The City Diary: The Prince and the oil

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The Independent Online

Another week, another meeting between BG Group (British Gas in old money) and Prince Andrew, our special representative for international trade and investment. The company has a rather cosy relationship with the Duke of York, having met him three times in five weeks early this year.

Now I see that BG's chief executive, Frank Chapman, was back at the Palace last week for his fourth audience in six months, which does nothing to quell rumours that something is rumbling in Kazakhstan, where the company has important interests.

The Duke of York is exceptionally well connected in that country through his friendship with Goga Ashkenazi, the socialite-cum-oil executive who has a child with Timur Kulibayev, the son-in-law of Kazakhstan's president. Kulibayev also bought a house from the Duke, some say for a generous fee.

Horse trials

Betfair, the soon-to-be-floated betting exchange, reveals in its prospectus that it has abandoned its new high-roller business, which it was testing out. This was despite it booking first-quarter revenues of £25m and making a £7m profit – at least at the Ebitda level – but it did involve the company taking on the risk of the massive punts placed.

"The volatility of returns from such customers is such that Betfair has now decided not to proceed with this product," the document admits.

Still, the experiment wasn't a complete waste of time. Industry gossips suggest that Michael Tabor, the businessman turned racehorse owner and punter, did particularly well out of the Betfair trials.

Those who can't, teach

Here's an extract from a Virgin press release put out on Friday: "Virgin Unite, the non-profit foundation of the Virgin Group, will launch a Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in the Caribbean. The centre will support aspiring entrepreneurs in the creation and growth of small businesses in the Caribbean. The centre will offer practical business skills, access to coaches, mentors and financing opportunities."

And here's another snippet from an interview given by Virgin founder, Sir Richard Branson, to The Times on 7 February, 1998: "[Branson] says you can't teach people to be entrepreneurs, except to learn from your mistakes." Who'd have thought it?

To the nth degree

You'll recall that I take a dim view of people accepting honorary degrees – pointless baubles which are the height of vanity or a begging letter (depending on whether you're recipient or the donor).

We can now add Dragons' Den star James Caan to the list of serial offenders. He has an honorary doctorate from Leeds Metropolitan University, an honorary degree from the University of East London, and will soon receive an honorary doctorate from the University of York. He actually attended classes at Harvard, so probably should know better.

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