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The Duke of York’s flagship business enterprise is hanging by a thread after his close friend, a Swedish billionaire, quit and the company’s offices shut down.
Sports tycoon Johan Eliasch has stepped down from Pitch@Palace Global, after some 15 staff resigned in a year, leaving only an accountant to oversee what is left of the company in an administrative role.
A spokesperson insisted that the company “remains in a pause position while its future direction and strategy is determined” rather than being shut down for good.
However, there are no plans to relaunch the Dragons Den-style initiative in the foreseeable future, “in fact the opposite,” a source told The Telegraph, as it emerged that even its ownership was under review.
Any decision to wind up the project, one of the Duke’s sole remaining business interests, would come as a blow to the beleaguered royal.
The initiative, which brokered deals between tech start-ups and wealthy investors, was thrown into disarray by his disastrous Newsnight interview in November 2019, after which its charitable arm was wound up as corporate sponsors withdrew support.
The global arm, a private limited company, continued however, albeit with all references to the Duke quietly removed from its home page.
What remained of the brand was moved out of its Buckingham Palace base to a nearby office space in London.
However, even that has now been abandoned and the office address of its accountant, a tax specialist, is now the only one on file.
There had been a tentative plan to relaunch it this Spring with a new name, Pitch Connect.
However, with the Duke’s reputation still hanging in the balance over his relationship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, it was deemed impossible.
Accounts published last week reveal that at the end of last March, Pitch@Palace Global’s assets had reduced from £3,125,398 to £1,495,737.
The business held £1.2 million in cash and employed 15 people, although all bar one have now resigned.
A Pitch@Palace spokesperson said: “Pitch@Palace Global Ltd can confirm that director, Johan Eliasch, has stepped down and has been replaced by accountant, Arthur Lancaster.
“The Duke is grateful to the oversight provided by Johan Eliasch since his appointment in May 2019.
“Pitch@Palace Global remains in a pause position while its future direction and strategy is determined and whilst its operations continue to be significantly impacted by Covid-19 restrictions.”
They added that the company was “taking this time to conduct a review of its ownership, structure and governance” but with the expectation that it will be relaunched with a fresh direction and purpose at some point in the future.
Mr Eliasch, who runs sports goods company Head, has remained one of few loyal friends who has stuck by the Duke through a string of scandals.
The tycoon is said to have organised the Duke’s trip to Thailand in 2001, when he was photographed on a yacht surrounded by topless women.
According to reports at the time, the billionaire agreed to foot at least some of the bill for the Duke’s stay at the Amanpuri Hotel, where villas cost up to £25,000 a night.
In 2011, amid mounting controversy over the Duke's decision to visit Epstein in New York, Mr Eliasch was one of several business leaders to sign a public letter praising his “good work.”
In August, 2019, two weeks after Epstein's death, he again issued a statement defending his friend, saying: “Anybody who knows the Duke well knows that he is intensely loyal to his friends and sometimes that loyalty is not in his best interest, and that is what happened here.”
Mr Eliasch had replaced Amanda Thirsk, the Duke’s former private secretary, who had been at the helm for more than 15 years, as director of Pitch@Palace Global.
He was said to have been “very much involved” in a planned relaunch, helping pave the way for the Duke’s return to public life.
His departure suggests that now, more than ever, they have accepted that such a move is unlikely to happen.
Last October, he was also appointed director of spin-off Pitch@ Palace Innovations, again replacing Ms Thirsk. The private limited company, set up in August 2019, has not yet filed any accounts.
In 2003, the Duke joined the board of Mr Eliasch's company, Naples Gold, under the name Andrew Inverness, which disguised his involvement.
An application to have the company struck off the Companies House register was made in November.