November 14, 2009 2:00 am
Nicholas Levene, the "runaway financier" of tabloid headlines who owes an array of City creditors up to £200m, is apologetic that he is half an hour late for his interview with the Financial Times. Once he was worth £30m, his wealth allowing him to charter planes and yachts at will. Today he explains that his car broke down and he had to find a lift.
Early last month, there were reports that the financierhad gone missing amid a barrage of litigation from luminaries such as Brian Souter, the founder of Stagecoach, and Richard Caring, the Ivy restaurant entrepreneur, on whose behalf he had invested money.
Dressed casually in an open-necked check shirt and pale blue jeans, sipping a mug of tea, he denies that he ever sought to hide from his pursuers. Since September, he explains, he has been undergoing therapy in London's Priory clinic for up to 10 hours a day to tackle his gambling addiction. Even his own wife, he says, was unaware of the depth of his problem "until the last minute".
Asked if he feels he has let his friends down, he says he understands why some may be "disappointed" by the turn of events but still believes "in some way or another I can make amends. I don't know how. But I'm not running away from it and I am someone who will look to put things right."
Mr Levene says his gambling "probably started" while he was still at grammar school. His formal education ended at 15. But the thrill of risk-taking propelled a successful career as a trader in the City. He used his own wealth to take a market position in shares - "part of the adrenaline fix", as he describes it now.
While the scale of his activities may have been unusual, the practice itself was not.
"Certainly, coming from the [trading] floor, it's a culture. Certainly, people down there would own horses and be part of it, and go to dog racing . . . people would go to casinos . . . there would be lots of poker evenings going on . . . betting was part of everyday life," he says.
By 1997 Mr Levene had begun spread betting and made his first big ticket loss of £25,000 with a bet on the FTSE. But he went on to win £50,000 and by the late 1990s he was running "big positions".
At about this time, he says, friends started to ask him to invest amounts ranging from £500,000 to £3m to take spread-betting positions in companies, indices or IPOs.
"They all approached me," he says. "I stick to my guns there . . . I only ever dealt for friends and family . . . we were 24 [people] at any one time at the high. It was like a club. It wasn't like a fund or stockbroking . . . "
His worst trade was on Northern Rock, where he bought a 1.1 per cent stake just months before it was nationalised and shareholders were wiped out.
Mr Levene dismisses allegations made by some that he is a "mini Madoff", the disgraced former chairman of Nasdaq. "It's all words, isn't it," he shoots back. "Prove it. Show me. I'm nothing like Madoff.
"I invested money for family and friends, and they knew the risks and it was at my discretion . . . done in private. I wasn't running a fund and I wasn't promising returns of X like Mr Madoff was."
He believes it is "unlikely" that any charges will be brought against him. He attended the SFO's offices voluntarily on October 15 to answer questions but has heard nothing since.
He is also co-operating fully with Deloitte, the insolvency experts. He rejects estimates that he owes creditors more than £200m.
Since his bankruptcy, a number of tales have emerged about his allegedly ostentatious displays of wealth but mentioning them touches a raw nerve.
"Define lavish lifestyle," he snaps at one point. "What's lavish? I'm quite a down-to-earth person and just got carried away."
But he acknowledges that one story is true - and it suggests he was a man more than willing to splash the cash to avenge a perceived slight. As a regular customer of Eilat's Royal Beach Hotel, he was allotted the best room for several years after it opened.
One year, he was told that a friend of the owner had paid to occupy the room for a particular period over the next six years. In response, Mr Levene hired a private yacht and moored it outside the hotel, drawing trade away from it for a fortnight as he entertained friends and family.
"He was so rude to my wife, I thought, 'right, I'll do something different'," he says, "and there was a yacht going back from the Maldives to the south of France, and I said 'could you stop at Eilat on the way?' We had a great two weeks on that yacht parked outside the Royal Beach Hotel. I saw the manager on the balcony with his binoculars - all very amusing," he laughs.
As he heads off into the night, Mr Levene, who will be in bankruptcy for the next year, stresses he now wants to regain some sense of normality as he faces up to his responsibilities.
He says: "I think this therapy will make me an honest and trustworthy person. I believe that I have a lot to offer. I'm a people's person but it will take a decent amount of time to regain that trust.
"But I hope . . . you can't keep a good person down and everyone deserves a second chance."
It remains to be seen if the City is prepared to give him one.
From Beano to dandy
Nick Levene, who acquired the nickname "Beano" at school because of his love of the comic, left his north London grammar at the age of 15 with no qualifications, writes Jane Croft .
He emigrated with his parents to Israel for two years before returning to the UK in 1984 to join the floor of the London Stock Exchange just before Big Bang as a "blue button", or a trader who was not permitted to deal but could obtain a market price. He calls this a "free education" for those "quick and eager to learn".
Broking positions at Phillips & Drew and Tullett followed. Mr Levene set up an over-the-counter options business for Tullett and later did the same at Trio Equity Derivatives.
He left the City in June 2001 and took a year off to travel round the Mediterranean. When he returned to the City he took stakes in businesses such as Bramdean Asset Management, founded by Nicola Horlick, the City superwoman, and Leyton Orient football club.
Friends such as Kelvin Richardson, who worked with him during the early days in the City, describe Mr Levene as "the biggest and brashest of the brokers on the floor".
"He loved helicopter rides and had a box at Royal Ascot," said Mr Richardson.
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