Millionaire Christopher Foster let fortune slip from his grasp

Our correspondents unravel the tangled affairs of the man at the centre of the Shropshire arson

Striding across the rolling fields of Shropshire, shotgun slung across his arms, Christopher Foster radiated the winning confidence of the self-made businessman. To those who knew him, his marksman's eye and sharp clothes appeared to be matched by an equally keen business sense.

"He was very well turned out and always had the best gear," said Graham Evans, chairman of the Shropshire Clay Pigeon Shooting Association, who regularly met Foster at shooting events. "He was a good shot. He would wear shooting suits, tweeds, but was casual if we were just going clay pigeon. He was a millionaire and lived the lifestyle."

On bank holiday Monday, Foster, 50, seemed in typically relaxed mode at a friend's barbecue, apparently enjoying the fruits of a successful business career: the country house, luxury cars, horses for his wife Jillian, 49, and the £16,000-a-year private education for his daughter Kirstie, 15.

Yesterday, as police confirmed that two bodies had been found in the charred remains of Foster's £1.2m mansion, the image of the wealthy entrepreneur with the deft touch was exposed as a charade. The mansion had been torched hours before bailiffs were due to arrive to seize Foster's prized possessions.

In the maelstrom of arson and violence that engulfed the Fosters' home on Monday night, three horses and two family dogs are believed to have been shot dead. To those who knew how much the family loved their animals, it seemed an abhorrence.

Anne Giddings, Foster's sister-in-law, said: "This just doesn't happen to your own family. It's like something you see on TV. It's horrendous. We just can't believe it."

To friends it seemed impossible that Foster could have been responsible for the grisly sequence of events. John Hughes, who hosted Monday night's barbecue, said: "Chris was fine, just his normal self – they all were. They are very nice and a very close family. Chris is very much a family man who loves animals and children; he supported his daughter in her horse riding."

However, inquiries by The Sunday Times have established that the smiles at the barbecue hid the torment of imminent ruin. Foster was facing the destruction of his family's meticulously cultivated country lifestyle.

His standing in the community has been traced back to the late 1990s, when Foster, a salesman, had a brainchild that he hoped would make his fortune.

In the prosaic but profitable world of pipe insulation, he invented a new type of cladding for the oil industry. It was a quick-fitting and effective insulation that prevented pipeline corrosion and splits on oil rigs and refineries. He created a company, Ulva. Soon the money was rolling in.

Based at a business park in Rugeley, Staffordshire, Ulva won a £500,000 contract with Petro-Canada, the Canadian oil company. Foster, from Burnley, was cock-a-hoop, claiming that he was winning every offshore construction project that he targeted in Britain.

Giuseppina Beardsmore, who worked with him at the fledgling company, said: "About 12 people worked for the company. He was hard-working and very hands-on in those days. He wasn't afraid of getting his hands dirty."

Those who had known Foster as a competent fire safety salesman were taken aback by his ingenuity in creating the new product, UlvaShield.

Dan Sherrill, a Texas businessman and former partner of Foster's, said: "He appreciated a good sale, but I'm surprised he made it so big. But he did come up with a very good product." The problem was that Foster's entrepreneurial skills do not seem to have been matched by all-round business acumen. The accounts of Ulva were disorganised and his personal spending quickly outpaced his business income.

Terrence Baines, from Tamworth, Staffordshire, Foster's former accountant, said he was ostentatious with money but was drawing a salary of only £25,000 when Ulva was founded. "He liked to be the big man in some way," Baines said. "He would have told people he was a millionaire. He was not then personally wealthy but the company was doing okay."

Despite his modest initial salary, the business was turning over more than £2.4m by 2005. Foster had quickly swapped the trappings of a moderately successful business for that of a small business tycoon.

In the 1990s he had moved from his Wolverhampton home to a modern red-brick house in Telford. He sold that in October 2004 for £700,000 and in the same month paid just under £1.2m for the mansion at Maesbrook, Shropshire. He built up a small fleet of luxury cars, including a 4x4 for his wife with a personalised numberplate, and spent thousands of pounds on improvements for the home. Kirstie was sent to the private Ellesmere college, a few miles away.

Ulva seemed to be going from strength to strength. Business associates say Foster won a lucrative contract to supply insulation to the new 1,100-mile Caspian pipeline, which runs from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean, through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.

However, the debts at Ulva were racking up. In 2005 the company owed nearly £2.8m to creditors and had lent about £160,000 to one of the company directors, who is not identified in the accounts.

Foster needed to cut his costs. One of his main suppliers was DRC Distribution, a Cambridgeshire company owned by the SWP construction group. Although Foster had a contract with DRC, he decided to use another company that undercut its price.

This proved to be his undoing. When DRC discovered what was happening, it sued Ulva in the High Court for breach of contract in September 2006. The case laid bare the parlous state of Foster's finances. He owed the taxman nearly £1m and DRC £800,000.

Desperately, Foster tried to siphon the assets of Ulva into another company. He failed. A judge later described him as "bereft of the basic instincts of commercial morality". Foster's product – the key to a fortune – was slipping from his grasp.

The businessman was accustomed to high stakes in the courtroom. He had been involved in a case in 2006 when he accused two men of trying to blackmail him over a Cyprus land deal. They were cleared at Shrewsbury Crown Court.

The protracted case in the High Court had in effect ruined Foster. To add to his misfortunes, SWP bought his business in November 2007 for what it described as a "nominal" sum. Ulva Insulation Systems is now set to generate millions of pounds for its new owners.

SWP has told investors that Foster's former company offers international "growth possibilities of transformational proportions". It lists BP, British Gas, Total and Amerada Hess as clients and has recruited one of Foster's former partners as sales director.

"It was always a good business," said a source close to SWP. "He just screwed it up."

It is not clear why Foster was not paid more for the business. Over the past few weeks he must have dwelt on the loss and the worries that his creditors were closing in. It would have been particularly galling that his idea was on the threshold of international success. In May a legal restriction was placed at the Land Registry on his mansion, stopping him selling it without authorisation from the corporate liquidators.

On bank holiday Monday, Foster would have walked home from the barbecue with his mind in turmoil. The bailiffs were moving in and his humiliation was about to become public.

The full horror of what unfolded at Foster's home may never be known, but the forensic team will provide some explanation of the night's events. Power in the house is believed to have been cut late on Monday. The gates were blocked with a horsebox, the family animals were shot dead and the door of the house was reportedly barricaded from the inside.

Officers are understood to have found no evidence – from traces on mobile phones or credit card records – that any of the family are alive. But with one person missing, a number of possible theories remain.

Perhaps Foster had no wish to confront his problems and chose to kill himself and his family. Keith Ashcroft, a forensic psychologist, said: "It looks like a man in a state of depression, faced by the threat of his house being repossessed, deciding to take his family's lives to protect them from poverty. That is the fantasy."

Another possibility is that Foster is somewhere on the run – although the lack of police appeals suggests this is unlikely. It also seems unlikely that the Fosters were killed by intruders, because in that case there would have been no reason to block the gates or kill the family animals.

Whatever the final explanation, the hopes of relatives and friends that the Fosters might still be alive were dashed this weekend. The Rev Ruth Shoreman, from Maesbrook Methodist chapel, said: "Our thoughts and prayers are with those who love them."

Families murdered by relatives

The events leading to the discovery of bodies inside the Fosters' house are still unclear, but there are examples from the past of families murdered by a relative.

— In 1986 Jeremy Bamber was convicted of murdering five members of his family at their Essex home to claim an inheritance of almost £500,000. He shot his parents, sister and twin six-year-old nephews before framing his sister – a paranoid schizophrenic – to make her appear the killer.

— Neil Entwistle, a British computer programmer, was convicted of murdering his American wife and daughter by shooting them in their beds at home in Massachusetts in January 2006. He claimed to have found them dead and to have fled to Britain in distress.

— In October 2006 the four daughters of Mohammed Riaz and his wife were found burnt to death at their home in Accrington, Lancashire. Riaz, who was also inside, never regained consciousness and died of his injuries shortly afterwards. The inquest heard that he could not bear the westernised lifestyle followed by his family.

Jean-Louis Kayitenkore
Procurement Consultant
Gsm: +250-08470205
Home: +250-55104140
P.O. Box 3867
East Africa
Blog: http://www.cepgl.blogspot.com
Skype ID : Kayisa66

No comments:

Post a Comment