Monday interview: Algy Cluff, Cluff Natural Resources

Industry veteran mines his memories with new project under Firth of Forth

Industry veteran mines his memories with new project under Firth of Forth

HE’S already had a lifetime of opportunity, but at the age of 74, Algy Cluff still sees fresh prospects on the horizon.

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The oil veteran who is now looking at the coal beds under the sea started putting together his memoirs in August while at his holiday home in Dornoch.

Writing in his spare time away from his role as chief executive of Cluff Natural Resources – the latest in a string of companies to bear his name – the septuagenarian is about half-way through an autobiography set variously in the rubber plantations of Malaysia, the wilds of the North Sea and the gold mines of Africa, to name but a few.

“I had been badgered by a lot of ­people to do it,” Cluff says. “I always thought to myself that I would do it when I retire, but now it seems obvious that I am not going to retire.”

Far from winding down, Algy – real name John Gordon Cluff – is leading what he believes will become a revolution in Britain’s energy provision.

Last week, his company announced that an independent consultant had verified a find of 335 million tonnes of coal under the Firth of Forth, enough to power about 15 million homes for a year. Known as the “Kincardine Licence Area”, it is one of eight in-shore licences in Cluff’s portfolio, and the first to be ­independently evaluated.

“This marks the transition from a concept to a business,” Cluff says of the Alternative Investment Market-listed company, whose biggest investors include Guinness Asset Management, JP Morgan and Odey Asset Management. “These are hard and large numbers.”

The company must now get planning permission to build an underground coal gasification (UCG) plant – a form of “unconventional” extraction that involves partially burning large seams of coal underground to produce a mixture known as syngas.

The technique has been used for decades in countries like Russia, but as no-one has ever tried it offshore, Cluff is cautious on timescales. “Nothing happens quickly in oil or gas, or mining for that matter,” he says. The next step is to put together an environmental impact study by autumn 2015.

Cluff first started considering the untapped coal beneath the water more than 40 years ago when his Cluff Oil company was among the pioneers drilling in the North Sea. Hitting a thick coal seam during his search for oil, a colleague concluded that there was enough bitumen under the seabed to keep Europe going for 2,000 years.

“I was intrigued, but of course in those days we were oil-driven,” he says.

The company would go on to find the Buchan oilfield in 1975, and was eventually bought out by BP for what has been described through the years as “a meaty profit”.

That deal is credited with creating Cluff’s fortune, but it was not his first successful turn at investment.

A student at Stowe School in Buckinghamshire from the age of 13, Cluff shunned university in favour of the army. It was an opportunity to travel the world, taking him to Africa and the Far East.

During a spell in Malaysia, Cluff became friendly with a rubber-tree planter who pointed out that companies like his – which tended to be listed in London – were not well understood by investors who rated them on earnings rather than property.

Cluff encouraged his father to invest in those stocks, which eventually ­became valued for the land on their plantations. “Those shares were all ­re-rated, and my father made a tonne of money, and he gave all the profits to me,” he says.

He spent a total of five years in the army, and after a brief stint in New York, he returned to London in time to form a consortium to bid in the fourth North Sea oil round in 1972. From there, Cluff Oil was born.

“It was in interesting entrepreneurial opportunity. My father used to say that if you take the opportunity of a lifetime, you will have a lifetime of opportunity.”

He returned to Africa in 1981 as a mining entrepreneur, setting up Cluff Resources, which was bought out in 1996 by Ashanti Goldfields in an £80m deal. He came back again with Cluff Gold, now known as Amara Mining. There were major finds along the way, including the giant Geita gold deposit in Tanzania, the largest gold discovery in Africa since the Second World War.

But through it all, he could never shake off the thought of that coal sitting under the seabed. Listed on the Aim in 2012, Cluff Natural Resources has dedicated itself to the “unlocking of stranded coal in the UK”.

It’s a job the company’s founder sees as vital, given the UK’s increasing reliance on imported energy from “risky” sources. Cluff believes the UK can be self-sufficient with UCG, and despite his advancing years, he intends to see out that vision.

“I will continue as long as they want me to,” he says of his investors. “I enjoy it, and I am feeling fit.”


Born: Cheshire, 19 April, 1940.

Education: Stowe School in Buckinghamshire.

First job: ‘I worked for the Queen in the army, but other than that I have always been an entrepreneur.’

Ambition while at school: ‘I wanted to be a lawyer. I was much impressed by the legendary barristers of the 1920s and 30s.’

Car: A Range Rover.

Kindle or book? ‘I collect books. I regard books with great respect. They are the best friends you can ever have. I wouldn’t be seen dead with a Kindle.’

What makes you angry? ‘Not very much. I don’t like pomposity.’

Best thing about your job: ‘I enjoy challenges. I get out of bed in the morning and get on with it, which is what I think I will call the book: Get On With It.’