Luke Johnson will celebrate his 57th birthday next month, but it’s unlikely he will mark the occasion with a Patisserie Valerie cake after the cafe chain that he chairs called in administrators on Tuesday.
As he picks over the crumbs of Patisserie Valerie’s precipitous collapse, Johnson can at least console himself with his own advice that a willingness to fail is the mark of a good entrepreneur.
Having called his investment firm Risk Capital Partners – its boardroom, at least at one time, housed a roulette wheel – Johnson is clearly not afraid to take a chance, even buying more than one bingo business. In the past he has taken a financial hit from investing in books at Borders and newspapers with Sunday Business; both ventures ultimately failed.
But as he mulls over the lessons from on one of his most disastrous business forays thus far, Johnson can look back on a 40-year investing history which includes many successes as well as flops.
Grammar school-educated Johnson began his business career at 18 when he organised parties and raves as an Oxford medical student. He had stints working at TV-AM as an assistant to the former Tory MP Jonathan Aitken, who was an investor in the broadcaster, and then as an analyst at investment bank Kleinwort Benson. And then Johnson made his name and his fortune with pizza.
The young entrepreneur teamed up with fellow medic Hugh Osmond to buy Pizza Express for ￡8m in 1983 and the business grew from 12 outlets to more than 200 before the pair floated it on the stock exchange 10 years later. Johnson has described Pizza Express as “the one that made all the other things possible”.
Among other investments, Johnson co-founded the investment firm Intrinsic Value in 1999, investing in businesses including Belgo Group, which then owned high-end restaurants The Ivy and Le Caprice.
In 2000, while chairman of Belgo, he spent a week working as a waiter at the Belgian beer and chip chain’s flagship restaurant as part of the TV show Back to the Floor. He was filmed storming away from cameras – telling the BBC producer, on air, to “shove” his programme – after facing tough questions from chefs over pay and conditions.
In 2001 he set up Risk Capital Partners, which owns stakes in nine businesses including the Brighton Pier Group, Feng Sushi restaurants, Gail’s owner Bread Holdings and swimming kit brand Zoggs as well as Patisserie Valerie. Previous investments include the Giraffe restaurant chain, dental surgery group Integrated Dental Holdings and GRA, a group of greyhound racing stadiums, as well as Borders.
While juggling these investments Johnson also found time to become the youngest ever chairman of Channel 4 in 2004, spending six years in the job.
Known for his strong opinions as well as a determination to invest in things he finds fun, Johnson has built a media profile alongside his investment career.
Until the problems at Patisserie Valerie emerged, Johnson wrote a regular column in the Sunday Times dispensing business advice. Just weeks before the cake company’s shares were suspended, he used his column to draw up a checklist of warning signs indicating fraud.
The youngest son of the historian and rightwing newspaper columnist Paul and Guardian-reading mother, Marigold, who stood as a Labour candidate in a safe Tory seat in Buckinghamshire in the early 1970s, Johnson has said he eschews party politics.
But he has made clear his backing for Brexit, putting money behind the leave campaign in the run-up to the EU referendum. He has previously said his single most hated task is “paying tax”.