Cosmetic success: The fallen business star

He bragged of making a fortune by the age of 18, had a fleet of fancy cars and was feted by politicians. Now reuben singh is bankrupt – so were his claims without foundation?
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The Independent Online

He was the schoolboy tycoon hailed as a "business hero" by New Labour, and was named by Guinness World Records as the world's youngest self-made millionaire with an estimated personal fortune of £27.5m.

Reuben Singh, who became a multimillionaire before his 20th birthday, was idolised by MPs as a symbol of multicultural Britain's flourishing business sector. Dubbed "the most powerful man in Britain under 30", he appeared on television talk shows and the BBC's HARDtalk programme. He gave motivational speeches around the country and his picture was hung in the National Portrait Gallery.

Mr Singh revelled in his status as "the British Bill Gates", declared that he wished to become the world's youngest self-made billionaire, and was described by the Treasury and the British Chambers of Commerce as "one of a cadre of successful entrepreneurs spearheading a more entrepreneurial culture".

Yesterday, however, Mr Singh was declared bankrupt with debts estimated at more than £11m. The 31-year-old entrepreneur from Manchester was branded a liar by a judge after it emerged that he failed to repay a £900,000 loan to the Bank of Scotland (BoS). The bankruptcy order, granted by Manchester County Court, came after the bank rejected Mr Singh's offer to pay back the money over two years.

Details of Mr Singh's profligacy were revealed to the court in a statement of his financial affairs. He owes his father, Sarabjit Singh, £778,813 and has fallen £12,000 behind in payments for one of his cars. He has also run up debts of about £140,000 on nine credit cards, owes the Inland Revenue £32,500 for a penalty payment and has yet to settle a HM Customs and Excise bill for £60,000.

The vast majority of Mr Singh's debt was the £9m he owed to a Kuwaiti business, Badr ITK General Trading Company. The bankruptcy is being administered by the official receiver and means that Mr Singh's assets are frozen, he cannot obtain credit or be a director of a limited company.

Experts at the Manchester office of the accountancy firm PKF have been appointed to see if any assets can be recovered. It marks the final stage of a painful decline for a man whose remarkable business career was never far from controversy. Mr Singh's father is a wealthy Sikh wholesaler who came to England from Delhi in the early 1970s, setting up a company called Sabco, which imported and sold fashion accessories. The family lived in the affluent village of Poynton, Cheshire, and Mr Singh was sent to the academically rigorous William Hulme's Grammar School in Manchester.

While studying for A-levels, Mr Singh set up his first business, Miss Attitude, which sold women's clothing accessories and cosmetics. He had already acquired considerable business acumen from his parents. When he was 13, he would accompany his mother on trips to east Asia to buy fabrics. At 16, his father paid him a regular salary to run the sales department of Sabco. It was with savings from that job that he bought and then opened the first Miss Attitude store in Manchester's Arndale Centre in 1995, with a second following just four weeks later. By the time he left school, Mr Singh owned nine stores and employed more than 100 people. As the compulsive workaholic continued to work 20-hour days, his retail empire soon grew to more than 40 shops.

He expanded his collection of luxury cars to include a Bentley, two Rolls-Royces, two Mercedes and a Porsche. Never knowingly modest, Mr Singh told the Financial Times in 1999: "I have instant access to most ministers, most politicians, and most pioneers of industry. I have met Tony Blair many, many, many times and I think he is listening and acting."

In June of that year, Mr Singh was appointed by the then trade secretary Stephen Byers to the Department of Trade and Industry's Competitiveness Council – a sounding board for "Britain's youngest, brightest entrepreneurs". He was also given a place on the DTI's Small Business Council in May 2000. He retained his influential position there until July this year. A DTI spokesman said he was appointed because "he showed a very good entrepreneurial spirit and the success of his companies gave us the view that he was a successful businessman".

Mr Singh is a devout Sikh who often wakes up between 2am and 3am to pray, and he once offered to act as mediator between the Government and an influential community of Asian business leaders. He has relinquished many of his advisory roles in recent years but still chairs committees in Prince Michael of Kent's Genesis Initiative, which lobbies the Government on behalf of small businesses. Earlier this year, Mr Singh was named the Asian entrepreneur of the Year at a ceremony attended by the Prince of Wales.

For all who recruited him, it must have seemed like an invaluable public relations coup. Until it all started to go wrong.

The spectacular fall from grace which led to yesterday's bankruptcy ruling began in 1999. In February of that year, Mr Singh sold Miss Attitude to the US financier Gary Klesch's company, Klesch Capital Partners, in a deal worth a reported £22m. However, speculation quickly mounted in the City that the sale had earned him more than twice that figure. The deal made headlines across the country and earned Mr Singh a place in The Sunday Times Rich List. In fact, as the Manchester Evening News was later to discover, Miss Attitude was actually sold for just £1. Guinness World Records ripped up Mr Singh's entry as the world's youngest self-made millionaire and he was dropped from the rich lists.

Mr Klesch launched a scathing attack on the state of the company he bought, and the man who sold it to him. "The business was an absolute shambles, and I mean a shambles," Mr Klesch told The Mail on Sunday in 2002. "Mr Singh is a supreme self-publicist and a very naïve guy, not typical of the type of person we do business with. We have a saying in America – all show, no go – and that sums up the guy completely.

"He had a very fancy Mercedes but it turned out it was leased by the company and not owned by him at all. He ran around saying that I paid £55m for Miss Attitude. Although, at the time I knew it was a lie, I couldn't say anything. The deal was subject to a confidentiality clause so I could not say a word. But as he has abused the confidentiality clause, I feel I should tell the truth. If he denies that I bought the company for a pound, let him sue me for libel and a judge can decide who's right."

Yesterday, however, Mr Singh defended the sale of Miss Attitude. His spokesman said in a statement: "We believe that [from] 1995 to February 1999, Miss Attitude was a highly successful company which invested heavily in the UK, created hundreds of UK jobs and had a national presence."

When pressed to reveal the precise figure for which Miss Attitude was sold, he added only: "Unfortunately, we feel it would be inappropriate to comment on events after February 1999".

Other business ventures fared little better. One, a health food company called Robson & Steinberg, went bust after less than a year of trading, with debts of £250,000. Mr Singh was the only director and sole shareholder.

But it was Mr Singh's next major financial venture, an online secretarial company called alldaypa.com, that hastened and ultimately completed his decline. The company, based in Manchester's Salford Quays quarter, is thought to have struggled financially after Mr Singh's parents withdrew their backing. They stepped in and bought the company in 2004 when it was on the brink of collapse. Their subsequent decision to appoint their own management team, and in effect demote their son in a company he had founded, was widely seen as a public humiliation of a man whose reputation was now floundering.

Mr Singh, faced with a huge black hole in his company's finances, called in the Bank of Scotland. He decorated his office with press cuttings about his business successes, including a picture of him meeting Tony Blair, to woo the BoS representatives and successfully negotiate a loan. But when Mr Singh's parents pulled out and the bank called in their loan to him, a court order to settle the debt, which had by then grown to £1.56m, swiftly followed.

At Manchester County Court yesterday, Judge Michael Kershaw said Mr Singh deceived the bank to procure the loan. He accepted that Mr Singh had invented a bank account in Bermuda to help maintain the impression of immense personal wealth.

Judge Kershaw said that the former bank employee who agreed Mr Singh's overdraft "was, I think, to some extent a victim of Mr Singh's personality as well as Mr Singh's lies". The bank worker himself confessed to the court he had been influenced by the impressive press cuttings that adorned Mr Singh's office. "We were relying on Mr Singh's guarantee," he admitted. "He had demonstrated throughout a statement of means that he was significantly wealthy and therefore we believed we had comfort under the guarantee."

The man who once proudly drove to business meetings in a £270,000 banana-yellow Bentley said yesterday through his lawyer: "I am at a loss to understand why Bank of Scotland did not settle and why it more than doubled its debt with legal costs. I can only surmise there is a personal vendetta against me. The current situation brings to a conclusion a three-and-a-half year process where Bank of Scotland have pursued me in relation to a personal guarantee. During this period, I have offered to repay the whole sum owed over a two-year period. The bank refused to accept that proposal.

"Subsequently, in court, the bank said it would accept no proposals from me at whatever level those were offered. On the day of the most recent hearing, I offered several hundred thousand pounds to the bank's representatives to settle. My offer was rejected with no reason for the rejection being put forward. I will continue to co-operate with the official receiver."

But, whatever results such co-operation yields, it seems that only the most remarkable business acumen can salvage Reuben Singh's shattered reputation.

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