Is there a modern equivalent of poacher turned game keeper? Kevin Leech should know. Once he ran a flourishing funeral business. Today he is chairman, chief executive and major shareholder in a pharmaceutical company developing a new life-saving kidney dialysis drug. His company, ML Laboratories, based in a Merseyside Science Park is perhaps the best example of the City's over fevered love affair with pharmaceutical companies. In the last year, the shares have soared by 310% to some £9.00 each, valuing Leech's stake at £170 million and the company has a whole at £200 million plus.
Yet this is a company that has yet to declare a profit and joined the stock market five years ago with a price tag of just £14 million. In its last half year to March 1991, its losses actually increased from £30,000 to £172,000, with no appreciable effect on the shares. Indeed, they subsequently roared ahead. But how did a Manchester-born, now Jersey-based ex-funeral man get into life-saving drugs? Leech started working in his father's garage business when his father suffered a heart attack. The business had a small funeral operation, and Leech honed in on that. Eighteen years later, he sold out to the Co-op for £2.5 million, finding it impossible to remain unaffected by the 6,000 funerals conducted annually. That was 10 years ago. Leech went off to tax exile in Jersey and developed a new career as a venture capitalist. In this role he met a Liverpool chemist, Jeremiah Milner, with a promising record of inventions. He was looking for backing for his new form of kidney treatment which would enormously improve the lives of patients, cutting dialysis time and sharply reducing the risk of infection.
Leech put in some £50,000 for a substantial stake in the company, ML Laboratories, set up in Milner's Liverpool base. Milner died after the flotation of the business in 1987, but the work of getting the dialysis drug into widespread use continues apace.
It is in the final stages of testing and the company is refining its production methods. City interest continues unabated. A recent stockbroking circular suggested the shares could reach £25 and that the drug could prove helpful in treating Aids. If those levels were reached, Leech's original £50,000 investment would have become nearly £500 million. Yet his Midas touch has left him unphased. His greatest pleasure, apart from working, is sailing and fishing.