LUKE Johnson, the serial restaurant entrepreneur best known for putting Pizza Express on the map, yesterday struck a deal to buy specialist sports travel group Neilson from Thomas Cook for £9.15m.
The deal is Johnson’s second in the travel sector this year after his investment vehicle Risk Capital bought a majority stake in online holiday website Cruise.co.uk for around £20m in August.
“The sector should benefit disproportionately from a recovering economy,” Johnson told City A.M.
“Big ticket items like holidays have suffered since the recession but now we should see a good improvement.”
The sale is the latest in a string of disposals being overseen by Thomas Cook chief executive Harriet Green to slash its debt-pile, including the sale last week of its corporate foreign exchange business for £4.5m, and its majority stake in NATS, the national air traffic control service, for £38m.
The former Premier Farnell boss, who set out on a three-year plan to transform the business following her appointment last year, is aiming to cut £400m of costs by 2015.
Neilson, which was founded in 1978, generated revenues of £70m last year and serves 90,000 customers a year.
“The next years are going to be about bottom line rather than top line growth – we think it can grow its margins. The ski business for example has a lot more potential,” Johnson said.
Neilson’s management team, led by Pete and Pip Tyler, will be joined by new chairman Richard Bowden-Doyle and finance director David Taylor – both industry veterans.