China Funds Eye Slice Of £1bn PizzaExpress
One of China's biggest private equity firms is weighing up plans to buy a slice of PizzaExpress as the British restaurant chain accelerates its expansion in the world's most populous country.
Sky News has learnt that Hony Capital, which manages roughly $7bn (£4.1bn) on behalf of clients, has approached a number of UK and US-based buyout funds about the possibility of tabling a joint offer for PizzaExpress.
Sources said that Fosun, the Chinese conglomerate which owns a stake in Club Mediterranee, the French holiday company, and Citic Capital Partners, another major Beijing-based fund, were also watching the PizzaExpress auction, although it was unclear whether either would table a formal offer.
News of the firms' interest coincides with a visit to the UK by the Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, in an effort to strengthen political and trade ties.
PizzaExpress has been put up for sale with a £1bn price-tag by Cinven, the private equity group which has backed it since 2007.
Several UK funds including Advent International and TPG considered making offers but decided against doing so. It is unclear which Western funds remain in the process and sources cautioned that Hony may not reach an agreement about a joint bid.
Hony has been among the most active of China's private equity firms to examine overseas investments, having participated in deals to buy companies in Hong Kong and Italy in recent years.
It is also backing a new film studio being set up by Hollywood producers Robert Simonds and Gigi Pritzker.
If it does participate in a deal to buy PizzaExpress, Hony would become the latest Chinese entity to own a stake in a major UK consumer brand.
In 2012, Bright Food bought a controlling stake in Weetabix, the breakfast cereal producer, while Hony itself has been linked with a bid for United Biscuits, owner of the McVitie's brand, which will be formally put up for sale later in the year.
At £1bn, analysts believe a deal would value PizzaExpress at roughly ten times its annual profits, although Gondola, its parent, does not provide separate figures about the performance of the chain and its sister businesses, Zizzi and Ask Italian.
PizzaExpress operates from nearly 500 sites in a dozen countries, and has plans to open 200 new restaurants in fast-growing markets such as China and India during the next five years.
Some analysts believe the potential in China, where the menu is dominated by items other than pizzas, is much greater.
Founded in 1965, the chain has been through several changes of ownership, including at one stage being run by Luke Johnson, the restaurants entrepreneur.
The business is now headed by Richard Hodgson, a former Asda and Wm Morrison executive, who joined a year ago.
PizzaExpress declined to comment, while Hony could not be reached.