THE ANDREW DAVIDSON INTERVIEW: LUKE JOHNSON - Owner of two of the hippest eateries in London, this maverick likes a party - but what he loves is good cashflow and no waste. Best known for his takeover of the Pizza Express and Belgo's chains, he has built

THE ANDREW DAVIDSON INTERVIEW: LUKE JOHNSON - Owner of two of the hippest eateries in London, this maverick likes a party - but what he loves is good cashflow and no waste. Best known for his takeover of the Pizza Express and Belgo's chains, he has built

by ANDREW DAVIDSON, was Magazine Journalist of the Year in theWorkWorld 2000 Awards of the Industrial Society
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Luke Johnson comes with a reputation. Bright, young, media-smart, a loner who made his reputation carving out the deal that turned Pizza Express into one of Britain's most successful restaurant chains, he circles the business pages like a carrion crow, picking at bits of companies, gobbling pieces up, looking for opportunities. Others, drawn by his name, follow him here and there, into a new start-up, behind a new investment vehicle. This lure of the name is acute, especially as he reinforces it with a column he writes for a Sunday newspaper.

Meet him and I'd bet you be surprised, though. 'Hello,' he says shyly, proffering a soft hand as he slides into a meeting room in his Mayfair offices. This is not posh Mayfair but nicely placed round the back end of a Bond Street mews, bit rough-and-ready, nothing extravagant Johnson, 38, in smart slacks and check shirt, looks like he might be running a specialist bookshop upstairs. He stares down a lot, smiling wryly while he talks, and seems frailer than I'd expected, better looking, with that overlong sweep of hair on top, but reserved. Only occasionally, when he comes out with a barbed remark or leavens some seriousness with Martini-dry wit, do you realise that he is probably more engaging than he pretends to be.

He describes himself as 'an entrepreneur, of sorts', a man who is always looking to make money. One-time adman (for a few months) and media analyst, he now chairs Belgo, a restaurant chain, sits on innumerable other boards and has a list of investment interests that is too long to print here.

The offices where we meet belong to Intrinsic Value - that's one investment vehicle. There are others with names like New Media Spark (London) and Acquisitor (New York). Good-timers here know him best as the man with the money in Le Caprice and The Ivy, two of London's most fashionable eateries (as we Vogue readers now call them).

But it is his stock market nous that people appreciate. His reputation as a financial engineer is such that shares bought by Johnson frequently soar in value just because he has bought them. The effect is similar to that wrought by financier Nigel Wray and other bargain-spotters; punters follow, hoping to ride the wave. That worries some, who feel that Johnson has in the past taken advantage of his own fan club, and makes more money from paper transactions, shell companies and reverse takeovers than proper business. Conventional City types are inclined to describe him as 'rather sharp', a word we will be discussing at length later on.

But he is certainly the least flash restaurant owner you could meet - friends say Johnson can't bear extravagance, likes everything in order and would really be quite an austere person were it not for the fact that, deep down, there's a flamboyant party-goer struggling to get out. Despite the line he spins me about 'often eating out on his own in modest restaurants' (I was almost reaching for my hankie), he is not a loner at all, but has a big gaggle of ordinary mates and loves nothing better than his week in Edinburgh at the Festival every August, where he bankrolls the Assembly Rooms theatre company and was to be seen earlier this summer dancing the night away with a bevy of Cuban salsa beauties.

Parties? You can't keep him away from them, according to others. He even organises his own monthly networking bash, the Mandrake Club, for young entrepreneurs. And spending? Well, like other scions of affluent, professional families (his friend Charlie Dunstone at Carphone Warehouse springs to mind), he despises ostentation but, according to rumour, has decided that little apartments are better value than hotels.

As well as the big house in London's Maida Vale, he has small flats in all the places he loves going: Brighton, Paris, New York and possibly Edinburgh. I don't know for sure, because he won't tell. Likewise the long-standing girlfriend. Are they still together? I will have to find out from others, he says, with a little grin and a glance down his ski-jump nose.

So, some bits of him are in public, some are not. He says the fact that he has a public profile - worth pounds 80 million-odd in the rich list, occasional appearances in the gossip diaries, and that newspaper column - is not important but can be helpful. 'I don't employ a PR man and I don't solicit publicity, but I don't turn it away unless it's going to be a drag,' he says.

In fact, the press have a natural fascination with Johnson because he is, of course, the third son of Paul Johnson, Daily Mail columnist and ex-editor of the New Statesman. Johnson senior, one-time socialist, now right-wing ideologue, is a character of Fleet Street folklore, much needled in publications like Private Eye for his flamboyant excesses and supposed weaknesses: the drinking, the anti-depressants. Hurtful stuff for his children to deal with in public, and the sort of thing that would elicit various responses - either keep your head down completely or build a little public escarpment for yourself behind which you can duck occasionally.

Johnson junior says his father's ambition and competitiveness set the tone in his upbringing. 'I think we are quite a volatile family in terms of moods, quite excitable,' he says. He gets his ambition from his dad and his 'ability to make friends' from his mum, Marigold, a former publisher and Labour Party worker, now counsellor. All the Johnson children, he agrees, looked for areas to excel in. An elder brother now works for the Daily Telegraph, a younger sister is at Carlton TV, another brother is a carpenter.

Well, at least one escaped the media. When I say that, Johnson seems to curl his lip slightly and retorts: 'I'm not sure carpentry is that well rewarded.' How much money do you need? 'If your car breaks down, you need to be able to fix it,' he says flatly.

Oh. At times there is something slightly menacing about Johnson's quietly abrasive determination. An interview like this, it seems, swiftly becomes a subtle contest. He is quite happy to fix you down gently like a fly on a pin. And then pull your legs off.

Those who have worked with him describe him as a mix of many things: an essentially shy man not afraid to throw his weight around, bright, funny but quick-tempered, part edgy man-on-the-make, part wary outsider, and an obsessive, always concentrating on the same key indicators in a business - good cashflow, no waste - that he looks for in his private life.

'Luke has this obsession with cash and costs,' says one of his colleagues, 'and he is probably a bit risk-averse, hence the portfolio of interests.

He is also shy, and doesn't like confrontation, but he has this powerful personality, and uses that to browbeat people.'

Part of the power, perhaps, lies in the fact that he defies expectations.

Despite his affluent and well-connected parents, he was educated through the state system (during Johnson senior's pink phase) and speaks with defiantly unposh, flat vowels, clearly unmodified by his stint at the very posh Magdalen, Oxford. There he read, of all things, medicine, probably in deference to family links (his grandfather was Thomas Hunt, the eminent gastroenterologist, who has a ward named after him at St Mary's, London).

It was at Oxford that he 'discovered business', he says, running parties and charging for entrance (often teaming up with another entrepreneurial medic, Hugh Osmond, later to run Punch Taverns). All that put paid to the medical vocation. He doesn't know where he got the commercial nous, but he does remember that his dad was 'a bit of a worrier' about money. That stuck with him.

His parents' contacts helped as well. Johnson remembers meeting Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch, dinner guests at home. And he was sent to see James Goldsmith, something of a hero, for advice. And he said? 'Oh, he was very encouraging,' shrugs Johnson. And when Johnson went from Oxford into BMP, the ad agency, and didn't like it - 'I found the end product too ephemeral' - he swiftly found another, more interesting job as assistant to Jonathan Aitken, Conservative MP and businessman, now an ex-prisoner, then wrapped up in rescuing TV-am. That whetted Johnson's business appetite, and after a year he decided to go and work in the City, to further his commercial education.

How did he do it? 'I phoned up a headhunter and bullshitted my way through, frankly,' he says. He became a media analyst at Kleinworts, 'spectacularly underqualified', and was lucky, a key attribute in any career. 'I was generally very bullish in my recommendations, and if you invested in media for the most part in the last 20 years, you have done all right.' And he met people who made an impression on him, in particular entrepreneurs such as Michael Green and Christopher Bland, men with an iconoclastic streak who, like Goldsmith, enjoyed controlling their own destinies.

But meeting them wasn't enough. 'It's like being a journalist; you're privileged to meet some very interesting individuals, but ultimately you're an observer, not a principal, and I wanted to be involved.' So he left. The Johnson CV is littered with these stop-start work involvements.

Those who knew him then say he was much more ill at ease with himself, never a team player, unless he was giving the orders. 'The thing with Luke,' says one friend, 'is that he doesn't suffer fools gladly, and the City is full of fools.' He also hates running with the herd - hence his politics, vaguely libertarian but really, like his current newspaper columns, more contrarian - pro-GM food, anti-euro, ambivalent about NHS waste.

After another unhappy year as an investment adviser to an Australian entrepreneur, Johnson, aged 27, read the runes and set out on his own.

There followed hits and misses, a big stake in a theatre scenery company, taken just before recession hit the West End stage - 'a useful educational experience,' he says drily - sniffing around for bits and bobs here and there.

It was that sniffing - a chance ad in the Financial Times in 1990 that led to a contact who later gave him a tip - that brought the deal that made his name: a complex merger that allowed a vehicle co-owned by Johnson and his Oxford pal Hugh Osmond to grab Pizza Express, a well-liked but underperforming restaurant chain.

'It was luck,' says Johnson again. 'In 1993 the small companies market had a revival, the country came out of recession and the restaurant sector began to boom. And we bought a great business that had huge untapped potential; it is very rare you get hold of a great brand that has not been fully exploited. It had been going since 1965 with a heritage that we took advantage of.' They pushed the brand, introduced new efficiencies, expanded the product. It all worked.

And shrank the pizzas? (I, like many other Pizza Express fans, really do believe that Johnson shrank the pizzas). 'No,' he says with that smile, 'we did it without changing the product in any way.'

Well, let's agree to disagree on that one. What he did find was an affinity for a business that he didn't realise he had. 'I love food and drink,' he says, 'I know good managers, I have seen them in action, I have learnt from them. They are straightforward businesses where you don't need great technical expertise, great cash businesses where the UK is a world player in terms of how well they are run, and there are great opportunities for growth.'

And after a time he moved on from Pizza Express to repeat the trick for Belgo, the moules-et-frites chain now turning over pounds 40 million a year, bought off its founders and then rapidly expanded. In Belgo's case, rather too fast, it appears, as ambitious plans for overseas outlets caused a dent in profits this year. But the substance of the business is sound.

Chairing that gives Johnson just the right amount of contact with running something, and gives him time to pursue all his other little sniff-outs.

'He likes the executive involvement,' says Andy Bassadone, Belgo's chief executive. 'I think he has an emotional attachment too, as he has been part of it since day one.' What Johnson provides, says Bassadone, is good strategic overview, 'cutting through the bullshit' and 'getting to the heart of issues and holding on to them with terrier-like persistence.' Waste, costs, cash.

And he likes working with other people. His business life is peppered with little partnerships with other mavericks: Osmond at Punch, Dunstone and David Ross at Carphone Warehouse, with whom he first bought a stake in the Techno camera shop chain (and then sold it), Gary Ashworth, the former Abacus boss (company sold to Michael Ashcroft for pounds 15 million in November 1998), who now has a stake in another Johnson shell company, Lionheart.

Ashworth, who came in with Johnson to bail out the Assembly Rooms theatre company, says his partner can be short with those who deserve it, but 'takes a lot of people with him when he is successful - it doesn't have to be at the expense of others'. He is also the perfect non-exec director, so good at seeing what needs to be done and banging on about money and earnings per share.

'Yet the funny thing is,' adds Bassadone, 'Luke doesn't seem interested in any of the material aspects of money at all.' Drives around in a modest BMW convertible, plays his tennis on the public courts in west London, bumbles across London on the Tube, collects books, which he uses studiously to research his columns ('all my family are bibliomaniacs' says Johnson), socialises with an unstarry bunch of old regulars.

'Maybe some of it is in reaction to his father,' says another friend and business partner, Mark Whittaker. 'He doesn't need to act famous and associate with famous people - his father did it.'

There is the Mandrake Club, of course, Johnson's monthly drink-and-talk party for young entrepreneurs held above Pizza Express in Mayfair. He conceived the idea with David Ross of Carphone Warehouse, and runs 10 a year, organising speakers (Sir Alan Sugar, Peter Stringfellow, Sir Stanley Kalms, Ken Bates - you can tell Johnson likes 'characters'), sending out invitations. He clearly loves it, though whether it is the idea of putting something on or just the constant supply of potential new business partners that excites him is uncertain. But he keeps the old mates away from the new mates, adept at spinning different social circles.

And it is his refusal to be stereotyped, and perhaps the idea that he is taking advantage of some secret web of nepotism or power, that makes some mistrust Johnson. His prolific use in the past of reverse takeovers and shell companies - like Wray - raises eyebrows. Journalists in particular have been rather sniffy about Johnson, as if what he does is somehow close to the line.

'I have to live with it,' he says, 'the media is influenced by my heritage and the fact that I write. Anyway, I think journalists are confused about money-makers. They realise the economy needs them but their idea of acceptability ... I mean, do people feel Nigel Wray is sharp?' Some, possibly. 'Well, there is a word for what these people feel: envy. They just wish they'd done it ... Sharp is one of those English words like spiv which is used more often than not by people who are envious and ignorant and uncomfortable with the idea of red, raw capitalism. They want to live in a prosperous economy but aren't sure how to get it.'

More likely, it is his flitting from project to project, investment to investment, that makes some uneasy, his dedication to number one, his loyalty to few. And the fact that, at so young an age, he has such a profile, part of which clearly incorporates the message: ya boo sucks. Another friend describes Johnson as dogged by his background, because the one thing he is really good at is probably not rated as a worthy occupation by his family. 'It's as if they might think that making huge amounts of money is not really, on its own, success.' That, says the friend, must be tough.

But isn't this the man who is pursuing raw capitalism relentlessly? Businesses must always make money, says Johnson, even in the short term, because it is 'demoralising' to work anywhere that isn't making money. Yet, increasingly, it is Johnson who is putting money into theatre projects and, say friends, even showing an interest in films. Those kinds of creative businesses, they reckon, are where he is heading, as he gets more interested in risk.

Risk? This is where it gets confusing. At least one of Johnson's colleagues insists that his friend is one of the most risk-averse entrepreneurs you could meet. Hence all the different investments, never having his eggs in one basket. Yet Johnson, the grammar school boy, is vituperative about the curse of middle-class ambition: fear of risk. It's all down to school fees, he says. 'They have partners who say: 'You're not taking the children out of school to fund your silly dot.com start-up.' So they stay working in the City or at Price Waterhouse, even though those start-ups would probably earn them more eventually. They choose a risk-free life ...'

How do you square that circle? Probably by acknowledging that Johnson is as likely to criticise his own attributes as praise them. He just likes stirring things up. And that's what is interesting about him: unlike many entrepreneurs, he has opinions on most things, usually the opposite of what most people think. And thankfully, most times, he expounds them all with engaging humility.

Anyway, to the important questions. Are you more likely to get a table at The Ivy with the name Johnson?

'I don't know,' he says. 'Try it.'

And if he hung around Le Caprice and The Ivy ... 'I'd get told 'Sling your hook, son!''

And when not working or socialising or browsing his books? Travel, he says, he loves discovering new places, new cities. He was in Brazil and Argentina at Easter, Kenya for Christmas.

Sailing? Charlie Dunstone is a keen sailor. 'No, don't do that, though I did go sailing with Rosso in Scandanavia.' More of a cruise, though, he says, thinking about it.

Otherwise he writes his articles, sees his mum and dad for Sunday dinner, maybe a bit of squash at the Porchester Centre, and wades through the financial reports and company details that are his light relief.

And girlfriend? No comment - latest reports from the front line: friends believe him to be very much attached, but that was last month ...

I've got to go, he says, looking at his watch. Check anything with me, he adds, pressing a card into my hand. When I look at it later, I see it consists of his name, his office address, four phone numbers and an e-mail. And absolutely no reference to any company or what he does. That's how he likes it, says one business partner, hard to pigeon-hole.

But what he has to do next, warns another friend, is prove himself on a bigger stage. He's chaired Pizza Express. He's headed Belgo. No more small deals. Now is the time for the really big one: breaking up a conglomerate, reviving a huge retailer. He's got the ability. Will he take the plunge?

JOHNSON IN A MINUTE

1962 Born 2 February in Iver, Buckinghamshire. Educated Langley Grammar School and Magdalen, Oxford

1983 Account executive, BMP, then left to join Jonathan Aitken as executive assistant

1984 Media analyst, Kleintwort Benson

1988 Director, Charterhaul

1989 Self-employed

1992 Chairman, Pizza Express

1997 Joins Belgo as chairman

1999 Launches Intrinsic Value.

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