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Bunhill: Branson in for a bumpy bus ride

RICHARD BRANSON often boasts of how he started his business from a telephone box at the age of 16. So when he met 17-year-old Liverpool entrepreneur Andrew Cawley, he must have thought he had found a protege.

Branson promised to back the youngster's attempts to restart his bus company, after what Cawley claims were aggressive tactics from a rival operator aimed at putting him out of business. Branson, however, may have cause to regret his generosity. Last week, one of Cawley's competitors issued a writ for libel over his allegations.

The rumpus started earlier this year, when Cawley set up Rest and Ride to operate an early morning service taking workers to industrial estates and a late-night shuttle taking clubbers home after nights out on the tiles.

Dubbed 'the bus boy' by the local press, Cawley alleges his fledgling business failed to take off after aggro tactics from a competitor. In Coach and Bus Week, the trade magazine, Cawley alleged all kinds of strong-arm tactics were employed to force him to suspend his service after only a matter of weeks.

Branson might blame Anne Diamond for his entanglement in Liverpool's bus wars. He met the 17-year-old on BBC's Good Morning - with Anne and Nick. The programme makers paired Branson, himself a victim of a 'dirty tricks' campaign by British Airways, with Cawley and after hearing Cawley's tale, Anne Diamond put the airline tycoon on the spot by asking what he could do for the lad. Branson boldly undertook to give the young busman the financial support necessary to start again.

He later told the Liverpool Echo: 'I look at Andrew and see myself. I started in business at 16 with the same hopes as this lad . . . Whatever it costs to get the company up and running, I will provide. I hope Andrew's rivals think again now they know Virgin is going into business with him.'

This promise was confirmed by Virgin early last week. It said: 'We will also give him legal help to maintain his position in the market.'

It appears, however, that Branson's support does not extend to financing Cawley's defence against the libel action. When Cawley contacted Virgin, he was told that Branson would not be supporting a defence against the writ.

To complicate matters further, the competitor is claiming damages from Cawley's parents as responsible guardians. Cawley's father is himslf a bus driver in Liverpool.

Mrs Cawley said: 'Our solicitors are not prepared to take the case on, because it is going to be very costly and they would want a substantial advance payment. We haven't got the money. It's so upsetting.'

AN AMUSING story about Rudolph Agnew, the new chairman at oil group Lasmo, comes my way. Not so long ago, he is said to have emerged from a London restaurant with Enterprise Oil chairman Graham Hearne, intending to repair to Pratts, the Piccadilly gentleman's club, for further discussions. Greeted by driving rain the pair made a mad dash for the nearest taxi. The silver- haired and by this time drenched and bedraggled Agnew thrust his head through the taxi's open window and shouted simply: 'Pratts'. The cabbie, clearly a graduate in the art of the sharp riposte, replied: 'I can see that. Now where do you want to go?'