x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Owner of debt-ridden gift experience firm flees UAE

Blue Banana boss apologises in emotional letter after leaving investors, small companies and customers severely out of pocket.

DUBAI // The owner of the popular gift experience company bluebanana.com has fled the country amid mounting debt, leaving many investors, small companies and customers severely out of pocket. Simon Ford, founder and managing director of the internet-based company, left Dubai with his family last Saturday in "desperation", having lost a long battle with creditors to keep the company afloat.

In an emotional letter addressed to "the Dubai public", which was circulated to members of the press today, Mr Ford apologised for the circumstances surrounding his company's closure and vowed to personally "repay every last dirham to everyone who is owed money from bluebanana.com". The British father-of-three said the business' debt had grown "exponentially" since the last quarter of 2008 with further debt accumulated as he tried to keep it afloat and keep paying its eight employees.

His decision to leave last weekend was an attempt, he said, to avoid personal threats against himself and his family earlier that weekend by undisclosed parties. Mr Ford, who is due to feature in a book scheduled for release next week about inspirational entrepreneurs in Dubai, wrote: "Tragically the debt of the business reached a level on Thursday June 18 that personal threats were being made against me and my family which left me no choice but to leave four years of passion behind and take my family out of the country before start of business Sunday June 21.

"I have since been informed that certain individuals arrived at my place of residence in Dubai at the start of Sunday, confirming that the follow-through on many of the threats was very real." Popular with both residents and tourists, the company offered more than 170 gift experiences ranging from spa packages to hot air balloon rides over the desert or a two-man motorised hang glider flight over the mountains and coastline of eastern Musandam.

But today its colourful website had been replaced with a blank screen reading: "Apologies for any inconvenience, we are currently experiencing technical difficulties". Customers who have bought vouchers but have not yet redeemed them will not be able to do so and will not be able to get a refund, though Mr Ford has set up an e-mail account for people to contact him regarding "specific outstanding payments".

Many small companies offering gift and adventure experiences through bluebanana.com are still owed money. Peter Kollar, director of Balloon Adventures Emirates LLC, said the company owed Balloon Adventures a "substantial amount of money that we worked very hard for". Nazar Musa, an out-of-pocket investor who learnt of the company's closure and Mr Ford's departure as he returned to Dubai on Monday morning, released a statement on behalf of the company's eight former staff members earlier today - all of whom are said to be in shock after hearing the news second-hand.

"On returning from overseas on Monday morning I discovered that Simon Ford, the owner and MD of bluebanana.com had left the country with his family over the weekend," it read. "Obviously I was shocked and very disappointed. I, along with the bluebanana.com team had worked incredibly hard for a long time to support Simon in his vision of making bluebanana.com the UAE's top online lifestyle and experiences venture."

Mr Nasa, who has lost a large sum invested in Oct 2007, is now working with employees to try and ensure their unpaid salaries are met and to assist with any visa issues they are likely to encounter as they try to find new employment. Mr Ford is back in the UK having cleared the company account before leaving the country. This, he said, was in an effort to ensure employees' salaries could be paid. loatway@thenational.ae

Click here to see the full text of the letter from Simon Ford.