Pearl prepares to conker the world

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The Independent Online
The 32nd annual Pearl World Conker Championships are upon us. Nearly 350 competitors from the UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany and Holland are limbering up for the championships in Ashton in Northamptonshire.

Pearl, the assurance company, has its headquarters in nearby Peterborough, and sponsors the event because "our industry has a fairly dull image and this is wacky," says a Pearl spokesman.

Geoff Delany, Pearl's company secretary, says: "In this industry we're no strangers to rules and regulations and neither are the conker players. "In the Pearl Championships no-one is allowed to pickle, bake or otherwise tamper with their nuts.

"If they do, they lose their licence to play. The only performance-enhancing substances permitted are those available in the beer tent."

The conkerfest raises around pounds 14,000 a year for charity and has been won only once by someone from overseas, a Mexican, who out-conkered everyone 16 years ago.

The Pearl spokesman says that another way of hardening a conker is to "pass it through a pig". Something to do with acid in the pig's stomach. Wacky indeed.

Alan Sugar, chairman of Tottenham Hotspur and Amstrad, was asked yesterday about merchandising. Manchester United's results earlier in the week had shown how well the Reds were doing from flogging whisky, lager and lots of other things. So how are Spurs doing?

Mr Sugar replied: "Because they've [Manchester United] been so successful and they're champions, they are known and respected throughout the world. They can put their name to just about anything - beer, shoelaces, toothbrushes. At the moment, we're on bed linen."

A successful American concept which links saving businesses money with giving to charity is about to be launched in the UK, courtesy of the Prince's Trust and Business in the Community.

Gifts in Kind is chaired by Sir Peter Ellwood, chief executive designate at Lloyds TSB. It is based on the Gifts in Kind charity in America, which annually transfers $400m from business to good causes in America.

The idea is based on what to do with millions of pounds worth of goods which businesses find are surplus to requirements. Instead of storing or destroying these surpluses, which is expensive, Gifts in Kind will connect businesses with hundreds of charities nation-wide and enable them to pass on the goods. Everyone wins.

Richard Cresswell, a spokesman for the scheme, who formerly worked for the Investors Compensation Scheme, says: "Businesses usually find the subject of waste embarrassing. This will offer them a completely confidential way to get rid of the stuff and save money."

Goods include anything from computers to clothes. Anyone interested in the scheme should contact Mr Cresswell on 0171 204 5003.

Internet cafes such as Cyberia, where you can sip coffee and surf the Internet at the same time, are not new. Entrepreneurs Bev Ripley and Terry Norris think they have hit on a new formula, however. They plan to launch 100 Hands On cafes in the UK over the next two years.

"Our cafes will act as computer training centres for small businesses and individuals, as well as providing the Internet," Mr Norris said.

He said Hands On was not so different from the duo's past two ventures. They built Cityvision, the 800-strong Ritz video rentals chain, which they sold to Blockbuster Video in 1992 for pounds 80m.

"The cafes will be very like a rental business. You can pay to use the computers by the hour - say pounds 6 for an hour's worth of the Internet. It makes more sense for us to buy the hardware than individuals, where their PC will sit in the corner at home unused for most of the day."

Mr Ripley and Mr Norris followed Ritz by building a chain of video games shops called Future Zone, which they sold to US stores chain Electronics Boutique.

"Hands On will be similar to Future Zone, in that we will sell software and modems as well," Mr Norris said.

The duo have raised pounds 1.1m via a rights issue for the cafes' holding company, Reflex, and open their first cafe in London on Sunday.