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Luke Johnson: ‘I’d love to own a theatre – it’s a great business for risk-takers’

Luke Johnson. Photo: Vanessa Berberian

What qualities do you need to be a top producer? How do you set about raising the money, and how easy is it to bounce back after a first-time flop?

These are some of the questions addressed by Stage One, the 40-year-old charity dedicated to giving rookie producers a leg up. Its chairman for the past six years, Luke Johnson, is one of the country’s most successful and hard-working entrepreneurs, and also knows what it feels like to fail.

“I’ve had my fair share of professional cock-ups, but life carries on,” says the likeable 54-year-old who is worth £245 million, according to the Sunday Times Rich List. “You learn by your mistakes, and failing is part of the business. It’s all about keeping going. Everyone is chasing a hit. If you have a huge hit that transfers to Broadway, you can get back your investment many times over, but most shows don’t come close to that. A lot of shows don’t even recoup, and that is the nature of the business.”

Johnson’s love of the theatre dates back to his childhood in Iver, Buckinghamshire, where he used to put on “little plays” in the garage at home. His father, the veteran journalist and historian Paul Johnson, moved in literary circles and it wasn’t unusual to find Tom Stoppard or Harold Pinter sitting around the dinner table. “I always loved a project, organising things. For me, making a success of something is what matters the most, the money is secondary. With all the best entrepreneurs I’ve known, money is not the thing that turns them on. The point about making money is that you’ve then got the wherewithal to do it all again.”

At the University of Oxford, Johnson abandoned plans to become a doctor in favour of a business career after interviewing Richard Branson for the student newspaper, Isis. He and fellow student Hugh Osmond opened a nightclub in Oxford and went on to run other businesses together, while at the same time completing a BA in physiological sciences. In his 20s, he worked as a stockbroker and media analyst.

 The Stage One team taking part in the Society of London Theatre’s speed networking in 2015. Photo: Holly Wren
The Stage One team taking part in the Society of London Theatre’s speed networking in 2015. Photo: Holly Wren

The big money breakthrough came in 1993, when, aged just 30, Johnson and Osmond took the controlling share in a small restaurant chain called Pizza Express. The budding entrepreneurs managed to persuade the company’s founder they were the right people to head up a nationwide expansion. Within six years, 12 branches had increased to 250 stylish pizza outlets across the country, and its share price rocketed from 40p to £9.

Selling the business in 1999, Johnson set up Signature Restaurants, which included The Ivy and Le Caprice, two of the capitals most fashionable eateries popular with showbiz A-listers, as well as launching the successful Strada brand. He sold both businesses in 2005, netting a profit of £90 million.

From 2004 to 2010, he was chairman of Channel 4 and currently his hands-on assets include Patisserie Valerie – now you know why they’re popping up everywhere – a car park company, the Edinburgh Fringe operator Assembly, a cruise holiday business, a greyhound stadium, a bread-making company, Brompton Bicycles and Brighton Pier. It should be noted that he is in partnership with other people in most of the above.

In addition, he has fingers in a number of tasty theatrical pies, including the highly successful Playful Productions and Fiery Dragons, which is one of the parties behind the Kenneth Branagh season at London’s Garrick Theatre. Though he steers clear of the artistic side of producing, avoiding choosing plays and casting them, his acumen when it comes to such things as risk assessment and profit margins are no doubt invaluable, not to mention his undimmed passion for the theatre.

Matthew Byam Shaw, who runs Playful with Nick Salmon and Nia Janis, clearly values “the wisdom he brings from the world of business”, as well as his tendency to tell it like it is. “Luke is straight-talking without being brutal,” says Byam Shaw. “You’re never in any doubt what he thinks, but there is a generosity that goes with that. He is very quick to congratulate you when things go well, and when they don’t go so well, he is ready to galvanise and encourage you to move on to better things.”

The Painkiller at the Garrick Theatre starring Kenneth Branagh
The Painkiller at the Garrick Theatre starring Kenneth Branagh

For his part, Johnson puts high value on honesty and plain-speaking in the producers he does business with. “Producing shows is a high-risk, high-reward game,” he says. “Some producers will go into hiding if they’ve had a flop. I like to think I’m grown-up about losing money. Failing is part of being in business. One of the principles of investment I believe in is: Tell me the bad news, don’t cover it up. The best producers are punctilious and upfront about their numbers.

“If it’s a good producer who got unlucky, I’d always back them a second time. If the numbers are bad and they don’t tell me, then I probably won’t back them again. It is essential that trust is maintained, because you’re dealing with other people’s money. Producing is a high-wire act. You get all the benefits of being part of a magnificent venture, but you owe it to your investors to be businesslike. Just because it’s theatre, it doesn’t give anyone the right to be cavalier with other people’s money.

“Investing in the theatre is very far from being a slam-dunk as an investment prospect. Different shows are financed in different ways, so you get big American shows that come over here with corporate backers, then you have independent producers doing dramas and comedies with their regular backers. Most people who put money into shows are in love with the theatre. The best producers are also in love with the theatre, but, at the end of the day, they need to be businesslike as well. Young producers need to be on top of the contracts and in charge of their budgets.

“I chair Fiery Dragons, which is essentially a partnership with the producer Ed Snape, a very thorough and thoughtful producer. We back at least 15 shows a year. One of the principles of investing, so far as I’m concerned, is diversification, so we don’t put a quarter of our money into one show, we diversify our portfolio. Obviously we’ve had winners and losers, but I think we’ve made a net profit over all.”

How would Johnson say theatre producers differ from other entrepreneurs?

“It’s a project-based business – you put on a show and if you’re very lucky, a tour, and then you move on to the next show. With something like Patisserie Valerie, I open a new outlet and I’d hope that it would still be trading in 10 years’ time. So theatre is a short bet and you need a thick skin to keep going, because the chances are you’re going to lose money. You need to be passionate about theatre, because, let’s face it, there are easier ways to make a living.”


Q&A: Luke Johnson

What was your first job? Delivering the Christmas mail.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Calm down.

Who or what was your biggest influence? My father, who is not afraid to be a contrarian, which I’ve always admired.

What’s your best advice for auditions? When you’ve made the sale, get out of the room.

If you hadn’t been an entrepreneur, what would you have been? A writer of some kind.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I try not to talk about a project I’m working on, except to those closely involved

Not surprisingly, the producer he most admires is Cameron Mackintosh, because he has been “an outstanding success” on both sides of the Atlantic, and he has put a lot of money back into the theatres he owns. “I suspect he is a tough cookie, but you can’t be a pushover if you’re running a successful business,” he says.

Would he ever want to own a theatre himself?

“I’d love to own a theatre, because I genuinely believe it is a great business for risk-takers like me. I’ve looked at one or two in London. I’d consider owning a regional theatre, but the economics are much tougher. In London, it’s a bit like hotels – you can operate it as a going concern and you can also see the appreciation of your real estate, which is obviously one of the attractions. London theatres change hands at exorbitant prices, so the idea that I’d own one is unlikely.”

He says his love of theatre was nurtured by annual visits to Edinburgh in his 20s – a habit he still tries to indulge. “That’s where theatre is at its purest, because they are doing it for the love of it. The most electric moments for me are usually the most intimate ones. If you’re in a space with 2,000 people, it can be harder to access those moments. When I visit Edinburgh, I can happily go to see five shows a day, more sometimes, and I will equally happily walk out of a show if it’s not good enough.

Alice’s Adventures Underground at the Vaults is one of the shows Johnson has invested in. Photo: Jane Hobson
Alice’s Adventures Underground at the Vaults is one of the shows Johnson has invested in. Photo: Jane Hobson

“One of the things I adore about the theatre is that it’s such a wonderful escape. It is not my livelihood, and I want to be completely immersed in what I’m watching. But I also enjoy the business of theatre, understanding the economics of it. I never stake so much in a show that the prospect of losing my investment spoils my enjoyment of it. I don’t want to be sat there thinking about my money going down the drain.

“When I chaired Channel 4 for six years, I found that a lot of people who work in TV can’t watch TV uncritically – for them it is work. I had many years of going into my restaurants and being told off by my wife for fidgeting and fretting, telling waiters that this or that customer is waiting for their bill. It’s a bit sad when what should be a pleasurable experience becomes work. It’s the same with theatre: if you’re living and breathing the business, you can’t get lost in the show.”

In his Stage One role, Johnson talks to producers about the highs and lows of being an entrepreneur, how to raise money, how to pick yourself up after a disaster and how to cope with a high-risk lifestyle.

“I’m endlessly fascinated by the psychology of entrepreneurism. It’s not at all about qualifications – neither [marketer] Adam Kenwright nor [producer] Mark Goucher went to university, and that’s not unusual – it’s about force of personality, determination and willpower. It is also about domain knowledge, knowing your craft. Very few successful businesses are about the idea itself, they are about its execution. There is a generation of younger entrepreneurs who think it’s all about concept. You must serve your time in the trenches, get to know who to trust, what the prices and margins should be, everything about the business. You talk to Nick Salmon at Playful and he knows every theatre in London inside out.”

If he were going into theatre production today, Johnson says he would look at crowdfunding platforms as an alternative to the time-honoured “angels” model. “I think the younger generation of producers should seriously consider crowdfunding as a means of raising capital. Finding individuals who have money to invest and are grown-up about the risks is never easy. There are dozens of projects I know of in the catering industry that are being financed through crowdfunding.”

He is also a great believer in business partnerships – “you share the burden and the benefits” – which enables him to take on so many different projects.

Despite muttering about not having the capacity for work he once did, Johnson would clearly love to make inroads into the American market in one form or another. “If I were a 20-something starting out, a global outlook would go without saying. Everything is so much more accessible now. I really believe this is best time in history to start a company.”

CV: Luke Johnson

Born: 1962, Iver, Buckinghamshire
Education: Langley Grammar School, Berkshire; Magdalen College, University of Oxford
Career highlights: Pizza Express (1993-1999), Strada, co-founder (1999-2005), Channel 4, chair (2004-2010), Risk Capital Partners Ltd, founder (2010), Stage One, chair (2010-present), Centre for Entrepreneurs, founder (2013-present)

Luke Johnson is a director of Playful Productions, Fiery Dragons and AKA marketing agency, and is the chairman of Stage One. lukejohnson.org

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