studying US economic history and was fired up by the stories of the American railroad magnates. He got a 2.1.

He had always planned to go back into the family business. "For some unknown reason I thought I'd rather do merchant banking. I saw this funny name, Singer and Friedlander, in the paper. I wrote to them and they offered me a job. They offered me pounds 35 a week and the next best offer was pounds 24 from Charterhouse." He took the Singer shilling. His job at the firm was to invest private clients' money.

It was a period - the early 1970s - when the stock market was frothy. Fortunes were being made and lost in risky stocks such as Poseidon. As well as dealing on behalf of clients, he dealt on his own account and "made a fair bit of money" using as capital pounds 2,000 worth of Shell shares his mum gave him. By 1973, he had made pounds 100,000. "By my standards, it was a huge sum." In 1973, he moved to First Chicago, the merchant banking subsidiary of First National Bank of Chicago. Then disaster struck in the shape of the property collapse of 1974. He had been personally dabbling heavily in property, buying up old houses in Haverstock Hill and converting them into flats. "I decided I was a property genius."

Construction costs soared, house prices fell and interest rates rose. "I walked slap bang into it. I didn't even know what a balance sheet was. I was well under water," he admits, although he avoided being declared bankrupt.

After a few difficult years he came across an investment proposition that was to make him seriously rich. He learnt that the Fleet Street Letter, a moribund tipsheet for stock market investors with annual sales of just pounds 16,000, was for sale. He scraped together the pounds 5,000 price.

"The first year was dreadful," he says. He had to do everything from typing to accounting. His master-stroke was to halve the frequency from weekly to fortnightly and to double the price. Circulation took off, boosted by a bull market. By 1981, the company was doing so well Wray was able to float it on the Unlisted Securities Market.

At its peak the newsletter had an unequalled 95,000 subscribers, each paying up to pounds 60 a year. It was big money. Wray supplemented his income further by investing in shares tipped in the newsletter. This was in the days before the Financial Services Act.

"I wouldn't say, hand on heart, I'd be 100 per cent proud of what went on 20 years ago," he says, referring to the tendency of tipsheet publishers to invest in their own share recommendations - almost a certain way of making money. He was in and out of shares, taking advantage of the fortnightly accounting system that allowed short-term speculators to invest without putting up any cash. "In those days, I was far less long-term than I am today.

Even today he is still "seduced into the odd punt by broker friends," but he reckons he does no better than break even. "In my experience you only make serious money by identifying good companies with good management and staying with them."

In 1983, he was introduced to a then little-known businessman who was making pop videos starring Adam and the Ants. The businessman was Michael Green. His business was Carlton Communications. "We gelled," says Wray.

Carlton was "reversed" into Fleet Street Letter, a cheap way of giving it a stock market quote. Wray made a fortune. FSL shares, suspended at 108p, recommenced trading at 200p.

For a while he continued to work at Carlton, running the publishing side. "By 1986, I wanted to start again. I'm not a number two."

He left Carlton, though to this day remains a non-executive director and retains a small stake in the group, now a media empire.

He bought Gilbert House Investments, a tiny company, went on a property spree and then did another "reverse" takeover, this time buying his old employer Singer & Friedlander, which wanted a stock market quote.

Again he made a lot of money: GHI shares he'd bought at 17p reached a peak of 135p, but he'd also made the same mistake. He was no longer the boss. "Yes, but it was a bloody good deal."

He then did a third reverse takeover, buying Chartsearch, another tipsheet publisher, and reversing the Burford property group into it. "This time I ended up in charge." He is chairman, forging a successful partnership with chief executive Nick Leslau.

They anticipated the commercial property downturn of 1991, selling pounds 100m of property assets just in time. Again, he made a spectacular return both for himself and other Burford shareholders, who were recently given shares in the demerged Trocadero group.

Among investors in penny shares, he has a legendary appeal. But the Midas touch sometimes goes missing. One Wray investment, Somportex, which owned the Slush Puppy lollies company, collapsed in the late 1980s, and its successor, Carlisle, has also been a disappointment to shareholders. Another investment, People's Phone, postponed its flotation plans last week and ousted its chief executive, Charles Wigoder.

What does he look at when he considers a new investment? "The bloke. Whatever the idea, whatever the business, the wrong guy will still ruin it."

He hates workaholism: "If you're hunched over the desk all the time, how are all the new ideas to get out. You're much more likely to get an idea out in the park in the sunshine." Why does he go on, having made a pile? "It's what I do. Nobody said to Don Bradman after he'd scored a few hundreds against England, why do you want to score more. In business, money just happens to be the measurement of success."