It was the interview that launched a thousand rumours. Before The Independent stirred the pot again this spring, rumours of Towergate Partnership executive chairman Peter Cullum taking a financial interest in the Canaries were merely numbered in the hundreds.
Tonight and that same rumour mill was back into over-drive as the Eastern Daily Press promised its readers a “sensational” story in the morning; of a “potential investment” that would put the Canaries in among the really big boys after a dozen years with just “a poor millionaire” at the helm in the shape of the nation's favourite cook, Delia Smith.
The Independent's profile of the one-time Canary schoolboy star – his budding professional football career ended, apparently, by a close encounter with a certain Charlie George in a game against Arsenal Boys – inevitably turned to football and the prospect of the Norfolk club becoming the latest to be a billionaire's play-thing.
“Football remains a passion, although he gets little time to attend matches,” wrote The Independent.
“Is he [Cullum] tempted to invest in ailing Norwich City Football Club, where he played for the junior team as a schoolboy? “Never say never,” is the reply. This, arguably, would be one investment where Peter Cullum would allow his heart, rather than his cool analytical business head, to rule the day.”
It is those three words – 'Never, say never…' – that sparked the latest round of 'Cullum in!' speculation; with Delia merely adding further fuel to the fire by her intriguing remarks to Radio Norfolk at last week's Royal Norfolk Show.
Quizzed as to the possibility of further investment this summer, the club's principal shareholder was in a 'Wait and see..' mood.
“Whatever's happening on the investment side, we wouldn't be saying,” she told Radio Norfolk.
“There's loads of new investment, everything's lovely, we're keeping quiet about all the money,” she added, before remembering that she was acting under orders. “No, no, no, I've got to behave, when they let me out they say 'Behave!'”
Cullum is certainly an interesting character and would certainly pass the kind of “fit and proper person” test that Delia and her husband, Michael Wynn Jones, have always said that they would apply to any potential suitor; it is why the Turners of CentralTrust fame, Andrew and Sharon, were allowed through the boardroom door last summer – good, Norfolk people with a proven track record in business.
Cullum's record in business is even more startling than the Turners.
For that “cool analytical business head” as recognised by The Independent has seen Kent-based Towergate rocket into the insurance stratosphere over the last decade; from employing just three people in 1997, Towergate now employs 3,500 – including, famously, a 'director of fun' – and has been valued at ?3 billion of late.
The company's success in cornering much of the UK specialised insurance market, coupled to a phenomenal record on the acquisition trail, has not only seen Cullum, 57, become the United Kingdom's 'Entrepreneur of the Year'; it has also catapulted him into the big league as far as the Sunday Times Rich List is concerned.
From a mere 106th equal in 2007 with a paltry personal wealth estimated at ?700 million, this year's survey had found another billion stuffed underneath the family mattress – Cullum weighing in at 40th equal with a newly-estimated personal fortune of ?1,700 million on the basis of his majority stake holding in Towergate.
As the Turners have long protested, such numbers are purely theoretical. They are on paper only – it is only when you liquify your assets, do such numbers start to pay for Shola Ameobi's wages.
Which – coincidentally – is just what Cullum has started to do.
Though a mooted 25% buy-out by the private equity outfit Candover failed to materialise ahead of this spring's punitive changes in the rate of capital gains tax – a deal that would have netted Cullum and his senior managerial team a cool ?850 million on the back of a ?3.4 billion valuation on Towergate – they did, however, squeeze in a swift sale of preferred ordinary shares to the American hedge fund Och-Ziff.
April's deal was reported to have raised ?100 million – and together saved the Towergate team about ?8 million in tax. Cullum is reported to enjoy a 65% stake in Towergate; back of a fag-packet numbers, but that would give him the better part of ?60 million in cash to splash.
It was the second time in less than two years that Och-Ziff had helped Cullum get liquid – in November 2006, together with Reservoir Capital, they bought ?100 million worth of preference shares as part of a ?580 million refinancing package that was led by banking giants, HBOS.
Speaking to the financial Press earlier this year, Cullum was clearly looking at further 'de-risking' events – short-hand for cashing in some of his Towergate chips.
“It would be daft to say that we would never consider a suitable offer. So in terms of the next 12 months, I see the opportunity for another de-risking event that would take something off the table, but we certainly wouldn't consider conceding control to a bank or a private equity house,” he said, at the time clearly in no mood for selling up lock, stock and barrel – even if rumours have been rife for the last year of private equity companies circling Towergate.
“We have too much to do over the next two to three years and it would be a very premature move on my part to effectively agree to a change of ownership in the business right now.”
That he is starting to plan for an exit appears in little doubt – he has already proved a generous benefactor of worthy causes, led by his own charitable trust run by his two daughters. Last year it benefitted to the tune of ?15 million – half of his ?9 million annual bonus, plus ?10 million from that first ?65 million share of the Och-Ziff/HBOS re-financing deal.
“I will give away hundreds of millions because my children do not need it. Philanthropy to me is real and I want to use my wealth to make a difference,” he said at the time.
That kind of wealth would certainly make a difference in the Championship. He doesn't appear to be one to shirk a challenge and like most men of his ilk and Rich List standing, he has a fiercely competitive streak that once upon a time found an outlet as a Norwich City schoolboy.
“One of my favourite phrases is something Andy Homer [Towergate's chief executive] says: 'Show me a good loser and I will show you a loser…' I love that.”
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