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SPECIAL MAIL INVESTIGATION: KING OF T THE CHUGGERS; Ferrari-driving tycoon pockets pounds 1.1m as the head of an army of charity street collectors.

Byline: EXCLUSIVE By RUSSELL FINDLAY

THIS is the multi-millionaire behind Britain's biggest army of 'charity muggers'.

Racing driver Chris Niarchos who competes with a Scottish-based Ferrari team pockets more than pounds 1million a year as head of The Cobra Group plc.

The Sunday Mail can reveal Niarchos and his company are major players in the lucrative charity mugging or 'chugging' industry.

They work for 17 charities including the Guide Dogs Association, Red Cross, Save the Children and the RSPCA.

The term 'chuggers' was coined for workers who smooth-talk shoppers into signing direct debits for charity.

Companies such as Cobra are paid a fee for every shop-per they sign up to a charity direct debit. That fee can be as high as pounds 70 a head.

Last week, Charities Minister Fiona MacTaggart unveiled a draft Charities Bill to license companies such as Cobra.

She admitted the public felt 'besieged' by fundraisers.

Canadian-born Niarchos, nicknamed Nachos, is founder and owner of the London-based Cobra Group which claims to employ 10,000 people and operates in 18 countries worldwide.

Chuggers working for Cobra have collected money in Scottish cities as well as elsewhere in the UK.

Company accounts show that Niarchos was paid almost pounds 1.9million in 2001 and almost pounds 1.1million the following year.

The married dad-of-three lives an extravagant lifestyle with a pounds 1million flat in west London.

The home he shares with wife Michelle and their three kids is just minutes from Cobra's HQ.

The 39-year-old also owns a Ferrari Stradale, Ferrari 360 Spider and BMW M5. His firm's name is emblazoned on the racing overalls of the leading Scottish-based motorsport team Scuderia Ecosse, run by one of Scotland's richest businessmen West Lothian-based Stewart Roden.

Niarchos is one of the Scuderia Ecosse's four main drivers, competing in this season's grand touring campaign.

Fellow driver Marino Franchitti, the brother of Dario Franchitti, 31, is a personal friend of Niarchos. Dario, originally from Bathgate, is a household name in United States Indycar racing.

The Franchitti brothers' cousin, teenager Paul di Resta also races alongside Niarchos along with Nathan Kinch, 22, son of Aberdeen oil tycoon Larry Kinch. The team was launched at Knockhill in Fife last year and works directly with the elite Italian car giants Ferrari.

But Niarchos won't be racing at the British GT Championship at Norfolk today as he is in Malaga, Spain, hosting Cobra's sales conference for 500 staff.

Last night, he was unavailable for comment but senior bosses did speak to the Sunday Mail.

Paul Sanderson, chief operating officer, and Michael Hogg, global chief executive officer, defended the company.

They said: 'We deal with 17 big charities in the UK and for them this is the most costeffective form of fundraising.'

Cobra subsidiary Support Direct Ltd claims to have persuaded 1.4million people to sign direct debits in the UK and Ireland since 1999. New Zealander Hogg, 43, said: 'We get paid a flat fee for every successful donor but it is a lot less than pounds 70. It also depends on how much the donor signs up for.'

The company claims that payments from charities is only a fraction of annual turnover of around pounds 30million.

Hogg said: 'We can tell you that income from charities accounts for much less than 10 per cent of turnover.

'What Chris is paid is obviously fair for the size of company but we think the charity money is next to none of it.'

Cobra Group is also keen to distance itself from the controversial North American company DS-MAX. The direct sales firm is similar to Cobra and pub-lic job adverts claims that DS-MAX in London is a Cobra subsidiary. DS-MAX was ordered to stop collecting money for charities in Pennsylvania last year.

DS-MAX and subsidiaries including Granton Marketing were banned after refusing to register as an official charity collector.

Niarchos holds directorships in 26 UK companies, including Granton Direct. But Cobra staff say DS-MAX only supplies goods to them for sale door-to-door.

Hogg said: 'There was an association with DS-MAX many years ago but there's no further connection.'

Another company Niarchos was a director of was Peterhurst Ltd, which went under owing more than pounds 1million.

The Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise were out of pocket to the tune of pounds 270,000 when the printing firm crashed. Now Cobra face tighter controls after increasing concerns over the lack of regulation of UK charities.

Last year, Tony Freeman was exposed after his sales team raised around pounds 13million for a breast cancer charity.

In reality, Freeman pocketed most of the cash while the charity was only given a fraction of what was raised.

Fiona MacTaggart said: 'If we make sure that we can regulate the number of fundraisers in an area there can be clarity about where the money goes and what sorts of costs are involved in fundraising.

'Then we can make sure people stay confident in charities' ability to do good.

I think that there is this kind of myth that things are free. I am keen to educate the public.'

Hogg said: 'There is bad publicity about chuggers which is a pity as it's a low-cost way of raising money.

'We're good for the charities. Ten thousand people work for us and we didn't get to that level without integrity.

'The problem in this industry is everyone is tarred with the same brush. We get approached by the charities because we're a good operator.

'We know some of these operators do the wrong things but we want to do the right thing. The average donor we sign up lasts seven years. The charities are so happy to have us.'

CAPTION(S):

Cobra strikes: Niarchos has his company's name emblazoned on the racing team overalls; Driving force: Chris Niarchos races for one of Scotland's wealthiest and most prestigious teams; Rolling in: Scuderia Ecosse is run by businessman Stewart Roden
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Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Jun 6, 2004
Words:985
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