Thursday, February 18, 2010

'Invest in me,' says British entrepreneur

S Kalyana Ramanathan / London February 19, 2010

James Layfield is offering a 10% stake in himself

With an abundance of business ideas and frustrated with lack of funds from regular banking sources, a British serial entrepreneur is trying a novel business model. He is offering a 10 per cent stake in himself for £1 million, valuing himself at £10 million.

Thirty-six-year-old James Layfield, who has three profitable businesses under his Never Ever Limited banner, says the idea came to him as a flash on his last birthday while he was cycling.

Bankers, he feels, were nitpicking on minor details of his business proposals while he was trying to sell larger ideas. That is when he decided to appeal to investors who can see the potential he holds as a businessman capable of generating serial ideas that could be rolled out into successful businesses.

Under the terms of this new and unique offering, Layfield has put on the table a 10 per cent stake in himself, which would mean, a prospective investor would get this stake in any business he floats in the future. He admits he expects investors to take a leap of faith, but cushions any major risk in this proposal with a buyback offer at four or five times the value of the original investment over a four- to five-year period. This, he says is a two-way deal, where he can also be at a liberty to buy back the stake from any investor.

“The market is flooded with opportunities in today’s conditions. It is to see how I can help investor’s see the opportunities,” he says. He believes that selling a stake in one business would mean that investors would have to place all their bets in one basket. By offering a stake in himself (and therefore all his future businesses) the investor is well insulated he says. “(Sometimes) the idea itself is the barrier. Small things can put you off.”

He is currently in talks with two or three investors. Though one investor has agreed in principle to invest 2.5 per cent of the 10 per cent Layfield is offering in himself, he wishes to close the 10 per cent stake sale in one shot. So until he finds a buyer for the remaining 7.5 per cent the first investor has been put on hold.

As a dyslexic, Layfield says he was an academically average student, and recollects his schooling days with some distant frustration. His success as a businessman has clearly overshadowed his previous academic life.

The source of Layfield’s unorthodox idea is — not surprisingly perhaps — the maverick British businessman Richard Branson. Before starting his own business, Layfield worked for the Virgin Group’s founder for five years. After joining Virgin Student (one of UK’s earliest social networking sites) as marketing director, Layfield soon went on to head this business as its managing director, becoming the youngest-ever head of a Virgin business. Together with a partner, Layfield later bought the business from Virgin, and re-branded it

In 2006, he established Escape Airports Ltd that had set up a membership-based lounge at JFK airport in the US. This business was sold in 2008. Layfield has been listed in the 2008 and 2009 editions of Who’s Who of Britain’s Business Elite. He was appointed membership chair of the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation UK in 2009 — an organisation that helps leading entrepreneurs learn and grow.

Layfield says he sleeps with his iPhone next to him. “Just to make a note of some fresh idea I may get in the middle of the night,” he says. Does he still look up to Branson for advice? He says he is still in touch with his former boss. “I spoke to him last week, when I had some problem with my broadband provider Virgin Media,” he remarks with a laug

'Consortium may buy Corus' Teesside plant'

S Kalyana Ramanathan / London February 19, 2010

With just a day away from the scheduled mothballing of the Teesside Cast Products plant (owned by Tata Steel-controlled Corus) in north-east England, the area mayor, Ray Mallon, confirmed that a consortium may be interested in rescuing the plant.

Mallon, however, didn’t reveal the name of the parties that have shown interest. “It is too early to say whether we can save the steelworks, but I believe the consortium is credible,” said Mallon.

In a note to the media, the mayor said he did not want to raise false hopes but he regarded the consortium as credible and called for them to be given every assistance by Tata and the government.

“Coming in the wake of the news that Tata plans to mothball the plant, this may represent our last hope of saving steelmaking in the region. I do not want to raise false hopes and there is a long way to go before any deal is complete. But, this is a deal worth investigating. Both myself and Steve Gibson (a local businessman and chairman of Middlesbrough Football Club) will continue to do all we can to save steel jobs in the area until we are satisfied that no more can be done,” said Mallon.

He further said the consortium had made their approach within the last fortnight with a plan to buy the TCP plant and maintain production.

“I am aware Lord Mandelson (UK Business Secretary) is to visit the area tomorrow (Thursday). I have written to him about this latest development, although I’m sure he will have already been informed and it may be he has further news which he has not yet shared with the public. What is essential is that the government leaves no stone unturned in trying to save this plant,” said Mallon.

Monday, February 8, 2010

NGO appeals to Cameron in its fight against Vedanta

S Kalyana Ramanathan / London February 09, 2010

Survival International, a London-based NGO, has appealed to the director of the Hollywood blockbuster Avatar, James Cameron, to lend his support in fighting against London-listed mining and metals major Vedanta Resources from setting up its aluminium plant in Orissa.

Survival has appealed to the director through an advertisement in entertainment magazine Variety, in which the NGO has tried to draw parallels between the latter’s latest big budget 3D movie and the condition of the Dongria Kondh tribe in Niyamgiri, Orissa.

Survival today released its 11-minute documentary on the resistance put forward by the local tribes and invited Cameron to watch it.

Survival’s director Stephen Corry said, “Just as the Na’vi of Avatar describes the forest of Pandora as ‘their everything’, for the Dongria Kondh, life and land have always been deeply connected. The fundamental story of Avatar — if you take away the multi-coloured lemurs, the long-trunked horses and warring androids — is being played out today in the hills of Niyamgiri in Orissa.”

“Like the Na’vi, the Dongria Kondhs are also at risk, as their lands are set to be mined by Vedanta Resources, who will stop at nothing to achieve their aims. The mine will destroy the forests on which the Dongria Kondh depend and wreck the lives of thousands of other Kondh tribal people living in the area.”

The NGO’s film ends with a note that Vedanta was invited to respond to the movie, but received none so far.

The highlight of the film also includes a poignant narrative provided by British actor and activist Joanna Lumley, who was recently in the news for helping veteran Gurkha soldiers in getting British citizenship, for their community’s 200-year old role in the British army.

Through her narrative, Lumley has also lent her support to Survival’s campaign against Vedanta’s aluminium project in the bauxite rich mountains in Niyamgiri.

The appeal to director James Cameron says, “Avatar is fantasy...and real. The Dongria Kondh tribe in India are struggling to defend their land against a mining company hell-bent on destroying their sacred mountain. Please help the Dongria. We’ve watched your film — now watch ours:”

Support from a famous Hollywood director like Cameron would be a major win for Survival International, which had recently persuaded the Church of England to sell its investment in Vedanta Resources for ethical reasons. Even though the church’s investment in the company was very small (£2.5 million), the sale generated great media attention to the NGO’s campaign. In 2007, the Norwegian government also sold its $13 million stake, saying, “there is little reason to believe that the company’s unacceptable practice will change in the future”.

In addition, Martin Currie Investments sold its £2.3 million stake last year, and BP’s pension fund reduced its holdings in Vedanta due to “concerns about the way the company operates”.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Church of England sells stake in Vedanta

S Kalyana Ramanathan / London February 06, 2010

Withdraws investment over Orissa project.

Metals and mining major and Anil Agarwal-controlled Vedanta Resouces today received a moral blow to its proposed mining project in Orissa after the Church of England withdrew its investments in the company, citing ethical reasons for the decision.

The Church Commissioners and the Church of England Pensions Board have sold their shares in Vedanta Resources on the advice of the Church’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG).

The proposed aluminum project in Orissa faced a serious backlash from environmental and human rights activists regarding the displacement of the local Dongria Kondh community in the Niyamgiri Hills.

The Church’s investment in the Vedanta stock is relatively small, at £2.5 million, but a divestment would be a powerfully symbolic gesture and a victory for campaigners.

EIAG Chairman, John Reynolds, said: “I am a passionate advocate for engagement with companies when we have ethical concerns. We have an excellent track record of getting our concerns heard and acted upon by the companies in which the Church investing bodies hold shares. After six months of engagement (with the company), we are not satisfied that Vedanta has shown, or is likely in future to show, the level of respect for human rights and local communities that we expect of companies in whom the Church investing bodies hold shares.

In these circumstances the Ethical Investment Advisory Group advised that it would be inconsistent with the Church investing bodies’ joint ethical investment policy for the investing bodies to remain invested.”

The EIAG, however, said it will maintain contact with Vedanta. “We will be pleased to review our recommendation to the Church investing bodies if the company addresses the concerns we have raised,” said Reynolds.

At the time of going to print, a response from Vedanta could not be obtained.

The Church is not the first organisation to disinvest from Vedanta on ethical grounds. In 2007, the Norwegian government sold its $13 million stake, saying, “there is little reason to believe that the company’s unacceptable practice will change in the future”.

In addition, Martin Currie Investments sold its £2.3 million stake last year, and BP’s pension fund reduced its holdings in Vedanta due to “concerns about the way the company operates”.

NGO Survival International Director Stephen Corry said, “The Church’s unprecedented and very welcome decision sends a strong signal to companies that trample on tribal peoples’ rights: we will not bankroll your abuses. Anybody that has shares in Vedanta should sell them today if they care about human rights.”

Survival is lobbying other shareholders, including the Rowntree Charitable Trust.

In October 2009 The UK National Contact Point (NCP) for the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises upheld Survival International’s allegation that Vedanta Resources had failed to put in place an adequate and timely consultation mechanism to engage the Dongria Kondh community, whose health and environment would be directly affected by the company’s plans to construct a bauxite mine in the Niyamgiri Hills.

UK panel ropes in India to fight climate change

S Kalyana Ramanathan / London February 06, 2010

The opposition Conservative Party, ahead of the election in the UK, today formed a powerful climate change group involving business leaders from India and the UK.

The group will prepare a report on aspects in which India and UK can collaborate to fight climate change. It will be co-chaired by Ficci General Secretary Amit Mitra and Marks & Spencer chairman Stuart Rose.

At a meeting hosted by Ficci and London Business School in London today, shadow minister of climate change Gregory Barker asserted that this was not a political move to woo voters, but a proactive decision to engage two of the world’s most vibrant democracies to come together to face climate change challenges. This is the first major collaboration the Conservative Party has initiated before the election in the UK.

Tory party leader and Prime Minister candidate David Cameron, who attended the meeting said it would be an independent business panel. “The special relationship is not some distant vision. (We should take) the parting flirtation to a full-on romance,” Cameron said. He added that climate change challenges cannot be tackled by “well-healed politicians telling people how to live”.

The group would function independent of the outcome of the election in June, said Barker.

India, UK to ink civil nuclear deal soon

S Kalyana Ramanathan / London February 05, 2010

India and the United Kingdom will soon sign a civil nuclear deal. British Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Peter Mandelson, today said the two countries had agreed on the text of the deal and it is ready to be signed.

On the possible date of the signing of the deal, Mandelson said: “I see no reason why it should not be signed next week.” Mandelson, along with India’s Commerce Minister Anand Sharma, met the media on the sidelines of a Joint Economic Trade Committee conference in London today.

The civil nuclear deal between the two countries was expected to be signed in December last year during Mandelson’s visit to Delhi. However, India’s objection to the non-proliferation clause in the draft agreement came in the way of the deal being signed.

It remains unclear what non-proliferation issues remained to be sorted out, or whether there were any. Neither Sharma nor Mandelson clarified how the non-proliferation clause was sorted out.

Sources close to the negotiations told Business Standard that the agreement that the UK and India will sign shortly — probably during a visit by the UK officials to New Delhi next week — was presented as a draft to the Indian government several weeks ago.

“However, New Delhi’s preoccupations, especially the Prime Minister’s visit to Copenhagen for the climate negotiations, preventing India from finalising the agreement. Now, the Indian cabinet has okayed the draft,” they added.

This will be the third major civil nuclear deal that the Manmohan Singh government will sign. India has a similar arrangement with the US and France. It has a civil nuclear agreement with Russia as well. An agreement with Canada was signed in November last year.

Mandelson said the deal could be signed much ahead of the ensuing elections in the UK. After 12 years in power, the Labour government could be defeated in June, when it goes to polls. However, the possibility of the Conservatives coming ato power is not expected to thwart the deal.

Though the US civil nuclear deal was negotiated with the Bush government, the US Congress passed it under the Obama administration.

Sharma was in London to hold talks with Mandelson on strengthening the economic ties between the two countries. Apart from the nuclear deal, India and UK have agreed to collaborate closely in defence manufacturing and “high technology and value-added manufacturing”. Mandelson said several defence manufacturing companies in the UK are keen to set up base in India, which would allow flow of technology into the country.

“Apart from helping India to achieve self-sufficiency in the defence sector, this will push up overall growth in its manufacturing sector,” Mandelson said.

The UK’s bilateral trade with India is worth £12.6 billion a year. It is the biggest European investor in India, and India last year surpassed Japan to become the biggest Asian investor in the UK by number of projects.

Over 600 Indian firms are represented in the UK, of which about two thirds are in information technology or software. Last year, Indian investment in the UK created almost 4,000 jobs there.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

New India marches into London's Saatchi Gallery

S Kalyana Ramanathan / London February 05, 2010

Works of 26 Indian artists are on display as part of Charles Saatchi’s private collection

January 28 turned out to be a red-letter day for contemporary Indian artists. On that day the works of 26 Indian artists from India and other parts of the world went on display at the famous Saatchi Gallery as part of the private collection of one of the world’s foremost collectors, Charles Saatchi.

Charles Saatchi, 67, was the co-founder of the ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi. He and his brother Maurice were forced out of this agency in 1995 and went on to form their new agency M&C Saatchi.

Saatchi Gallery proudly threw open to the public select works of Indian artists under the title “The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today”. Over 60 pieces of work including paintings and installations have been put on display at the gallery.

The works of Indian artists based in India such as Atul Dodiya, Probir Gupta, Subodh Gupta, Mansoor Ali and those of Indian artists based abroad such as New York-based Schandra Singh and Jaishri Abichandani, and San

Francisco-based Ajit Chauhan are part of Charles Saatchi’s private collection. These pieces of contemporary art have been collected over 2007 and 2008.

“The rapid flourishing of this (India’s) art scene on the one hand and the recent economic downturn on the other have prompted critical questions on Indian culture and globalisation in a country torn between a proudly independent mindset and a dependence on global consumption,” said the formal introduction to the new collection at Saatchi Gallery.

Experts believe that the attention received by Indian artists from connoisseurs like Saatchi can only be helpful. Economic recession over the last two years had taken a toll on valuation of arts both globally and in India. Of course, before the bubble burst in 2008, the prices had already climbed to unnaturally high levels, said Peter Nagy, New Delhi-based art expert and director of Nature Morte gallery in New Delhi.

“Of course, Charles Saatchi is probably the most serious collector of contemporary art in the world today. So certainly whatever he does gets a lot of attention from people both within and outside of the art world,” said Nagy.

The price paid for the new collection of Indian artists at the Saatchi Gallery is, however, not known. But experts in the field estimate that they have been valued at 50,000-100,000 euros with Subodh Gupta’s UFO estimated to have fetched 300,000 euros. This installation is a work made up of hundreds of brass water-utensils that are soldered together to resemble a flying saucer. The gallery opens with its biggest installation of Jitish Kallat — an installation of 4,479 fibre glass sculptures titled Public Notice 2 which recalls the historic speech delivered by Mahatma Gandhi on the eve of the epic Salt March to Dandi.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Saatchi discovered many artists who went on to become international stars, selling works for millions. These include Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Chapman Brothers, Sarah Lucas and Marc Quinn. Introducing Britain to many of the world’s most exciting artists, Saatchi also gave first shows in the UK to Philip Guston, Cy Twombly, Brice Marden, Sigmar Polke, Andreas Gursky, Robert Gober, Richard Prince, John Currin and Elizabeth Peyton, said the gallery’s media managers. “His exhibitions have always focused on contemporary artists and Saatchi’s Sensation exhibition of Young British Artists in 1997 at the Royal Academy, London and at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York sparked an explosion of controversy about new British art,” said a gallery spokesperson

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

New UK-India group to hasten road building in India

S Kalyana Ramanathan / London February 03, 2010

Union Road Transport and Highways Minister Kamal Nath today said a new group styled British India Road Group (BIRG) has been formed to hasten road development projects in India.

The group, which held its first meeting in London yesterday will focus mainly on the construction of major highways and district-level roads. It will comprise major road building contractors from the UK and India.

Kamal Nath was in London to address a conference on infrastructure building in India, organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and Commonwealth Business Council (CBC), where he spoke at length about the urgent need to overcome “infrastructure deficit” faced by India. BIRG will involve both CII and CBC in the consultative process in road building in India.

While the role of the new group will be limited to road building, a new memorandum of understanding between the UK and India is being drafted — to be signed in two months — to address the larger road infrastructure related issues like safety, training, licensing and inspection.

The minister, who was on his way back to India from Davos after attending the World Economic Forum, said the entire road construction project would need $40-45 billion (Rs 1.85 lakh crore-Rs 2 lakh crore) over the next four years. He said finding investments for the sector should not be a challenge with attractive revenue models (from toll fee etc) in place.