Bunhill: Unfortunate coincidences

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The Independent Online
BUSINESS has the habit of throwing up unfortunate coincidences, but this surely takes some beating. Twenty-two years ago, a young music retailer ran into a spot of bother with Customs and Excise. He was selling records officially stamped 'for export' from Britain at his shops in Oxford Street, London, and Liverpool. As 'exports' they did not attract purchase tax, so could be sold more cheaply.

Eventually, Customs woke up to his ruse. His shops were raided and he was arrested. After discussions with the retailer's family, six days before the case was due to be heard, the charge was dropped - in return for a settlement of pounds 15,000 and pounds 38,000 in tax.

Understandably, the boy's parents, Ted and Eve, were concerned. Ted, a barrister, asked a City friend to cast an eye over the shops, 'and make sure he doesn't do anything foolish from a business point of view'. The contact said, sadly, he couldn't help, but passed the request on to an accountant friend who could.

Ted was Ted Branson; his City friend was Michael Davies, a director of Imperial Foods. Davies went on to achieve City heavyweight status as a director of Imperial Group, Littlewoods, TI, TV-am, Blue Arrow, British Airways and chairman of Calor.

Davies has also been in the thick of the legal manoeuvrings at BA. Seven months ago, Richard Branson had cause to hear from his father's friend. Would the Virgin boss consider ending his libel case against BA? 'He was sent as an emissary,' says Branson. 'He wanted us to drop our action quietly so the whole thing would go away. He got nowhere.' A few weeks ago, Davies called again: BA wanted to settle, this time on more acceptable terms.

Last week, BA - with a man on its board who was once asked to ensure young Branson did nothing 'foolish' - was made to look very foolish indeed as it apologised for the 'dirty tricks' campaign against Branson's airline. But his father's friend, stresses a magnanimous Branson, acted honourably throughout.