Business View: Even for the man who transformed PizzaExpress, Channel 4 is a hot potato

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I've known Luke Johnson for more than a decade. And a more surprising chairman for Channel 4 you would be hard pressed to find. While the last couple of Channel 4 chairs have quietly got on with the task (the incumbent, Vanni Treves, appears to save his public pronouncements for his other job as chairman of Equitable Life), Mr Johnson is a voluble self-publicist. While the channel is the home of liberal views, Mr Johnson is an economic (if not social) libertarian. While Channel 4 needs stability at a time of change within the media, Luke is a gadfly who jumps from project to project, some successful, some less so.

A quick check at Companies House reveals that he is the director of 14 companies, is a former director of 59 companies and was the director of 11 companies at the time they were dissolved. Most people will associate him with the success of PizzaExpress, which he helped turn into a national brand and a roaring financial success. However, along the way have been less starry ventures such as Signature Restaurants (owner of Belgo and The Ivy), Mediakey, Benicia Ports, Utility Cable and Integrated Dental Holdings, the last of which has given investors more pain than is inflicted by the dentists it employs.

Of course if you involve yourself in a portfolio of companies, all you have to do is pick more winners than losers to look like a hero (in fact, even if you have more losers, a couple of really big winners will still deliver guru status in the City). But in the media it is different. You need a lot of decent returns, with the odd star success and no real dogs. Greg Dyke and Gavyn Davies will testify that one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch.

At the moment in the media, you have an active market for bosses, with a shortage of good candidates. I'm not sure Mr Johnson is the best person for the Channel 4 job, but then again Penny Hughes, Hans Snook and Stuart Rose didn't seem like terribly good fits. ITV will start life tomorrow without a permanent chairman and we all know about the BBC.

I wish Mr Johnson luck. But more than that, with all sorts of commercial challenges and a possible privatisation on the agenda, I wish Channel 4 luck with him at the helm.

Another lord, another verdict

Talking of Equitable Life, the jungle drums have it that the report by Lord Penrose into the collapse of the venerable life assurer will be out this week. The Maxwellisation process - which is shorthand for sending the relevant paragraphs to anyone criticised for comment prior to publication - has led to the inevitable leaks (though not as many as some of us might have hoped). These indicate that the regulators (a heady combination of the Department of Trade & Industry, the Treasury and the Financial Services Authority) and the former directors will get the burden of the blame, while the auditor, Ernst & Young, might not be so badly criticised.

But who knows? After the shocks in the Hutton report, allowing a law lord from the provinces to give his opinion seems to produce a result no one can predict.

Sanofi and the gall of the Gauls

My favourite headline of last week came from an unexpected source - the Financial Times' Lex column. Over an analysis of the reasons for Sanofi's bid for Aventis was the line, "What Dehecq?". The general consensus is that Sanofi's chairman, Jean-Francois Dehecq, launched his $46bn (£25bn) bid for his near-neighbour as both a snub to the French establishment and an attempt to save Sanofi itself from a bid because its two big shareholders, L'Oréal and Total, were itching to flog their stakes.

From this stance most people conclude that Aventis will try and find a white knight to scupper Sanofi's attentions. And while Aventis is making all the right moves to build up its defences - cosying up to Novartis, hinting it might make its own acquisition - never forget our French friends' xenophobia. Would the Paris establishment prefer a Swiss - or, dare one say, a British or American - company to come in to save Aventis, or would it prefer a Franco-French solution?

However cheeky M Dehecq has been, this will surely be a case of better the devil you know. History suggests that Sanofi and Aventis will get together. It is merely the terms of the deal that need to be thrashed out.

j.nisse@independent.co.uk

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