Analysis / The Big Interview / The Big Interview: Luke Johnson, entrepreneur

The Big Interview: Luke Johnson, entrepreneur

I meet Luke Johnson at the Mayfair Hotel. He has a glass of champagne in hand and is smiling and mingling with the crowd who are all there to celebrate Britain’s most successful philanthropists, investors, mentors and entrepreneurs that have been honoured in the Maserati 100 list.


The list, compiled by Maserati and the Centre for Entrepreneurs – which was founded by Johnson – recognises 100 entrepreneurs who have also generously supported the next generation of business people.

Johnson’s experience as an entrepreneur is wide-ranging and impressive – he is the man behind some of Britain’s best known restaurants, bars and patisseries in particular. When he took control of PizzaExpress in 1993, he grew the business from 12 owned restaurants to more than 150, taking the share price from 40p to 900p in the process. He is also the former chairman of Channel 4.

His current interests include being part-owner of Patisserie Holdings, which has grown 30-fold after he took control nine years ago. He is also the chairman of private equity house Risk Capital Partners and chairman and co-owner of London bar chain Grand Union, Majestic Bingo and Small Batch Coffee.

“Starting a business is probably not for the faint hearted,” Johnson tells me at the event. “Obviously you can be self-employed and freelance, but if you are intending to be ambitious and grow a company you need to have a bit of a risk appetite.

“You need to have high energy, you need to be confident, you need to have self-belief, you need to have a capacity for hard work and you need to have a degree of selfishness. Capital should not be a barrier to entry, because a lot of new businesses these days do not require a lot of investment.

“The whole digital revolution has made it easier and quicker to test ideas and experiment and get it wrong and correct it – or ‘pivot’, as they say in Silicon Valley!”

Johnson believes that entrepreneurs have an important role to play in society as well as business, and are a big contributor to economic growth. He himself uses his experience to help other people who also want to create a business.

In 2012 he was appointed chair of StartUp Britain, the national campaign to stimulate start-up growth in the UK, and in 2013 he launched the Centre for Entrepreneurs – an independent non-profit think tank which promotes the role of entrepreneurs in society.

The Centre for Entrepreneurs research demonstrates the economic importance of entrepreneurship to a thriving society. These have included reports on how enterprise helps the economy, from reviving seaside towns via entrepreneurships to shattering the stereotypes about female entrepreneurs.

Johnson is adamant about the importance of small-scale entrepreneurialism to the UK economy. “Frankly, there is one player in society who creates those jobs, and it is not big companies,” he says. “The majority of new jobs in this country were created by companies employing 50 people or fewer. I obviously believe in the whole concept of entrepreneurship, and I do think there is a cultural shift going on in the UK towards self employment. The numbers have suggested there are more than 4.5 million people working for themselves. It is a very exciting time.”

In recognition of his promotion of entrepreneurs, Johnson has also been shortlisted for the UCL/Business Reporter Medal for Entrepreneurship, for entrepreneurs who uses their skills to promote enterprise and provide opportunities for others.

Johnson also helps inspire others wanting to start up a business through speeches, his national newspaper columns and books. “I talk to lots of people who are thinking about starting a business,” he says. “I tell them to go for it, because of their boldness. Be they inventors, be they financiers… whoever they are, the more entrepreneurs the better.

“Society will be busier, more innovative, happier, more productive, more fulfilled. The bottom line is, entrepreneurs create jobs – and I see one of my roles in life as to encourage entrepreneurship.”

That includes encouragement when times are tough – Johnson believes it is important to press on when things get hard. He explains that problems can range from falling out with partners, falling ill, running out of money and not generating any sales to suffering fraud, suppliers going bust, customers going bust, cyber-crime and the disruption which comes with moving premises or products that do not work and employee litigation. There are an infinite number of hurdles and problems that can crop up.

Nevertheless, Johnson counsels against worrying too much about failing. “The biggest single issue would be generating sales and the practical consequence of things going wrong in a business generally,” he says. “The risk is [always] of running out of cash and going broke, but I always say how bad can it get? It is not really that bad – I have had a number of businesses that have failed. I have survived. I always encourage entrepreneurs to avoid giving any personal guarantees if possible, so they will not go personally bankrupt.”

Indeed, Johnson believes persistence is an altogether more valuable quality than getting it right first time. “To encourage other entrepreneurs in early stages to press on is really important. It is almost as important as money. Most problems can be overcome in time. I said at the beginning that [entrepreneurialism] is not for the faint-hearted, so those who try need to be resilient, but I believe the rewards are worth it. I don’t just mean financially – I mean the satisfaction of having achieved something on your own and getting the credit for your effort.

“People have time to say to would-be entrepreneurs, you can do it, don’t give up, there are opportunities around the corner, try this, try that. But a lot of entrepreneurs are not sheep. They take a different view and they are willing to ignore the hubbub and have their own vision for success and follow that through.

“It is also about moral courage – explaining to them, yes, you have had set backs, you have had things that have not worked, get over it, life goes on, the worst generally does not happen. Do not despair. These are very important messages to get out.”

It is these traits which have arguably turned Johnson into the successful serial entrepreneur he is today. He attributes his success to having a strong role model early on in the form of his similarly self-starting father – who he says seized the opportunities when they arose and focused on those priorities as well as luck. “Having a relatively early role model, who did not work for someone else, who did not feel the need to work nine to five and was willing to take a risk, is quite important,” he says.

At the Maserati 100 event, the crowds have started to gather to celebrate those 100 entrepreneurs recognised for helping others. Johnson, champagne in hand, goes back to mingling with his fellow entrepreneurs, no doubt inspiring others who wish to follow a similar journey and create a business which also gives back to society.