Put in the firing line by a master business partner

Richard Farleigh
THE aborigine guide’s eyes widened in disbelief when he saw the bright yellow pyjamas, and he said “you had better take those off mate.” So David Norwood stripped down to his underwear and we set off on our wild pig shoot in the north of Australia. Asked why he had worn them in the first place, Dave just shrugged and said “they’re comfortable” and he didn’t seem to mind trudging through the bush in his Calvin Klein’s.

Not long after, Dave and our guide trekked ahead and shot a pig, causing the rest of the herd to stampede in my general direction. Seeing an opportunity to shoot a second one, Dave’s swung his gun around and took aim. But I was about 50 yards behind the pigs and directly in the firing line. “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot!” I yelled as I tried to shelter behind a tree about as thin as a broomstick. Dave didn’t hear me and continued to take aim. Then I felt intense pain in my eyes. I had burst an ants’ nest made by some Aussie species that make a football-shaped home in the trees out of leaves, and there were hundreds of them biting all over my face. Dave fired a shot, but all he may have hit was an unlucky hawk or eagle, because our guide pushed the gun towards the sky. Now of course, we are best friends.

Dave is slightly mad and completely brilliant. A fantastic chess player, he gave up the game after becoming a grandmaster to follow a career in business. It didn’t start well when he was hired by an investment bank. They were keen on his brain but didn’t show many brains themselves by giving him an incredibly mundane job, which bored him of course, so he performed terribly. He later excelled at a smaller bank where he became involved with small businesses. It was this activity, as well as his links with Oxford University, where he had read history, that saw us become business partners. In the late 90s, very little had been done to commercialise research from universities, and we were fascinated by the potential in providing money and expertise. So we created an advisory company, Index IT, which would take small stakes in new spin-outs in return for offering these services. I was no more than a silent partner: I watched and learned from Dave in action. His creativity and powerful logic, combined with a complete lack of dress sense, a strong Bolton drawl and northern humour to match, allowed him to give amicable but no-nonsense advice.

He fixed faulty business plans and presentations, and excelled at getting reluctant scientists and standoffish fund managers to communicate. People listened to and respected him, and some of the companies flourished. In 2000 we sold the business for a staggering £20m. We couldn’t believe it, but perhaps we should have: Index IT evolved into IP Group, now worth more than £400m.

Richard Farleigh has operated as a business angel for many years, backing more early-stage companies than anyone else in the UK.