PizzaExpress founder prompts dizzying rise in Lionheart

SHARES IN Lionheart, an obscure shell company, soared 159 per cent yesterday after a trio of entrepreneurs, including Luke Johnson, announced their intention to turn the former bathroom business into an investment vehicle.

In scenes reminiscent of the hysteria surrounding the reverse takeover of Knutsford by Archie Norman, the former Asda chairman, Lionheart shares closed at 29.75p, up from 11.5p the previous day.

Mr Johnson, the former chairman of PizzaExpress who now chairs the Belgo restaurant chain and co-manages Intrinsic Value, an investment trust, has clubbed together with Gary Ashworth, the founder of Abacus Recruitment, and the Hong Kong-based fund manager Jim Mellon to take a 29.9 per cent stake in Lionheart.

The three men will subscribe to pounds 3.2m worth of shares under a placing and open offer at 6p a share, and will be granted warrants for another 30 per cent of the company at the same price. Lionheart plans to raise another pounds 2m through the offer, which will be announced later this month. Shareholders will be able to subscribe to a pounds 1m open offer at 6p a share while another pounds 1m will be placed privately by the house broker, Collins Stewart.

The three men hope to use the company as a cash shell to acquire businesses in the services sector. Lionheart also plans to move its share listing to the AIM, where it is easier to raise money.

Mr Johnson said: "Our intention is to do what I've done before, which is to find a substantial business or businesses and reverse them into Lionheart." Peter Pollock, Lionheart's chairman who will remain as a non-executive director, said: "They're a very talented bunch.... Watch this space."

Mr Mellon runs Regent Pacific, which forced the break-up of Hambros, the investment bank, while Mr Ashworth sold Abacus Recruitment last year for pounds 14.6m to Carlisle Holdings, the support-services group owned by Michael Ashcroft, the Conservative Party treasurer.

Although Mr Johnson and Mr Pollock claimed that "no specific acquisition targets have yet been identified", it is understood that the group has its sights set on an Internet company but that shares in Lionheart would have to climb to around 50p before they could afford it.

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