City gears up for arrival of runaway Redbus, the film distributor that can't stop growing

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The Independent Online

Redbus Film Distribution, which co-produced and distributed the film Bend It Like Beckham, will this week be named as the UK's fastest-growing privately owned company.

Caspian Publishing, with the accountants Vantis, is publishing its annual Hot 100 list of private firms. Redbus Film Distribution is ranked number one, having seen annual sales grow from £263,000 in 1999 to £15.2m in 2002.

The company's chief executive and founder, Simon Franks, describes the Redbus entertainment and media group as a "small-cap News Corp". If he fulfils his ambitions, this would presumably make the 32-year-old former investment banker the next Rupert Murdoch.

He is already planning his next move: floating off Redbus Film Distribution, which holds the distribution rights to around 75 films, including Jeepers Creepers and The Gift.

"The company does not need money," he explains. "But if we want to expand through acquisitions, it is easier for a publicly quoted rather than a privately owned company to raise debt finance from banks."

Mr Franks, who quit the City to found the group in 1998, has not yet appointed a stockbroker to handle the float, but has whittled down the shortlist to three names. He did not give a valuation for the business.

Redbus has diversified beyond film distribution. Mr Franks's business strategy is to "incubate" new ventures under the wing of the film distribution arm before they become self-sufficient. He has set up Video Island, the largest online DVD rental subscription service in the UK, and Blueback, a luxury private hire company.

But it has not all been plain sailing. Cliff Stanford, who founded one of the first internet service providers, Demon Net, and is a former Redbus backer, was charged last month with conspiracy to blackmail. He allegedly tried to covertly obtain emails belonging to John Porter, who was then chairman of the internet hosting business Redbus Interhouse, which is a licensee of the Redbus trademark but is not affiliated to the Redbus group. Mr Stanford has denied the charges.

Mr Porter is the son of the Tesco heiress and disgraced former Tory leader of Westminster Council, Dame Shirley Porter. Last year Mr Franks bought out Mr Stanford's remaining stake in the group, but it is an association the Redbus founder would rather forget.

Despite the planned flotation, Mr Franks, who owns 80 per cent of the group, remains ambivalent about the City. "Philosophically I am against banks," he says. "There is a lot of corruption in the City. It distorts the market more than it provides liquidity."