People & Business: McGowan and Snowdon move into manufacturing

Fresh from selling Burnfield, the hi-tech engineering group, to Fairey at the turn of the year, Brian McGowan and Clive Snowdon have bought into a small manufacturing and distribution company, Umeco.

Mr McGowan walked away from Williams Holdings, the group he founded with Nigel Rudd, to go his own way with Burnfield five years ago. Mr McGowan recruited Mr Snowdon as finance director at Burnfield and then promoted him to managing director, while he was chairman. The partnership worked well at Burnfield. When they took over its market cap was pounds 13m and by the time they sold out at Christmas it was worth pounds 64m.

Mr McGowan's recent history at House of Fraser, where he is also chairman, has been less happy. He was brought in three years ago very much as the "golden boy" to float the company, but its share price today still lags some way behind its issue price. Last week Mr McGowan promised shareholders that if there was another cock-up at House of Fraser, he would fall on his sword.

No doubt this will be of comfort to shareholders in Umeco, whose biggest business is making aircraft refuelling systems. Messrs McGowan and Snowdon have reversed into the company by buying 5 per cent of the enlarged equity, following Umeco's acquisition of another company, Wellmar, and a pounds 9.2m placing and offer.

Mr Snowdon tells me Umeco's profits are growing by around 30 per cent a year and they're looking to increase export earnings. They're also looking for a new head office, preferably somewhere near Stratford-upon- Avon, where Mr Snowdon lives.

Would you buy life assurance from Tony Blair? How about an endowment policy from John Major or a PEP from Paddy Ashdown?

Continuing our series of election-related financial trivia, we learn from Cornhill Life that, of 1,000 people surveyed, 18 per cent would feel most happy buying a life policy from Mr Blair, with 13 per cent for both Mr Major and Mr Ashdown. The female vote of confidence was lower than the men's for all three politicians. So much for all that stuff about Mr Blair appealing to the female vote.

When it comes to which chancellor you would most like to look after your personal finances, Gordon Brown, with 6 per cent, beats Kenneth Clarke, with 3 per cent. Fully 80 per cent of those polled would prefer a "properly qualified financial adviser".

Barely a week passes these days without news of another high-profile investment by Prince al-Waleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia. In recent weeks, for instance, he has taken 5 per cent stakes in Apple and TWA. Both acquisitions conformed to his reputation for putting money in ailing but salvageable brand names. Now he has broken the pattern with the announcement of an alliance between himself and the theme-restaurant giant Planet Hollywood. Planet Hollywood is not in trouble - yesterday it announced that first- quarter profits had tripled to $101.6m - but Prince al-Waleed is jumping aboard anyway. He has bought 1 per cent of the company's outstanding stock and has paid for the right to manage 34 Planet Hollywood restaurants in 23 countries in Europe and the Middle East.

British Invisibles is launching its latest global campaign to trumpet the achievements of the City, using the Royal Navy.

BI's chairman, Brian Pearse, has adopted this 20th-century version of gunboat diplomacy because the Royal Yacht Britannia, which BI has used for the past 10 years or so, is retiring. BI has agreed with the Royal Navy to "use aircraft carriers and other naval vessels as a temporary substitute".

Roy Leighton, chairman of BI's export promotion forum, says the Navy is keen on the idea. The modern ships are designed for wining and dining foreign decision makers, since most of the frigates and destroyers have helicopter hangers at the back (sorry, stern). So the heirs of Nelson have proved Napoleon wrong; we're a nation of financiers rather than shopkeepers after all.

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