Burning questions on Mr Coal: As Richard Budge prepares to find pounds 1bn to buy privatised mines, David Hellier examines the record of the man and the family firm that crashed

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The Independent Online
RICHARD BUDGE, the Government's chosen bidder for Britain's privatised mines, is on the brink of the biggest deal in his business life. The son of a local builder in Lincolnshire is on the verge of becoming Britain's 'Mr Coal', the new owner of most of the privatised mines.

Before he can do that, however, he has to raise more than pounds 1bn in the City, a sum that dwarfs the present size of his company. His plan is to raise pounds 400m in equity capital from the public and City institutions and a further pounds 600m or so in loans from banks.

But in the coming weeks, as BZW, the investment banking arm of Barclays Bank, tours the City to canvass funds on Mr Budge's behalf, it will have to contend with serious questions about his financial track record. There will be questions in the House of Commons, too, about the suitability of the man chosen to lead the coal mines into their new future.

Attention will inevitably focus on AF Budge, the family company that Richard Budge left just 10 months before it went into receivership in December 1992.

The company left its unsecured creditors with losses of around pounds 65m after a series of ill- judged or unsuccessful investments.

The receivers, Cork Gully, thought they were going into a company dedicated to road contracting and building. Instead, over the past 22 months, they have found themselves following an unusual trail of apparently unrelated investments. These include yachts, racehorses, antique books, property developments and - most bizarre of all - a collection of military hardware, including a Scud missile.

The receivers are still working on recovering as much as they can of the money spent by the Budge family company on these ventures. They said last week that they had recouped most of the pounds 20m owed to the banks. But equity investors in the company, including the City institutions Charterhouse and Prudential, and a large band of unsecured creditors, are unlikely to get anything back.

Until February 1992 Richard Budge was a director of AF Budge. The company was started by his brother Tony, eight years his senior. Richard joined the group in 1966 and became a contracts manager in the civil engineering side in 1970. By 1974 he had diversified into opencast mining, leaving his brother to concentrate on road building.

Since then Richard Budge has built up the coal business, now known as RJB Mining, to the point where it produces 25 per cent of Britain's opencast mine output, mostly under licence to British Coal. The coal interests were sold by AF Budge to RJB Mining in 1991, the year before the family company went into receivership.

RJB Mining's latest set of results, for the first half of this year, showed pre-tax profits of pounds 6.8m on turnover of pounds 49m, a 23 per cent increase. Analysts expect profits of pounds 18m for the full year.

However, there are serious doubts in the coal and electricity industries about whether the pounds 900m he is understood to have offered the Government is too high and whether it is capable of making him an acceptable return.

The bid appears to be based on projections of future coal outut that many industry sources regard as highly ambitious, if not unattainable. 'He may this time have over- reached himself,' a banker who knows him well said.

The two Budge brothers are known as colourful characters by all who have come across them. Tony has a passion for horses. Among its other activities, AF Budge invested in racehorses and Doncaster racecourse.

Richard's passion is cars. In 1981 he took up motor racing. He is also a big entertainer at the races. RJB Mining sponsors a number of events at Doncaster Racecourse. On one occasion, according to a racecourse spokesman, Richard Budge flew up in a helicopter to join the race meeting straight from the City.

By the time AF Budge collapsed, it had acquired or set up more than 50 subsidiary companies, devoted to such activities as aviation, military hardware, small arms dealing, marquees and stud farming, as well as the core businesses.

The details make fascinating reading to anyone but the creditors. For example, AF Budge (Military) acquired a collection of military hardware, including a Scud missile and launcher, 122mm howitzers, tanks, anti-aircraft guns, armoured control cars, an amphibious jeep and a machine-gun carrier.

Another subsidiary owned a multi-million-pound yacht, Jamaica Bay, which had eight crew members. The yacht was often moored at Montego Bay. A source close to the company said Richard sometimes entertained financiers on the yacht in the Caribbean.

The family company also owned Gamston Airport near Retford, Nottinghamshire.

One subsidiary hired out marquees, once for Richard's son's 21st birthday, and another acquired a collection of antique books. Ryton Arms, a subsidiary, bought and sold rifles and pistols.

In the late 1980s the company made a disastrous move into property development when it acquired two office blocks in London's Docklands. The company bought the blocks in 1987 and 1988 and developed them. But by the time the receivers moved in one was almost empty and the interest bill on both was more than pounds 3m a year. One source said that the two blocks, which cost more than pounds 40m, were probably worth about pounds 10m now.

The group's cash flow became increasingly strained by the extent of its diversification away from its core businesses. In early 1991 it raised pounds 40m in equity and loans from two large City institutions, Charterhouse and the Prudential.

Less than a year later Richard Budge, backed by a group of venture capitalists, bought out the mining division for pounds 57.4m and formed RJB Mining, now the vehicle for his coal bid. Mr Budge has an 8.7 per cent shareholding in the company. The main group of venture capitalists, Schroder Ventures, has since made a pounds 15m- pounds 20m profit on its investment.

The splitting up of the two companies cost millions in professional fees.

When the receivers went into AF Budge, for example, they found liabilities of pounds 1.8m owing in legal, professional and accountancy fees.

Even after the injection of capital from the new investors in AF Budge and the disposal of the mining group, there was still intense pressure on the group's cash flow.

Just before going into receivership AF Budge's pension fund bought a property in Newcastle from the company, which eased the severe cash-flow difficulties. The pension fund, whose trustees included Tony Budge, but not Richard, also made a loan of pounds 300,000 to the company prior to it going into receivership. The receivers say this has now been repaid.

When RJB came to the stock market in May 1993, would-be City investors threatened to boycott the issue until Mr Budge agreed to a salary of pounds 225,000, around pounds 200,000 less than he originally wanted. The company was floated successfully, with the City valuing it at pounds 103m. Most of the equity was placed with institutional investors.

The prospectus for that public flotation highlighted a number of controversial aspects of Mr Budge's financial career. It showed that the receivers had received a pounds 325,000 payment from him, without any admission of liability, as a settlement for loans made to him while he was a director that had not been properly recorded in the company's records.

When asked about these, Mr Budge said he had received the payments as bonuses but unfortunately no minutes of the agreements had been kept by his brother or the company secretary.

Robin Cook, shadow trade and industry secretary until this week's reshuffle, said ministers had better be confident that the receivers' report had exonerated Mr Budge if they were going to sell him the bulk of the coal industry.

The receivers are still pursuing a disputed claim for pounds 1.7m against Richard Budge's brother, Tony, and have filed a writ in the Chancery Court in London, which is likely to be heard early next year. They have sent reports about the conduct of the directors, as they are obliged to do, to the Department of Trade and Industry.

Tony Budge, contacted yesterday, said he did not want to make any comment about the dispute with the receiver apart from saying: 'I expect to be in dispute with people about all sorts of issues.'

In splitting the company and then taking it to the City to raise new funds, Mr Budge was obliged to disclose a number of connected interests, some of which relate to his former company.

The flotation prospectus disclosed that Richard Budge was a director and a shareholder in Sheffield Airport, which had a contract with Sheffield Development Corporation to build an airport. The development never went ahead because the Sheffield Airport company was unable to raise the finance.

Mr Budge resigned in May 1993 and Sheffield Airport Limited went into liquidation in November of that year.

It also emerged that RJB Mining in 1992 had two contracts with companies in which Richard Budge had a financial interest. The first was a pounds 50,000 contract with two subsidiaries of Moira Pottery Company, a company wholly owned by Richard Budge. This company, through its subsidiaries, hired commercial aircraft and pilots to RJB Mining.

The second was an pounds 18,000 payment for corporate hospitality shoots organised by a company called Wiseton Farming Partnership, of which he was a partner.

BZW, RJB Mining's financial advisers, say they are confident they have enough support to complete the deal. Nevertheless there will be renewed scrutiny of Mr Budge's record in the City in the weeks ahead.

(Photograph omitted)

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