Izzy wizzy, Guinness Mahon gets busy

With Sooty and friends under his belt, the merchant bank chief is waving his wand in other new directions; THE MONDAY INTERVIEW; David Potter
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David Potter, the merchant banker, is in the media spotlight, and all because of a bear.

Not a bear market, mind, but one of the puppet variety; for it is Mr Potter's bank, Guinness Mahon, which last week snapped up the rights to Sooty for pounds 1.4m.

The media attention came as a bit of surprise at Guinness Mahon's London headquarters, just off Eastcheap, and has put Mr Potter, 51, into an even more ebullient mood than usual. As soon as the news broke, the bank was deluged with calls. Mr Potter, wreathed in his usual cigar smoke, says he firmly believes that the visibility will attract even more business in the fast-growing area of intellectual property rights.

And one thing is certain: last week's positive press coverage was far more welcome than the stories that traced the bank's brush with near-bankruptcy six years ago.

The rights to Sooty and friends were bought by the pounds 8m Global Rights Development Fund, which is managed by the development capital arm of Guinness Mahon, co-owned by the bank, Sony and a number of City pension funds. Its managers are furiously buying up rights in order to be a player in the emerging "new media" sector, and it already owns the rights to Thomas the Tank Engine.

Guinness Mahon's growing expertise on the corporate finance side of new media testifies to its new-found confidence. It almost went bust at the end of the 1980s, a victim of the property crash and unwise diversification into leasing, mixed with a seemingly endless series of corporate intrigues which involved Lord Kissin, its founder, Sir Robert Morton, Sir Ron Brierley and the late Robert Maxwell, among others. Now Mr Potter wants to build on Guinness Mahon's success in film finance - its latest is Richard III starring Sir Ian McKellen - and grow the fund. "The fund has had [the rights to] Thomas the Tank Engine for a fairly long time. Sooty seems to have captured people's imagination in a way which has exceeded our expectations. It underlines the fact that it's probably a good investment for the fund.

"It should lead to other people, with rights to sell, approaching us."

Mr Potter made his name in the 1970s at White Weld, the eurobond firm that was later rolled into Credit Suisse First Boston. He joined Guiness Mahon in 1990 as chief executive.

The start of Guinness Mahon's long rehabilitation came in 1989. Bank of Yokohama bought out the previous owner, Equiticorp, the New Zealand group. Mr Potter now says the Japanese have been "very good owners - the best we could have hoped for."

They have certainly had to be patient. In the year after Mr Potter joined, the bank made losses of pounds 35.5m in the first half alone.

Mr Potter reacted with a new strategy, dumping corporate lending to the likes of Polly Peck in favour of generating fee income. Leasing and property lending have been wound down. The business now has three legs: the corporate finance side, fund management, and the stockbrokers Henderson Crosthwaite.

So is Guinness Mahon making a profit? "Oh sure, yes," replies the chairman. "We made our first genuine bottom-line profits in 1995, and we're doing significantly better this year." As for the future, he adds: "Two things will happen: the stock market may boil over and new issues will dry up a bit. Also there's the general election - not that a Labour government would be particularly bad for business." Mr Potter adds that this is a personal view only.

Mr Potter, respected as a marketing whiz, believes he has found a new niche for the business - one vacated by the old City merchant banks as many of them have been snapped up by global banks and turned into "bulge bracket" organisations.

With banks such as Kleinwort Benson and SG Warburg now under such global ownership, Mr Potter believes there is room for a traditional small City merchant bank which is prepared to take risks and put capital behind entrepreneurs in the pounds 10m-pounds 200m bracket.

As the bank's recovery has slowly been confirmed, overseas institutions have started to regard it as a possible target. Many institutions want investment banking representation in London, and there aren't many merchant banks left to buy.

Mr Potter admits that some of the offers have been interesting - especially when the potential buyer would have provided new distribution power for equities. But he insists that he is happy with Bank of Yokohama.

There is no doubt that Guinness Mahon still bears the scars of the disasters of the past decade. The current media interest could be regarded as frothy. As a rival rather unkindly comments: "It might end up being called Sooty Bank."

As long as the deals keep rolling in, it's unlikely Mr Potter would care all that much.