Mr Pizza and all that jazz; Profile: Peter Boizot

Peterborough FC's new owner puts pleasure before profit, says Chris Blackhurst
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When the Liberal Democrats hold their general election night party, or wake, they will assemble in a restaurant donated to them for the evening by that rarest of individuals in modern British society: a happy, generous, entrepreneur.

Their host will be Peter Boizot, the 67-year-old founder of the Pizza Express chain and owner of Pizza on the Park, at London's Hyde Park Corner. Mr Boizot, who made an estimated pounds 40m from Pizza Express, has more money than he needs and is busy spreading it around. Last week, he popped up as the new owner of Peterborough United Football Club, his home-town team.

He is as far removed from a hard-nosed soccer boss as it is possible to be. As with so much of what he does, his motive for buying Peterborough is not to yield a return. Profit is not his goal - although, in spite of that or even because of that, profit does seem to come his way. He has bought the club because he loves Peterborough, pure and simple.

His is a remarkable story, which proves it is possible to mix business with pleasure; that, provided the formula is right, there is no need to constantly change or to be swayed by external pressures.

A pillar of the fight to save the character of London's Soho, he is also Britain's biggest supporter of jazz, a mantle he takes over following the death of Ronnie Scott. In his home town, he owns the Great Northern Hotel in Peterborough, not because it made economic sense to buy it but because as a child it was a place his late insurance inspector father and mother had always revered.

"The Great Northern was posh, it was where the big nobs always stayed. Owning it was a real feather in my cap."

He has given pounds 100,000 to Peterborough Cathedral Choir, in which he used to sing as a boy. He has bought the former Odeon Cinema, where he used to watch films on Saturday mornings. He intends to turn the cinema, along with an office block next door, into an arts complex. Now, he has the football team that he used to follow on Saturday afternoons.

They join his other ventures: Pizza on the Park, Kettners in Soho and Condotti in Mayfair and a pub in Maida Vale. These restaurants reflect his grand diversity of interests. Pizza on the Park is one of London's foremost jazz music venues because he likes jazz, Kettners and Condotti each have long champagne and wine lists because he likes champagne and wine. And then there is hockey. The basement of the pub - called the Carlton - is being converted into a changing room for the Hampstead and Westminster Hockey Club, which plays nearby because he still turns out for the veterans' side. He raises his hands as if to defend himself: "I know it ought to be where the beer goes, but I wanted the basement turned into a changing room and painted in the club colours."

No single person has raised more since the mid-Seventies to save Venice from peril by conserving its buildings than Mr Boizot. Every Pizza Veneziana sold in a Pizza Express raises 25p for the Venice in Peril Fund. It started at 5p, but that was not enough so he put the sum up to 25p.

Despite standing down as chairman when the restaurant "necklace" - he prefers the word to chain - went public on the stock market in 1993, the donations still continue unabated. To date, the grand total stands at pounds 600,000.

Now, he is attempting to turn a similar trick in Soho. He would like to see Frith Street, outside Ronnie Scott's jazz club, pedestrianised. Westminster Council claims it cannot afford the necessary pounds 100,000, so Mr Boizot has taken the task upon himself. Each Bellini cocktail and St Paul's Pizza - so called after an earlier effort to raise cash for St Paul's Church in Knightsbridge - sold in Kettners raises 25p for the Soho Community Environment Fund.

There are other strings to his bow. He wants to commemorate the late Ronnie Scott with a fine bust. He is intent on erecting a statue to "The Duke" (Ellington) in Soho Square. He hopes to reduce traffic congestion in Soho by running an electric bus service from Hyde Park, where there is a little-used car park with space for 1,000 cars.

Linking all his passions is a glossy monthly magazine, Boz, so named after his nickname. Distributed privately, Boz, with a print-run of 5,000, carries articles only on things that concern him: the preservation of Soho, the site of his first Pizza Express in Wardour Street; Peterborough; art; hockey; food; lots of jazz; and columns from friends such as the mouth-organist Larry Adler and the critic Sheridan Morley.

Political and environmental matters are covered from a Liberal Democrat perspective. He was twice a parliamentary candidate for the party - in Peterborough, of course.

Eccentric possibly, eclectic certainly, he prefers the phrase "enlightened self-interest" to describe his butterfly-like approach to life.

He is a vegetarian, and has been since childhood. Consequently, his pizzas contain little meat whether the customers like it or not. (They do not seem to mind.) Likewise, with chips and burgers. Big sellers they may be elsewhere, but not in one of his restaurants. "I sell the customer what I think he ought to have rather than what he thinks he wants," explains Mr Boizot.

Peterborough may be one of the fastest-growing and most prosperous cities in Britain, but it does not have a Pizza Express. The reason is that Mr Boizot is fed up with pizza by the time he gets there from London, and so he decreed his home town shall not have one - and hang the loss of profit. "I have a gentleman's agreement [with Pizza Express's new owners] that they cannot go there without consulting me first."

In an age when restaurateurs will switch menus at the drop of a hat, the menus at Pizza Express have rarely altered. To the credit of the company's new management, they, too, have appreciated that there is little to be gained from changing a proven formula.

Relations between the founder and the new broom, led by Luke Johnson, high-flying, razor-sharp son of Paul Johnson, the eminent journalist and historian, are not as good as they could be. There is no head-on clash of personalities as such, but Mr Johnson's preoccupation is to meet the demands of investors and the City now that the company has gone public.

Towards the end of Mr Boizot's reign, Pizza Express was strapped for cash. Now City analysts pore over the share prices some of the idiosyncracies have to go: no more sponsored hockey. Mr Boizot didn't care whether there was television coverage or not; the new institutional shareholders care more about the bottom line than the touch line.

Mr Boizot, who is still president of the company, is not consulted as often as he would wish. Some of the charm has gone and, with the relocation of the company headquarters from Soho to the less compelling surroundings of Kensal Rise, nobody with a paternal eye is on hand to nurture tradition.

But the firm has expanded rapidly since flotation. Going public has meant branches opening everywhere (except Peterborough). More efficient management and a sharp rise in profits from pounds 1.4m in 1993 to pounds 10.2m last year, have made Mr Boizot even better off. Shares priced at 40p when it floated are now worth 580p, valuing Pizza Express at more than pounds 380m.

Mr Boizot does not begrudge Mr Johnson and his colleagues their success. "I'd reached a brick wall. We had become a little bit divided, like the Tory party, so I decided to sell, and there was a bigger pot of gold than I had ever dreamed of."

Any regrets he may have had have been tempered by the rising share price, for, as it climbed, he sold - although he still retains 2.25 million shares. "It is a source of pride and satisfaction and happiness to see Pizza Express doing so well."

While much of the recent success is to Mr Johnson's credit, it is entirely based on Mr Boizot's brilliantly simple idea. Pizza has become the world's most successful mass-market convenience food, long familiar in every high street in the country, but back in the Sixties he was the one who effectively introduced it to Britain. He had the courage to open his first restaurant, and he always insisted on exactingly high standards.

It would be incorrect to suppose he does not know how to make a profit, to drive a bargain. Since taking over Peterborough United, he has persuaded Barry Fry, the team's ebullient manager, to renegotiate his contract - downwards.

PETER BOIZOT has never married and there are no children upon whom he can to lavish his wealth - although he has not given up hope. "A friend of mine is over 65 and has just become a father. His wife tells me there are only 500 men in Britain over 65 to have sired children, but if I found Miss Right..."

The fact that Miss Right has not come along is undoubtedly to the considerable benefit of Peterborough, Soho, jazz, pizzas, hockey, Venice and, now, football. "If I were a married man I would never have been allowed to do it all," he says. "If I had children I would probably have thought twice about Peterborough United. They would have said 'what about buying a nice villa or a yacht in the Med?'."

It is a fantasy of a kind, to have more money than you could possibly need, with no ties to bind. Just about the only thing he can't buy is the cathedral, where he sang psalms by candlelight during the war.

"It was one of the great experiences of my life. Singing in the choir was a wonderful discipline, discipline with beauty." But if he cannot possess it, Mr Boizot is at least doing his best to see that the building and the choral tradition is conserved.

Peter Boizot sits in the window of the Pizza on the Park by Hyde Park Corner, idly watching a red double-decker bus, the Number 39, driving past, and a smile of satisfaction spreads over his face.

On the side of the bus is an advertisement for Peroni Italian beer, the brand he introduced to Britain when he began to sell it in his restaurants. Mr Boizot thought it would be fun to put Peroni on the side of a bus that regularly passes his restaurant. That was years ago, and he paid for the advertisements out of his own pocket.

He is still tickled pink to sit in the window watching the advert go by. He may have made a lot of money but he has always managed to enjoy himself.

His eyes twinkle: "To think it is all down to a simple round object from Naples...."