Bunhill

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The Independent Online
All along the watchtower and on down the 'I-way'

WHAT the heck does a guy do with dollars 3.5bn ( pounds 2.3bn) after he's bought the estate near Seattle, the executive jet, the 150-foot yacht, the Maserati and four Ferraris, the larger than life- sized statue of Athena, the private movie theatre and the professional basketball team?

The first step is probably pretty obvious: he sets up a museum devoted to Jimi Hendrix. Next, he invents a new industry to shape the future.

The guy in question is one of America's least-known billionaires: Paul Allen, the business twin of Bill Gates. Together, they set up the software colossus, Microsoft. But while Gates is world famous, Allen keeps a profile that's so low it's almost invisible.

Like Gates, Allen is very rich. But unlike him, he's said by colleagues to be 'nice' to work for.

Rich and contented, the 41- year-old Allen lives with his Mom and sister on his estate.

Gates and Allen met at school, founded Microsoft when they were barely into long trousers and were billionaires by the time most people are still thinking about their first mortgage. It was Allen rather than Gates who wrote most of the company's first software and, according to insiders, Allen was mainly responsible for most of Microsoft's biggest successes.

But there comes a point in every billionaire's life when making more money ceases to be the main driving force. In 1983, he was told he had Hodgkin's disease and began to wonder whether 20 hours a day at the office was the really the most satisfying use of his time. Sensibly, he left Microsoft to spend three years sailing, skiing and developing his technique on the electric guitar. (He held on to 13.4 per cent of Microsoft, however and is still pals with Gates).

Now he is engaged in building up a network of companies to shape the next phase of technological advance, which will bring multimedia entertainment and data to everyone via the information superhighway - or 'I-way' as the computer dudes in Silicon Valley like to call it these days. Put another way, this means everyone will have a computer and will be linked up to everyone else. In a rare interview with Fortune magazine, Allen declared that his modest aim is 'to let people tap into all the information that's available in the world'.

So far he has spent dollars 750m on this project, and is still going. He has also wired his house with every conceivable technological gadget to simulate how it will be for the rest of us in the future. In order to pin down the future before it happens, he has set up his own think-tank charged with pondering 'high- risk things that are over the horizon'.

And there are his two other passions - Hendrix and sport. Hendrix was a son of Seattle like Allen himself. 'This guy was incredibly creative and set a standard that prevails today,' Allen told Fortune, making the great guitarist sound rather like some ground-breaking piece of computer software. So up goes the museum to his idol. History, however, does not relate whether Allen, like Hendrix, plays guitar with his teeth.

Then there's sport: Allen already owns the basketball team, the Trail Blazers - all he needs now is a stadium for it to play in. Naturally, he's building one.

ONE of the perks of being a VIP is that you get invited to events like the men's semi-final at Wimbledon at someone else's expense. Occasionally, however, it can all go horribly wrong.

A troop of VIP's - some of whom had flown in from the US and South Africa - turned up on Friday at the Wimbledon Park Golf Club as guests of Corporate Sports UK, their mouths watering at the prospect of executive nosh followed by seats on the Centre Court. The grub was duly consumed, and the VIPs waited to be issued with their tickets. None materialised.

Then someone spotted a letter pinned up in the hospitality tent. The Corporate Sports representatives, meanwhile, had mysteriously melted away. The letter informed them that they weren't going to see the tennis, because Corporate Sports had been sold non- transferable tickets by its suppliers. As part of its crackdown on touts, the All-England Club has become savage in policing non-transferability. It had slapped a court order on Corporate Sports, threatening it with action if it used its tickets.

'Our ticket supplier has flagrantly breached its contract with us,' fumed the letter. But by then it was too late.

'Please be assured,' it wailed, 'that we will do everything in our power to obtain full redress from our ticket supplier.' Which was no reassurance at all to the stranded VIPs, who were now quite clearly not going to Wimbledon.

So the frustrated VIPs settled down miserably over their coffee and cigars to watch the tennis on television.

The irony is that among the illustrious company was none other than Sir Gordon Borrie, the former Director-General of Fair Trading. In this case, one presumes, he might have been happier had the rules been stretched a little for once.

Female analysis

THIS year's Extel survey ranking the City's investment analysts landed on my desk last week, and what does it show? That the City is a hotbed of misogynist attitudes and sexual stereotyping.

Perhaps you thought all that kind of thing was in the past. But just look at the top 10 teams covering, say, commercial property - not a single woman among them. Or the macho world of drinking (Breweries and Spirits, Wines and Ciders) where there are a mere two female representatives. Or engineering: two women analysts. Or Building and Construction: just one.

But then we come to Retailers General, and we find no less than 10 female analysts, while there is a cluster of seven covering the media sector.

Does the City believe that women are only interested in shopping and magazines?

No, says one high-flying female media analyst. It is pure coincidence. Yes, insists another: 'The received wisdom is that retail and media are friendlier sectors. And there's probably a feeling that women will have more credibility there.'

Ever a campaigner for equality, Bunhill believes it is high time this nonsense was stopped. What possible justification can there be in this day and age for men to hog all the fun and excitement in such thrilling sectors as Gas Distribution, Extractive Industries and Engineering Vehicles?

YOUR house is probably the most valuable thing you own. But try getting someone to tell you accurately what it's worth. Practically impossible. Try even getting someone to tell you whether its value is going up or down. Out of the question - as is shown in the latest couple of house-price indices.

The Nationwide Building Society warned on Friday that prices fell in June by 0.7 per cent. But next week, the Halifax will tell you that prices actually rose in June. The Nationwide, meanwhile, informs you that the average UK house is worth about pounds 50,000, while the Halifax says it is more than pounds 60,000.

'We've tried chopping our figures around,' a weary Halifax statistician told me, 'but we just can't see how the Nationwide gets pounds 50,000.' For its part, the Nationwide insists it's because the Halifax hasn't bothered to update its definition of the average house since 1983.

So who is right and which way is the market going? That, dear reader, is completely impossible to say. Since the houses sold this month are not the same as those sold last month, direct comparisons are out of the question. So the societies dream up theoretical houses to iron out the inconsistencies in data from some 15,000 loans that go to make up the indices.

The process is known as 'interpreting and editing' the data. Interpreting and editing, in this case, is a technique with many similarities to the process of guessing next year's Grand National winner.

To be fair, the societies do not completely deny that their indices may be utter rubbish. And as to the current disagreement: 'Basically the market's flat,' said a statistical boffin. 'The Government is wrong in claiming that the recovery of the housing market is in place.' On that point, at least, they are in total accord.

Choosy Caz

WHAT is it with Cazenove and tycoons? The blue-chip broking house has always been a bit like the squire's daughter whose hand is constantly being sought by the parvenu mill owner to lend him an air of respectability. With Caz on your side, you have the approval of the Establishment.

Last week, Conrad Black lost that approval when Cazenove resigned as his broker after the plunge in the Telegraph share price. But that has not always been the broker's response to such situations.

Some years back, Michael Green, the redoubtable tycoon who runs Carlton Communications, sold some of his holding in the company. Three months later, the group's performance turned out worse than expected and the shares collapsed. Naturally, Green's name was mud in the City, rather as Black's is now. But instead of running for cover, Caz came scurrying to the rescue. It was taken on as Carlton's broker, toiling assiduously and with considerable success to clean up Green's image.

And the relationship continues. As Caz dumped Black last week, Anthony Forbes, the firm's ever-so-proper former senior partner, surfaced as a director of Carlton. Eat your heart out, Conrad.

(Photograph omitted)

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