Souvenir king becomes Britain's newest billionaire

The super-rich: Unknown businessman enters wealth league

CHRIS BLACKHURST

A man who made his money wooing Japanese tourists to his theme restaurants and souvenir kiosks by hiring staff who spoke their language has become Britain's newest billionaire, taking him within reach of Britain's richest man, Hans Rausing, with pounds 2.88bn.

Joseph Lewis is eighth in line, after Mr Rausing, the Swedish drinks packaging king - he runs the Tetra Pak empire - who lives in West Sussex. While Mr Rausing, 70, maintains a low profile, the secretive Mr Lewis, 59, leaves him standing. He holds court in Lyford Cay, the playground of the super-rich in Nassau, Bahamas, but is rarely seen in public and has never submitted to a press photograph.

In the past year he has emerged, through his Abel investment vehicle, as owner of a 29 per cent stake in Christie's, the London auction house. The City is bracing itself for a full takeover bid from Mr Lewis, who recently took the unusual step, for him, of hiring a financial public relations firm.

If he does make a play for Christie's. Mr Lewis may find his fortune barely dented. Some observers reckon he could be worth as much as pounds 5bn. From leaving school and joining his father's restaurant business - they ran the Beefeater by the Tower of London, among others to which Japanese tourists flocked because of staff and signs in their own language - he has proved himself an astute player of the world's currency markets, making millions from taking shrewd positions and building up an almost legendary reputation among dealers.

The family firm was sold in 1979, for an undisclosed sum, and he became a tax exile. He owns a large slice of the Union discount house, and controls the English National Investment Trust. In North America, he owns a Florida country club and a security company.

He has some high-profile friends, notably John Francome, the former champion jockey, Michael Smurfitt, the Irish paper tycoon and Robert Earl, founder of Planet Hollywood, but stays in the background. Maurice Barnfather, his newly-appointed PR man, said yesterday: "Mr Lewis is a private, quiet man who is not courting publicity and wishes to maintain a quiet, family life."

Mr Lewis shares eighth spot in the Sunday Times list of Britain's Richest 500 people, published tomorrow, with the Hinduja brothers, Gopi and Sri, and Viscount Rothermere. The Hindujas trade in chemicals, oil, motor vehicles and telecommunications, mainly on the Indian sub-continent but internationally as well, from their base in London.

They could soon be joined by Mr Lewis's friend, Mr Earl, who has seen his wealth shoot up from pounds 80m to pounds 350m in just one year, thanks to the world-wide success of Planet Hollywood and is well on his way to becoming Britain's first billionaire restaurateur.

Top 10 places in the wealth league

1. Hans Rausing, food packaging pounds 2.88bn

2. David Sainsbury and family, retailing pounds 2.52bn

3. Garfield Weston and family, food production pounds 2.2bn

4. The Duke of Westminster, landowner pounds 1.65bn

5. Sir John and Sir Adrian Swire, shipping and aviation pounds 1.3bn

6= Sir James Goldsmith, finance pounds 1.2bn

6= John and Peter Moores, stores, mail order, pools pounds 1.2bn

8= Gori and Sri Hinduja, trading and finance pounds 1bn

8= Joseph Lewis, finance pounds 1bn

8= Viscount Rothermere, newspaper publishing pounds 1bn

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