Back to the Future with Virtual Reality; PROFILE: On the Ex-Maths Teacher Who Got His Sums Wrong When He Let Lara Croft Go

Article excerpt

This man bought and sold Lara Croft.

When tales are told of the pioneer days of the IT revolution, Geoff Brown will have earned a small but significant place with the world's first true virtual celebrity.

Now the Cyberbabe is worth some pounds 240 million following the acquisition of Mr Brown's business, CentreGold, by Eidos and with it Tomb Raider.

Though not worth nearly so much as his pixel protege, the former maths teacher who launched an e-empire on life-savings of pounds 200 is risking much of his wealth on doing it again, this time with the Internet.

Unbowed, he has created another group of businesses which, within two years, has achieved a turnover of pounds 25 million.

And, again unbowed, is planning to take this group to the stock market.

Five years ago Birmingham-based CentreGold acquired a promising but ailing business called Core Design, which was developing a promising game Tomb Raider, but did not have the money to see the idea through.

Two and a half years later CentreGold, which Mr Brown had floated on the stock market, was acquired by Eidos, which had its own ideas about how a computer games business should be run. Eventually he left.

Mr Brown said: "I could have taken Lara to where she is today simply because of the strong character she is.

"I don't mean that to disparage Eidos. They have done a wonderful marketing campaign on Tomb Raider. The first run cost pounds 6 million to pounds 10 million, and I did not have that sort of money."

If the quotes above sound like those of a bitter man, of a small theatrical agent who discovered a film star and lost her to ruthless moneymen, they are not.

Rather they are those of a man who learned the hard way from his mistakes, and is looking to apply those lessons to his next venture. He is as hard on himself as those he has worked with, and more than happy to distribute praise. For someone living on the edge of the communications revolution, actually meeting Mr Brown is harder than downloading an umpteen megabyte sample. Arranging an engagement more akin to finding an undercover agent than a businessman.

Our meeting was postponed three times - something to do with deals being sorted out in Switzerland.

When I finally arrived at an agreed rendezvous - a converted barn in the middle of Warwickshire - I was instead met by a man in the car park who told me to follow him to another destination.

So off to Banbury and to one of Mr Brown's increasingly large number of business interests in the area, and cool our heels for a little until Mr Brown, looking rather natty in stylish combat trousers, black t-shirt and designer-looking spectacles, arrives.

However, the delays, sudden changes and drives are worthwhile.

What emerges is a stream of surprising candour about the past - more than once in the interview he stops to check himself saying "I'm telling you things I've never discussed with anyone before " - and a sparkling flurry of ideas for the future.

This is a long way from the former maths teacher and musician who sank what little capital he had into starting CentreGold in 1983.

A few years later the Birmingham-based business was turning over more than pounds 100 million per annum, and had been floated. So, blessed with success, why did he feel the need to hand the destiny of his venture over to others?

Mr Brown said: "I founded CentreGold, built it up and floated it. But I took my eye off the ball. I should have stuck to what I was good at, which is ideas.

"I got so bogged down in running a public company that I never had time.

"I did not build the infrastructure needed to run a public company. We had offices in San Francisco, Paris, Milan - I was employing people I had never met.

"In retrospect I thought that life would be the same in a public company as a private one, but things did change. …