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Bebo co-founder’s millions rejuvenates a dying village in Devon

Michael Birch is the latest multi-millionaire investor to realise that the most satisfying investments aren’t necessarily the most lucrative, discovers John Underwood.

FILE PHOTO - GV of The Farmers Arms in Woolsery which was saved for the village by BEBO millionaire Michael Birch. The multi-millionaire founder of the Bebo social networking site has said he pumped money into a North Devon village after seeing its "sad state". See story SWBEBO. California-based tycoon Michael Birch said he felt a "need" to transform Woolsery, where his ancestors have lived since 1700. He has bought properties including the village pub, an old hotel and the fish and chip shop over the past two years local residents have welcomed his support.

It reads like the unsubtle deus ex machina ending of a children’s film. After a multiplicity of failed schemes, the village is on the brink of collapse when – surprise! – a multi-millionaire wanders into shot and unshowily saves the day. Very Annie. But for the North Devon village of Woolsery, life has become stranger than fiction.

Michael Birch, the co-founder of one-time Facebook competitor Bebo, has spent the past two years investing in the dilapidated village where he spent his summers as a child. After discovering that the village pub and local manor house were both boarded up, Birch began to divert some of his $390 million fortune from California to the West Country.

He has now reopened the village chip shop and is renovating the manor house and pub, the former for use as a hotel. Birch is also believed to own two other properties in the village, where his family has lived since the eighteenth century.

Quite apart from the practical improvements his generosity will make possible, Birch’s contribution to Woolsery has a pleasant tinge of noblesse oblige about it. And he is the only philanthropist to feel the need to support a community that once supported him.

Back in 2012, an entrepreneur who made his millions in marine excavation became the most high-profile backer of an innovative film project that aims to revitalise his beloved Shetland. George Stroud, founder of Marin Group, invested a six-figure sum in Between Weathers, a film set on the island of Fetlar.

Producers hope that the film, which remains a work in progress, will drive tourism in a similar way to Bill Forsyth’s 1983 film Local Hero, which brought visitors from all over the world to the Scottish village of Pennan. Stroud, who escaped an abusive childhood to be ‘saved’ by the tranquil islands, told the Daily Record he had ‘always wanted to put something back’ into the area.

In a slightly more savvy move, teenage forex trader Hashim Haq last year announced his intention to invest £20 million in his home town of Croydon, building two new tower blocks in the town centre. Haq, who built up a fortune trading from a Purley estate, has already built a shisha lounge in the area.

Although many charitable givers do of course tackle problems far removed from their own experience – Seattle is a long way from Africa, but that hasn’t stopped Bill Gates – the impact of a shared experience can scarcely be overstated as a driver for philanthropy. Author JK Rowling, who wrote the first Harry Potter book as a single mother dependent on benefits, has spoken about her fear that she might not be able to support her daughter. Soon after becoming the most successful author since God, she set up a charity, ‘Lumos’, that works to emancipate the eight million children confined to orphanages and institutions.

One of history’s most influential philanthropists, Andrew Carnegie, was also inspired by his childhood. Carnegie, who was educated at a school donated to his Dunfermline village by a local benefactor, poured 90 per cent of his fortune into charitable pursuits: most notably the foundation of three thousand public libraries throughout the English-speaking world.

In a satisfying twist of fate, Woolsery’s local library was built by Carnegie back in 1905. So the young Michael Birch may well have benefited from Carnegie’s munificence – maybe even setting him on the path towards his own fortune – just as this corner of Devon will once again be rejuvenated by the work of a businessman with a memory as capacious as his pockets.