The tangled web of Scoot.com

A look at the Yellow Pages rival whose dramatic history features star names, plot twists, intrigue and conspiracy theories
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It looks like someone has got it in for Robert Bonnier. Perhaps it is nothing more than jealousy of the chief executive of Scoot.com, the interactive information service, who has built up a paper fortune of £100m by the tender age of 32. Whatever, the Dutch-born former corporate financier has had to survive a sustained campaign of vilification in the murky world of internet bulletin boards. He has withstood the circulation of a document containing allegations that Scoot's critical subscriber numbers have been deliberately exaggerated. Now he finds himself at the centre of another potential scandal a week after a newspaper story appeared suggesting that Vivendi, the French media group that owns almost 20 per cent of Scoot, planned to buy the rest of it.

It looks like someone has got it in for Robert Bonnier. Perhaps it is nothing more than jealousy of the chief executive of Scoot.com, the interactive information service, who has built up a paper fortune of £100m by the tender age of 32. Whatever, the Dutch-born former corporate financier has had to survive a sustained campaign of vilification in the murky world of internet bulletin boards. He has withstood the circulation of a document containing allegations that Scoot's critical subscriber numbers have been deliberately exaggerated. Now he finds himself at the centre of another potential scandal a week after a newspaper story appeared suggesting that Vivendi, the French media group that owns almost 20 per cent of Scoot, planned to buy the rest of it.

Scoot shares promptly leapt 21 per cent, only subsiding after an announcement at tea-time on Monday poured cold water on the tale. The belated nature of Scoot's rebuttal afforded plenty of time for shareholders with plenty to gain from the story's credibility to ride the buying wave and sell their shares. The reaction of one of the City's faster traders was typical. "The Monaco mob made £50m out of it, you know," he muttered.

He was referring to a group of wealthy investors based in the principality with a reputation for knowing - or even contriving - tomorrow's news today. The problem for Mr Bonnier was his delay in denying Vivendi's interest. Who else had both the power to place the story and the ability to profit from it?

Then there is another version of events. There is reputed to be a different group of rather more bearish speculators who have long held the belief that Scoot shares are too high. These characters - who are said to have sold the shares short in order to profit from a price fall - were responsible for the anti-Scoot document which circulated, as well as a series of damaging newspaper articles, it is alleged. Perhaps the tale of Vivendi's supposed interest was disseminated in order to teach the Cassandras a lesson. And who would want to do that?

Either way, there is no evidence that Mr Bonnier has been guilty of anything other than a single-minded commitment to Scoot's future. Yet his progress has been burdened by a company history punctuated at almost every turn by acrimony and intrigue. It is a saga that boasts a cast of some of the City's most colourful characters.

Scoot's roots date from the intake of corporate financiers recruited in the early 1990s by Swiss Bank. This included two notables. It was at SBC that Chris Akers, a former advertising agent and media analyst, met Mr Bonnier, who had arrived from Holland bent on conquering the stock market.

The musty confines of Swiss Bank's mergers and acquisitions division could never hope to contain the rampant talent of such mavericks. Sure enough the pair were soon on the move, with Mr Akers playing a critical role in the subsequent career of his peer. He it was who introduced Mr Bonnier to Nigel Robertson, an old ally from Mr Akers' advertising days who had happened upon a clever wheeze. Mr Robertson had managed to secure from BT the rights to the 0800 192 192 number, a coup which allowed his company, Freepages, to start signing up customers keen to advertise their businesses on this line. Having all but given away a catchy number with close parallels to its own 192 directory enquiries line, BT was furious and cried foul. But its High Court bid to have the number revoked failed.

It was into this cauldron that Mr Bonnier stepped in 1995 when he left SBC to join Freepages. Another SBC defector, Ronald Dorjee, came too. The following year Mr Akers engineered the reversal of Freepages into Blagg, a building merchant listed on the Alternative Investment Market, though nor was that deal without controversy. Mr Akers was interviewed as part of a Department of Trade and Industry investigation into dealing in Blagg shares prior to the takeover. No action has ever been taken against him.

Mr Bonnier, meanwhile, had set to work transforming Freepages, later renamed Scoot and then Scoot.com. He brought on board as chairman Robert Zimet, a wealthy Anglo-Israeli businessman who had once sold a house to Mr Bonnier's parents. Strategic alliances were agreed with Vodafone, Yahoo! and VNU, the Dutch publishing group. In 1997, the company had secured a listing on Nasdaq and it was then worth £300m.

By now Mr Bonnier was in the driving seat, Nigel Robertson having cashed in his chips and retired to Monaco, where he met his wife at a casino. But there was trouble round the corner, in the familiar form of Andrew Regan.

Having been introduced to Mr Bonnier by Mr Akers, Mr Regan became an early investor in Scoot. He had made a fortune from a cleaning products group he set up at 17 but had set his sights far higher, on the venerable Co-operative Wholesale Society. His bid for CWS failed in 1997 amid accusations that stolen documents were used by the bidder, and the Serious Fraud Office is currently finalising its case against Mr Regan and three other people.

Scoot has been caught up in the fall-out. Mr Zimet was also a shareholder of Hobson, Mr Regan's company, and in 1997 had been paid £2.4m for securing an extension of Hobson's food-supply contract with CWS. The murky nature of the offshore transaction helped to scupper Mr Regan's bid for CWS and will form a key component of the SFO's case against him.

The fall-out from the CWS debacle also caught out another former colleague of Mr Akers and Mr Bonnier at Swiss Bank - Peter Large, who advised Mr Regan and was forced to resign from his post at merchant banker Hambros after financial regulators probed his actions during the takeover bid.

Mr Zimet resigned from Scoot to head off the bad publicity over CWS, although it returned to haunt Mr Bonnier last October when it emerged that the SFO was probing his relationship with Mr Zimet as part of its CWS investigation. It should be stressed that Mr Bonnier has been accused of no wrongdoing.

Mr Zimet remained a large Scoot shareholder, a decision vindicated by a rally which drove the shares to a peak at the start of this year of 351 1/2p, valuing the company at more than £3bn.

The boom culminated in a joint venture with Vivendi, which last January took a 9.8 per cent stake in Scoot. That stake has since increased to almost 20 per cent following the acquisition of Loot, the free ads publishing franchise.

That was its zenith. The shares have since halved, in part because of the market's sudden aversion to technology stocks, but also because of ongoing doubts about Scoot, which has still to break into profitability.

One particularly active critic of Scoot went to the trouble of compiling a thick document designed to undermine Scoot's share price. It is a campaign that has been linked with a gang of former shareholders who are said to have embarked on a sustained bout of short selling of Scoot shares.

It is understood that Scoot has now identified the author of the knocking campaign, although further action is considered unlikely. After all, anybody who has sold Scoot's shares short has been hurt enough by the appearance of the Vivendi story and its impact on Scoot's share price. Nor is there yet any evidence of which Scoot shareholders exploited the fallacious tale by bailing out of their investment. Nevertheless, a healthy 38 million shares changed hands on Monday, so somebody certainly did.

It may be that Vivendi will acquire the rest of Scoot ultimately, although its critics are baffled that it would even consider such a step. It would be a shame if Scoot surrendered its independence and called a truce in the intriguing battle between its proponents and detractors. Then again, the war- weary Robert Bonnier would be forgiven for holding up the white flag.

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