Saturday, 17 November 2007

He's got the bug for Business

He’s got the bug for business – At university when, with fellow trainee doctor and subsequent City enfant terrible and onetime colleague, Hugh Osmond, he ran clubs for students. “I thought that if you work for yourself the freedom it gives you is compelling, and that was the attraction. I happen to believe that entrepreneurs and people who build businesses are a lifeforce – be they Phillip Green or Bill Gates, who ever. Someone has to take the risk. To create a shop, newspaper, whatever its about making things happen.”

Until Mr Johnson was 27, he worked for other people, for Johnathan Aitken, the businessman and former Tory MP, for Grieveson Grant, the stockbroker, as an equity analyst, and at an advertising agency as account director. Then, in 1989, he broke away, buying a theatre scenery business. “It was a terrible business to be in. One minute the staff were working full-time on an Andrew Lloyd Webber. Next they could be doing nothing but you still had to pay them. Not long after I’d bought it we went into a recession which most of us have forgotten. That was very tough.”

Mr Johnson has never done an MBA. He thinks business is common sense. If you run out of money, you go bust – it’s simple. Business is ruthless and mathematical but simple. “I always make sure I have partners who are industry experts, who know what they’re doing. I believe in properly motivating people, in aligning businesses in the same industry. I’m not clever enough to judge economic cycles and make those sorts of plays – I’m always out there, involved with various things which I believe will be good enough, in good or bad times. It helps as well if you like the business you’re in – like restaurants and bookshops.”

Mr Johnson’s transformational deal was with Osmond, when they acquired Pizza Express in a £20 million reverse takeover in 1992. Their timing was immaculate. The downturn was ending, people were eating out again and pizzas were the all the rage. They expanded like mad, taking the chain to 250 branches and to a value of £700 million.

In the City, he is regarded as some thing of a wunderkind, still young and cocky. The word “lucky” is often thrown in his direction. He has been, but most of that is luck he has made for himself. He is chairman of Channel 4, which he thinks will remain state-owned, under this government. He was given a piece of advice before he started at Channel 4, which he held dear “Leave Channel 4 in a better condition than I found it.”

Relevant articles - The owner of over 70 bookshops - Mr Luke Johnson
The owner of Borders - Businessman of the Month

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