Thursday, April 12, 2007

The tragedy of Mark Langford

They'll probably never find the loot that Mark Langford and his wife Debbie trousered from their stewardship of The Accident Group - slogan, "where there's blame, there's a claim". We reckon he put about £9m into an Employee Benefit Trust, then transferred that offshore. Talk of £50m is fanciful.

The obituary in the Daily Telegraph is here.

A typically nasty and graphic account in the Daily Mail is here.

Previous posts on the subject of The Accident Group are here.

Was it suicide? Was it stress? Was it justice? Whatever his state of mind when he died it can't have been a happy one. He was separated from his wife. He had become a pantomime villain. Pilloried and pursued across Europe as the man who not only ran a distasteful business, but ran it dishonestly too. Served with a petition from the Revenue and Customs at his daughter's birthday party, his tragic end serves as a sad and pitiful warning to those who's greed and ambition consume them utterly.

On the two occasions that I met him I was struck by his painful craving for respectability. The back story was that he'd threatened to sue us for saying he'd killed Bill Thornley, a war veteran, while driving his Ferrari. He had top libel lawyers Carter Ruck and Partners send us threatening letters. We didn't back down and the row went away. It was true, by the way. He had killed the bloke, but technically he had been cleared of causing death by dangerous driving. Semantics. Mr Thornley was dead.

A year and a day later, he then called me in for a chat. He had employed Clive Entwistle, a former Cook Report investigative journalist as his PR man. Clive claimed this was an extension of his work unmasking bad guys. Langford wanted to show that he was helping people, that he had offered a service to people who had nowhere else to turn after legal aid was withdrawn for personal injury claims. He was also branching out into personal finance and would be sponsoring Manchester City FC through his First Advice brand. The truth was he was still mainly selling after-the-event insurance to accident victims, and taking a cut of the loans to fund them and gambling on a percentage of cases being settled by the insurers.

But Langford also had made an enormous pledge to support the NSPCC. At a glittering ball at Knowsley Hall President Bill Clinton praised him for his efforts. As well as providing the glittering lifestyle for his family - the mansion near Congleton and the fleet of cars, he also craved admission into the respectable class of Cheshire business. Hence the NSPCC stuff. Hence he was talking to Insider.

The business was doing quite well, his accounts showed enormous profit growth, but there was a time bomb under it. Insurers were contesting more cases. To compensate for this more cases were taken on, profits were then booked on probable case wins, rather than cash coming in.

At the end of one meeting I went through his accounts and asked about all the offshore entities which owned his businesses and asked about the employee benefit trusts. He got quite twitchy at that point and stopped answering the questions.

When the next accounts were published it showed just how much he and his wife were paying each other in salary and dividends. We decided to clear a stack of pages and the cover in the June issue and go to town on TAG. Sue Craven did some research for us and red flags shot up; this was a business not paying its bills. Everyone went quiet at TAG as well. Calls weren't returned and the cosy co-operation had dried up. In late May 2003 it went bust. He fled to Marbella and was engaged in a tetchy and evasive battle with the administrators to get the money he had taken from a business that had falsely declared large profits. He was disqualified as a director, chased by the Inland Revenue and Customs and occasionally turned up in the press for the crime of living in Marbella. Always on hand to provide a quote is someone called Alec McFadden, from something called the TUC (not that one).

Infamously, when the business went bust 2500 staff were told in a text they weren't being paid. That communication stunt was in fact organised by the administrators PWC, yet it will be forever the epitaph for Mark Campion Langford.

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