Serial entrepreneur Luke Johnson on Channel 4 sell-off, dodging journalism and having no Brexit regrets

 
William Turvill
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Luke Johnson is chairman of Risk Capital Partners among other companies

Life could have been very different for serial entrepreneur and investor Luke Johnson.

His father, Paul Johnson, is a former editor of left-wing political magazine the New Statesman. And his brother, Daniel, is the founder of political magazine Standpoint.

In the tight-knit media world, it would not have been a surprise if Luke Johnson had followed in the family tradition and become a journalist.

As things turned out, he embarked on a rather different career, one in which he doesn’t have much time – or, as a self-proclaimed free-market libertarian, much inclination – to read the New Statesman.

And he doesn’t regret taking a different path: “I never wanted to be compared with and compete with my father, who in his heyday was one of the pre-eminent journalists of the era.”

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Johnson got a flavour for business as a medical student at Oxford University when he and a friend set up a clubnight at a local discotheque after being banned from throwing parties in their rooms.

After a rocky start to his business career in the early 1990s, he then went on to run Pizza Express, where he became chairman, floated the company and increased the number of restaurants from 12 to more than 150.

He also founded Strada and the Integrated Dental Holdings network of surgeries.

And he is now chairman of private equity house Risk Capital Partners, Patisserie Holdings, the Brighton Pier Group and Bread, the firm behind bakery chain Gail’s.

This is a brief run-through of a few of the businesses Johnson has been, or remains, involved in.

Channel 4 sell-off

Johnson, 54, also found time to chair Channel 4 for six years, between 2004 and 2010.

Over the last year or so, he has talked up the possibility of the commercially-funded, publicly-owned broadcaster being privatised by the government.

“They are an anomaly in that they’re a second public-service broadcaster – very few countries have two,” he says. “And yet they fund their own programming budget, so they’re very commercial in many ways in terms of selling advertising. And, really, most other assets like that, owned by the government, have over time been privatised.”

The current chief executive of Channel 4 has spoken out against any sell-off, but Johnson believes the broadcaster could thrive if privately-owned.

From when I was at Channel 4, they should have bought Channel 5, but they couldn’t. So Richard Desmond did. And that’s the sort of thing where if they were in the private sector they would have been able to.

But Johnson, who was not in favour of privatisation while in charge of the broadcaster himself, adds: “I suspect, I’m afraid, that it may get pushed to the back-burner now.”

Tasty investments

Despite a few significant dalliances into dentistry, broadcasting and seaside piers, Johnson has primarily made his name in the eating-and-drinking-out industry since the early 1990s. And he believes it’s been good timing.

It’s a massive industry, it’s worth £70bn-plus in the UK, still highly fragmented in many categories. It’s been growing, I think, pretty steadily, for 25 years or more. So I’ve been very fortunate to alight in an industry that has consistently grown.

But Johnson believes there are troubles looming for the sector. “2017 will be a tougher year because of costs,” he says.

“It may be that consumer spending slows sharply – I hope not. But I think what is a challenge for us now is the national living wage – that’s a big issue. The rates revaluation – that’s a big issue, especially for London operators. Rents only ever go up.

“And, to a degree, imported inflation of ingredients, partly because of – it’s a combination of a lot products like dairy, for example, have seen multi-year highs. And then you have the weakness of sterling.”

Read more: Channel 4 sale "worth considering" says ex-chairman

No Bregrets

Johnson was a prominent backer of Brexit in the business world, describing the EU as costly, dysfunctional and bureaucratic.

He is adamant that the fall in sterling, which “was going to have a correction at some point anyhow”, is not a primary concern for his businesses.

And he does not regret his Brexit backing. “I have been keen on separating from the EU for a very long period of time, since the 1980s, so this is no a new thing for me,” he says. “It was always, I felt, a ballsy thing to do, to look to leave the EU. But I think it was the right thing to do.”