Businessman's ban after collapse of wine investment scheme

William Mason, owner of William Mason Fine Wines based at Hingham who have started a wine club.

William Mason, former director of William Mason Fine Wines. - Credit: ©Archant Photographic 2010

A Norfolk businessman has been given a ten-year ban from running a company after the collapse of a wine investment scheme which left many of his friends out of pocket.

William Mason, from Wymondham, has been disqualified from being a director after an investigation into the demise of the fund.

The Insolvency Service - the government agency which carried out the probe - said he had "abused more than £445,000 of investors’ money" over the course of 18 years.

Mr Mason, 54, who also owns the Crown pub in Great Ellingham with his wife Sarah, said he was "sad and embarrassed" by the failure of the scheme, and had lost his house a result.

Many of those who lost money in the scheme were friends of Mr Mason's, who had got involved because of their friendship.

The scheme was run through Mr Mason's alcohol wholesale business, William Mason Fine Wines Limited, based in Great Ellingham.

The firm was established in 1997 by Mr Mason and his wife.

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Initially based at their home, the business quickly grew, selecting, sourcing and supplying quality fine wines from around the world, to restaurants and private customers throughout Norfolk, Suffolk, London and the Home Counties. By 2010, the EDP reported that the firm was expecting a turnover of around £1m.

It opened a warehouse and showroom and also set up the investment scheme, which involved purchasing and storing wines on behalf of clients.

The Insolvency Service investigation found that between 2001 and 2019, investors involved in the scheme made payments worth £445,000, with Mr Mason providing stock certificates for them and in some cases arranging partial return of their wine or funds.

However, investigators found that in most cases, the company did not purchase the wines, and where the wine was purchased the company disposed of it without the agreement of investors.

At the point where the company went into liquidation, in 2020, it held no wine in stock.

In a statement, the Insolvency Service said: "For more than 18 years, William Mason caused the alcohol wholesaler to trade with a lack of commercial probity."

David Argyle, the service's deputy head of insolvent investigations, said: "Several of the investors that have lost their investments were good friends with William Mason and it was this friendship that made them believe they could trust him.

"Ten years is a significant disqualification and sends a stark warning to directors who think they can abuse their investors that we will pursue the strictest restrictions and remove them from the corporate arena."

Mr Mason said the scheme had run into difficulties after buying a "huge consignment" of investment wine which he expected would be delivered a few years later.

He said he later learned that the wine would not be forthcoming, but that the supplier would try to "help as much as he could in the future with stock etc".

Mr Mason added: "This is obviously the time when I should have gone on the attack and perhaps ended things immediately but I was determined to try and trade my way out and receive wine from him in the future to make up the shortfall.

"This left a £250,000 hole in the balance sheet as the wine increased in value and whilst I struggled to pay back those that had bought the wine, the business eventually became unsustainable.

"I kept trying to get help from the former wine merchant who I dealt with but none was forthcoming. We put everything we had into trying to save the situation and indeed lost our house.

"I am very sad and embarrassed about what happened to the wine business but all the problems stemmed from my never receiving this huge consignment of investment wines."

The firm went into liquidation and closed down in November 2020.

The ban, which became effective on February 22, also prevents Mr Mason from getting involved in the "promotion, formation or management of a company", without permission of the court.