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Watch out for ENIC

THE business of sport is booming at the moment and as a result there is interest in Grand Prix racing from the most unusual places. For some months F1 teams have been reporting regular approaches from investment companies in the City of London and Bernie Ecclestone's plans to float his Formula 1 Holdings company has led to considerable excitement in the financial world with investment banks falling over one another to try to attract Bernie's business.

This has not impressed Ecclestone who was moved to tell the Sunday Express that "most of the ethics of a used car dealer are probably higher than these people operate."

At the same time there are big companies and private investors looking for a way to become involved in the sport and for some months we have been hearing the name of British businessman Joe Lewis. Our research suggests that Lewis should be taken very seriously.

Lewis has a fortune which is estimated to be around $4.5bn, which he made in the restaurant business before retiring to the Bahamas. In 1995 he bought into a little-known investment trust called the English National Investment Company and put Daniel Levy, a 35-year-old Cambridge economics graduate in charge of his new empire. The pair agreed to turn ENIC into an international leisure empire, using carefully-chosen sporting and entertainment activities which attract media coverage as the driving force for growth.

Lewis's first investment was in January 1996 when he bought a major stake in the Glasgow Rangers football team, the biggest single investment in the history of British football. This was followed by the purchase of the Italian soccer club Vicenza. ENIC is also looking at investments in rugby, tennis, golf and motor racing with the intention of using the brand names acquired to create major merchandising operations.

It is worth noting that Arrows F1 boss Tom Walkinshaw has obviously come up with a similar idea as he recently bought a majority shareholding in Gloucester rugby club, while Benetton's Flavio Briatore has also been mentioned in connection with a deal to buy the Oxford United football club.

It is interesting to note that in the last few weeks ENIC has invited Italian TV magnate Robert Hersov of Telepiu to join its board of directors. Hersov was recently mentioned as being behind a private sale of Formula 1 Holdings shares by Ecclestone.

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