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Business Comment

Jim Armitage: Chinese cash in as London loses out

Outlook "Colourful" is how writers with nervous lawyers like to describe Frank Timis.

It's a relatively risk-free way of describing an entrepreneur with heroin convictions from his youth, who was censured by the Toronto Stock Exchange and banned from being a director, whose Regal Petroleum was fined by the London Stock Exchange for "overly optimistic" statements to the market, and whose African Petroleum business was banned from listing on the main stock exchange in Australia.

But never mind all that. London being London, another of his companies, African Minerals (formerly Sierre Leone Diamond Co), remains welcome in the junior Aim market. Yesterday, having seen African Minerals' share price slide 50 per cent this year, the Romanian-born emigre pulled off a coup, persuading Chinese investors to pump $1bn into African Minerals' Sierre Leone iron ore mine.

It's easy to think the Chinese will buy any lump of ground in Africa to sate their demand for metals, but it's not always that simple. Investors in another Timis project – African Petroleum – recall how PetroChina pulled out of a deal to buy a stake. Shares in that business have flatlined for much of this year since plunging 90 per cent.

It's fair to say, then, that backing Mr Timis's operations is not for the faint of heart. However, his unorthodox modus operandi does sometimes make investors money. And therein lies the problem for the London Stock Exchange. He wants to take African Minerals off the lightly-regulated Aim and on to the main market, but is blocked because of his lack of good corporate governance. Two other big Chinese investors dominate the board, potentially to the detriment of smaller shareholders, while he serves as both chairman and chief executive. So we have a company arguably beginning to look promising, but in which many pension funds are blocked from investing because its shares are only traded on Aim. There doesn't seem to be any way around this impasse. But meanwhile, any profits will keep flowing to the Chinese.