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Mr Luke Johnson: oration

Read Professor Orietta Marsili's oration on Mr Luke Johnson for the honorary degree of Doctor of Business Administration in July 2017.


Profile photograph of Mr Luke Johnson
Mr Luke Johnson

Luke Johnson is one of the most renowned British entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship has many meanings. Naturally we think of entrepreneurs as individuals who create new companies. Many do so but only few are able to scale up a business to extraordinary success. Luke Johnson is one of these gifted entrepreneurs.

After graduating in Physiology from the University of Oxford in 1983, he worked as analyst at the investment bank Kleinwort Benson. He took over and became Chairman of PizzaExpress in 1992. He floated it within a year. By the time that he sold the company, seven years later, PizzaExpress had grown from 12 restaurants to a chain of over 250. The share price had risen from 40p to 800p. Market capitalisation reached over £500m.

Luke Johnson has written about entrepreneurship in books and in weekly columns for the Financial Times and The Sunday Times. In one column, he talks about Pizza Express as an example of an opportunity-rich market segment. “If you identify and exploit such a segment, you are very clever or very lucky. I was the latter, when, aged 29, I stumbled across pizza”. Entrepreneurs often start as ‘accidental entrepreneurs’, stumbling on opportunities. There is always an element of luck. However, it takes alertness and an open mindset to recognise and pursue opportunities that others have overlooked. It takes persistence and managerial capabilities to be able to do so, over and over again.

Luke Johnson’s achievements extend well beyond the restaurant business, from banking to jobs search services, from parcel delivery to publishing, from car parking solutions to maritime commerce. In 1996, he co-founded Integrated Dental Holdings. He developed it into the largest chain of UK dental surgeries with over 500 dentists, valued over £100m in ten years. He was even the Chairman of the public-service broadcaster Channel 4, from 2004 to 2010.

Entrepreneurs are more than investors. They help manage with their experience high potential new ventures. As the Chairman of Risk Capital Partner, a private equity firm that he co-founded in 2001, Luke Johnson has been active in the direction of several fast-growing enterprises. During the last ten years, he has been the major shareholder and chairman of the group which owns Patisserie Valerie. It is now a public company with over 200 outlets, valued at over £300m. He is also the chairman and largest shareholder in the business that owns Brighton Pier. He is a director of Brompton Bicycles and Gail’s, Britain’s largest artisan bakery.

Entrepreneurs are philanthropists. They give back to society. Luke Johnson has been Chairman of several charities and non-profit organisations, including the Institute of Cancer Research, the Royal Society of Arts and Career Colleges, an organisation promoting vocational education and the set-up of 40 vocational colleges for 14 to19 year olds.

Entrepreneurs are role models. They inspire and support the careers of young generations. Luke Johnson is the Chairman of StartUp Britain, a national enterprise campaign launched by the Prime Minister in 2011. It is hosted by the Centre for Entrepreneurs, an independent think-tank that he created in 2013 to encourage entrepreneurship, through events, mentoring, loans, research and dissemination, including its well-known Prosperity Index.

Luke Johnson is what we call today a scale-up entrepreneur. His journey is testimony to the view of Edith Penrose, the British economist who wrote the 1959 classic The Theory of the Growth of the Firm that underpins modern strategy. A good businessman needs not be ambitious but, without ambition, there is no growth. Managers can run businesses with competence but it is the ambition and initiative of entrepreneurs like Luke Johnson that drive job creation and economic growth in our society. 

Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Luke Johnson, who is eminently worthy to receive the Degree of Doctor of Business Administration, honoris causa.

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