Airey finds King Midas has no clothes

First, let me declare a personal interest in what follows. I once briefly worked with the legendary Tim Carron Brown, lately funding rainmaker at Dawn Airey’s ill-fated Iostar production company, and I suffered no financial impairment as a result. I have also lived in Dunoon, the dour Clydeside resort where Carron Brown first practised his financial magic all those years ago, and I have to say it would have needed a lot more than a promised cash injection of £411,000 (even in 1996 terms) to effect an economic miracle there.

From what I can recall of Carron Brown, who was about 24 at the time, he was a preternaturally gifted salesman with the gravitas of someone twice his age. Now that he has reached twice that age, he has been exposed as a bit of a fraud (in the eyes of those who have participated in his financial schemes at least). I hasten to add, because M’Learned Friend is tapping me insistently on the shoulder, that when I say ‘fraud’ I mean – of course – not all he was cracked up to be rather than a criminal fraudster. I have no reason to believe that, in acting unwittingly as the financial author of a series of entrepreneurial disasters, he has actually done anything fraudulent. Simply created a lot of misery. 

It seems a truth generally overlooked that a gift for raising money does not necessarily equate to financial competence. How else can we explain why, over the years, so many otherwise hard-bitten businessmen and investors, from Chris Ingram to Laurence Isaacson CBE, former adman and restaurateur, not to omit the redoubtable Airey herself, were initially persuaded by Carron Brown’s silken charms only to face bitter disappointment later?

A pattern of behaviour
The pattern of Carron Brown’s entrepreneurial behaviour established itself when he set up a company in 1996 called Channel 11, with  £411,000 in grants from the Argyll and Isles Enterprise Board. It was – a hallmark of his other ventures – a clever, appealing idea well ahead of its time; in this case a new business networking system relying on the then racy concepts of interactive news channels and online services.  He told Dunoon he would be taking on 160 people and was acclaimed a local hero. He took on 60 and then, the following year, the company went spectacularly bust with liabilities totalling millions of pounds.

Unabashed, in that same year Carron Brown raised £10m to set up a Transaction TV, a trading service for pubs that enabled them to set victualling prices. Nothing more came of the venture.

But that hardly mattered, because Carron Brown was hatching the grand-daddy of them all, Efdex. It was a vision he had first developed in the mid-nineties, once again featuring the food and drink industry and, at the height of the dotcom boom, fashionably constructed around a one-stop internet market. Eerily foreshadowing events at Iostar years later, Carron Brown persuaded a respected female executive, Ellen Marram, to give up her job as head of Tropicana and front the new company. He also managed to persuade a galaxy of big names, including prominent banker Sir Kit McMahon and Canadian brewing heir Ian Molson, to invest.

And the outcome? You guessed. Marram quit suddenly and inexplicably. Soon afterwards, in September 2000, Efdex was declared bankrupt. Close to £40m had been lost.

Bruised egos at Iostar
And so to Iostar. It was to be an avant-garde fusion of talents stretching from programme production to modelling stars. Among its ambitious plans was the acquisition, apparently in the bag, of West Park Pictures – the production company run by Andre Singer – and Models 1, the Twiggy and Yasmin Le Bon agency. With TV veteran Dick Emery as chairman, Airey as chief executive and Stephen Fry on board as a director and investor, not to mention successful entrepreneur and patron of the arts Isaacson adding his heft, how could it fail? We’ll never find out of course, because it was stillborn.

Come April 13, it turned out the financial cupboard was bare: the first £20m tranche of a £32.5m investment target was little more than a figment of Carron Brown’s imagination. Understandably, when she learned this, Airey stormed out in a red mist and is now consulting her lawyers. A hitherto brilliant career –  as a precocious ITV programmes planning director, chief executive of fledgling Channel 5 then head of BSkyB TV channels – had just stalled on a bad judgement call.

It is in the nature of entrepreneurial risk that projects can sour as well as soar. What is striking about Iostar, however, is an absence of common sense among a lot of experienced, eminent people who should know better. They allowed themselves to be carried away by the rhetoric of the project without checking some obvious and easily ascertainable facts – like: what was the track-record of the man putting together the financial package? Above all it is them, rather than Tim Carron Brown, who have been made to look silly.

As for Airey, she is a highly capable TV executive. In a small pool of talent, she will swim to the surface again. Though I would be surprised if it were in any entrepreneurial capacity.

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