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Software king bounces back

Kathleen Brooks
WHEN Michael Jackson joined the board as non-executive chairman of online gambling firm PartyGaming in 2005, he knew that he had kissed goodbye his chance to join what he calls the City’s “great and the good”. PartyGaming’s US business was under scrutiny and subsequently it chose to close down its US operations as a result of legislation which specifically outlawed on-line gaming.

A legal wrangle ensued and the company ended up reaching a settlement with the US Department of Justice, paying $105m to avoid a court case. “You could argue that joining PartyGaming was my biggest mistake. It didn’t go down well in the City,” he says from his office close to Holborn. “I am a risk taker, but it was a FTSE 100 company for God’s sake.”

The interview takes place in his venture capital firm Elderstreet’s boardroom. On the table is a roulette wheel that mysteriously has no ball. Is it an ironic joke??Does it represent Jackson’s thwarted ambitions at PartyGaming? Whatever, Jackson doesn’t plan on doing business in the US again: “It’s changed my view on large companies doing business in the US because of its draconian legal system.” His latest venture, Access Intelligence, was through the venture capital trust he founded in 1990, Elderstreet Investments. It makes compliance software and floated on Aim last year, since when its share price has risen by 45 per cent.

PartyGaming seems to be a blip in an otherwise successful career. Back at the beginning there was Sage, the business software firm, that he grew from a staff of three in 1983 to a multinational business, that is now on the FTSE 100, has 15,000 staff and £3bn in turnover. Although he sold his stake in Sage in 2007, this is the company that made his reputation. “It’s the business I am most proud of and its success attracted me to the IT sector.”

Jackson firstly sold Elderstreet to what was Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein in 2000, but bought it back from them in 2003. He’s not shy in telling me that he paid less for it than what he sold it for. Next, in 2008, Jackson announced that he planned to purchase small accounting firms through Elderstreet. The media’s angle on this story was that he was taking on Sage, which he hotly denies and subsequently chose not to make the investments.

He became an entrepreneur after failing to win the top job at a small investment bank in the City. “I became an entrepreneur pretty late really, I was 40 at the time.” His advice to any budding entrepreneurs is to study accountancy: “It’s the best way to learn about business,” he says.

And was there anything in his background that pointed to him becoming an entrepreneur? From a young age he always wanted to be rich: “You normally get the best birds because they live in expensive places.”

CV | MICHAEL JACKSON

Age: 59

Lives: South Kensington with his wife, three children and a stepdaughter

Car: Mercedes 500 SL

Favourite book: Gone With the Wind. “I first read it when I was 15, it’s an extraordinary book.”

His current firm, venture capital trust Elderstreet has £70m of funds under management but Jackson also uses his own personal money for some of its investments. For example, he put £600,000 into software manufacturer Access Intelligence.