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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 April, 2005, 09:05 GMT 10:05 UK
Phoenix Four's image could be revived
By Jeremy Scott-Joynt
BBC News business reporter

Rover flags
Rover has suffered from a tough climate for carmakers
In 2000, Phoenix Venture Holdings was widely seen as the white knight riding to the rescue of Rover.

Its four owners, veterans of the car industry, paid BMW 10 to take Rover off its hands, along with a 500m dowry but stripped of its Mini and Land Rover marques, and promised a bright future of continued mass car production at the venerable firm's Longbridge plant.

In contrast, Rover's other suitor at the time - Jon Moulton's Alchemy Partners, which planned to concentrate on MG sports models - was derided as a ruthless asset stripper, even though BMW had been prepared to underwrite healthy redundancy packages for laid-off staff.

Five years later, with the business in the hands of the administrators and at risk of collapse, the Phoenix Four - John Towers, Peter Beale, John Edwards and Nick Stephenson - have made an impressive move to rescue its "white knight" image.

The four have offered to put forward Phoenix's assets - amounting to 49m - to help keep MG Rover going while the search for a buyer continues, or to place the money in a trust for the benefit of MG Rover workers.

Rover's administrators, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), said they had a letter committing the 49m.

This should help bring about a recovery of their image, which has become tarnished recently by reports that they too were nothing but a group of greedy capitalists.

Seeking shelter

Critics have long claimed that MG Rover's owners have failed to secure the car maker's long-term existence.

"People can point the finger and argue: what have you been doing for five years to secure the future of the business?" says David Leggett, managing editor of motor industry website just-auto.com.

But the Phoenix Four have not been sitting still. Their search for a partner has ranged from car makers to parts suppliers across the world.

From the first, they went out and trampled the world talking to everyone looking for a partner
Prof Peter Cooke, Nottingham Business School

When they bought Rover from BMW in May 2000, no-one was under any illusion that the firm still needed to shelter under the wing of a bigger player.

"They knew that to be viable, MG Rover couldn't run on its own," says Peter Cooke, motor industry professor at Nottingham Business School.

"From the first, they went out and trampled the world talking to everyone looking for a partner.

"With a three or four product lineup, you need to amortise development costs over a million units."

Phoenix, in contrast, was talking some 250,000 sales a year.

'Done deal'

Aside from the most recent talks with SAIC, which precipitated Rover's current predicament, the two main candidates for partnerships have been India's Tata Motor and another Chinese company, Brilliance.

John Towers
John Towers has scoured the world for partners

Rover does have a joint venture with Tata building the small Cityrover model, but the deal, Mr Leggett argues, was "fairly ineptly handled".

He notes that the Brilliance talks fell apart too, having been portrayed, as was SAIC at times, as a done deal.

And along the way, investment in new models to revitalise an elderly line-up has been lacking.

Personal profit

Along the way critics have claimed that whereas the business has been suffering, the Phoenix Four have done pretty well.

Each is thought to have invested about 60-70,000 in the Rover rescue, while their return - in the form of salaries, loans, pensions and control of a lucrative car lease financing firm - is estimated at about 40m.

In contrast, laid-off Rover workers are set to receive about 280 for every year of service.

When the directors' earnings were first revealed in 2004, BMW's UK chief Jim O'Donnell called the four "the unacceptable face of capitalism".

There are many who would say these Phoenix guys have taken a lot for themselves
David Leggett, Just-auto.com

In an editorial on Friday, the day the administrators came to Longbridge, the Financial Times said the Phoenix directors had done "what any ruthless entrepreneur would have done in their situation: incentivise, strip assets, take cash out early".

But in doing so, the paper said, "they betrayed the trust placed in them by their workers, the government and the public... by burning through someone else's money".

Tuesday's offer to make 49m available to MG Rover's administrators should go a long way to both to invalidate this assessment and to mollify its critics.

'High risk'

Indeed, the fact that the Phoenix Four have become rich men in the process needs to be seen in the context of the scale of their task, says Mr Cooke.

MG logo
The alternative plan was to build MG sports cars only

"The Phoenix team took on something that - if it had worked - would have been brilliant," he says.

"High risk is worth high reward."

According to Mr Leggett, Phoenix could be seen as having started out with a bad hand in the shape of outdated models and rampant over-production in the industry as a whole.

"They kept it going for five years, and I suppose they deserve some credit for that," he says.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Was the Phoenix consortium the best thing for Rover?



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