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Onshore News: Bosses at Underweater Centre Prepare to put Buyout Offer to the Receivers

Posted on 19.01.2004 - 03:08 EST in ONSHORE NEWS by admin

ginamc writes:  Management at the Underwater Centre and the £2.5million Ocean Frontier tourist attraction at Fort William hope a buyout can save the troubled enterprise from going under.

The centres, which have gone into receivership, have debts of more than £3million.

The buyout move was confirmed yesterday by a member of the management team, who said an offer was being prepared for submission to the receivers.

Managing director Don McGregor declined to comment but joint receiver Blair Nimmo, of KPMG, said: "Mr McGregor remains interested in becoming involved and his interest has been noted."

The news comes as one creditor revealed he would be asking Scottish Enterprise Minister Jim Wallace to investigate funding for the company by Lochaber Enterprise, the local development agency.

Bruce Simpson, a director of a design and publishing company, has described the agency's involvement as "an appalling state of affairs".

This follows the decision by Stenmar, the Aberdeen-based diving and subsea technology company, which runs the Fort William complex, to call in the receivers earlier this month because of crippling debts.

It has since been revealed that the enterprise agency had invested £475,000 in shares in the business and in 2002 had also awarded Stenmar a grant package worth £232,800.

The grant, which included £61,000 from the European Regional Development Fund, was to develop a multi-million-pound manufacturing and research centre and the Ocean Frontier project, which opened its doors just four months ago.

Mr Simpson, Lochaber's former area tourist manager and a tourism consultant for the past 10 years, is among creditors of the company, having carried out business for the Ocean Frontier attraction.

He has called for the resignation of enterprise agency chairman Drew McFarlane Slack and its acting chief executive, Charlotte Wright.

Mr Simpson, a former Lochaber district councillor and now a director of a Glasgow-based design and publishing company, said he had done business with Ocean Frontier because of the enterprise agency's support of the project.

But he says: "Somewhere along the line, in respect of this particular application, something has gone drastically wrong."

And he asked: "How could an enterprise company allow public money to be open to such risk?"

In a letter to Mr McFarlane Slack, he says it is the chairman's job to protect the public purse and ensure that where money is invested in private companies, suitable safeguards are in place and implemented.

But he says this did not appear to be the case with Ocean Frontier.

Mr Simpson wants to know whether Ocean Frontier was set up as a separate limited company and, if so, what shareholding the enterprise agency had and what guarantee it receive in exchange.

He also questions what feedback was received on the financial affairs of the business and what action was taken.

Mr Simpson said: "It does not take a trained accountant to see that these are absolutely fundamental questions and there will be many more relating to this case."

He adds: "I can almost guarantee that Lochaber Enterprise will be inundated with calls from creditors of Ocean Frontier calling for the agency, having put the seal of approval on that business, to be made corporately liable for its debts."

Mr Simpson says that Mr McFarlane Slack has been seriously let down by his advisers, but demands that the chairman accepts full responsibility for the actions of his executives.

The agency has dismissed calls for resignations, but confirmed that Mr McFarlane Slack had received Mr Simpson's letter and would be replying to him directly.

The spokesman added: "As with all grant applications a full risk assessment was carried out before making the award to Stenmar Engineering.

"The difficulties encountered by the company could not have been foreseen and were outwith the control of Lochaber Enterprise."

Receivers say they are hopeful a buyer can be found for the business.

It says cost over-runs, a problematic subsea contract for the Korean military and delays in opening Ocean Frontier following the collapse of a construction company were contribu-tory factors in the receivers being called in.

Twenty-five employees across Stenmar's operations have been made redundant - a move which Mr Nimmo said would allow the company to continue trading and enable it to get into better shape.

Mr Nimmo added: "We are trying to find a buyer and have put out memoranda to a variety of parties but it is too early to say what feedback there has been."

Source: The Press & Journal
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