From school truant to pizza multi-millionaire

Picture copyright Shutterstock
Picture caption David Page (bottom right) started out washing dishes in Pizza Express before rising to become chief executive

David Page did not quite bring pizza to the UK, but he did play a vital role in making Pizza Express among the nation’s most well-known places to eat in the 1980s and 90s.

But his journey to becoming boss of the famous pizza series – and proprietor of other restaurant teams such as Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Franco Manca – was far from conventional, and characterised by a penchant for doing things his own way.

Now 65 years old, the successive restaurateur remembers a time when, in the mid-80s, he moved to request pound & a;2m business loan, only to be met with incredulity out of his bank manger because he had been wearing slipper-like espadrilles.

“I wasn’t wearing any socks either!” , the Londoner says with a chuckle. “He could not quite believe it, but he lent me the cash.”

As a younger man, few could have guessed that David would go to conduct some of the UK’s best-known restaurant chains.

In 1969 he had been expelled from his Jesuit-run secondary college Wimbledon College in southwest London, for that which he politely describes as “truancy”.

Picture copyright Franco Manca
Picture caption Franco Manca uses sourdough for its pizzas

David then attempted to become a cartographer in the Ordnance Survey, the UK’s mapping service, but his refusal to cut his hair or wear a tie resulted in a different parting of the ways.

Next he started training to become a teacher, and washed dishes in his local Pizza Express in south London to make ends meet. The initial Pizza Express had started in central London in 1965, and by the early 1970s it had a handful of branches throughout the capital.

David says that he soon realised that working in the restaurant sector was his true calling, and as soon as the chance to become a Pizza Express branch manager arose he soon awakened the classroom.

By 1981 he had bought the franchise to operate a Pizza Express in Chiswick, west London.

“Should you fancied learning how to become a capitalist you became a franchisee,” says David, who took out another mortgage to fund that investment.

“I did not know what a capitalist was – my parents were socialists, so capitalism was a really dirty word.”

Picture caption David states He functions within a team which resembles a ‘big happy family’

David, who proceeded to open many more franchises over the next decade, states Pizza Express has been “pioneering” from the 1980s, along with also a breath of fresh air from England’s then rather dull food scene.

He recalls getting a letter from an “incredibly delighted customer” in Banstead, Surrey, that hailed that the opening of this town’s Pizza Express was the most fascinating thing to happen there because the library has been bombed in 1942.

By now Pizza Express was floated on the London Stock Exchange in 1993, David and three business partners had 25 franchises which formed the biggest part of the newly-listed company.

Despite claiming to not have known what a balance sheet had been back then, David became chief executive and later chairman, during which time Pizza Express climbed to approximately 300 outlets – largely in the united kingdom, but a few in other countries, such as the US, too.

The series was subsequently sold in 2003 to a number of private equity firms for £278m. Today Pizza Express is owned by China’s Hony Capital, and has branches in 11 countries.

Picture caption Pizza Express now has outlets in 11 countries, from China to the United Arab Emirates

After departing Pizza Express David went to co-found restaurant parent team Clapham House, whose chains included Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Bombay Bicycle Club and Tootsies.

Another decent payday arrived in 2010 when Clapham House has been bought by South African American chicken chain Nandos pound & for;30m.

But instead than just take premature retirement, the then 58-year-old David started searching for another restaurant prospect.

His attention was drawn to a little artisan pizza store named Franco Manca who had opened in Brixton, south London, in 2009.

With customers queuing around the block for its own wood fired and sourdough pizzas, David claims he and his staff were “lovers of this idea from day one”.

They soon invested in Franco Manca to help it expand, and also in 2015 David’s new investment collection Fulham Shore bought a vast majority stake for £27.5m.

Picture copyright Franco Manca
Picture caption David Page designs every Franco Manca restaurant himself

There are now 40 Franco Manca outlets, largely in London. David personally designs each restaurant, keeping the sites compact to ensure no space is wasted.

But things haven’t all gone according to plan for the restaurateur, whose Fulham Shore also owns the genuine Greek restaurants.

He states he’s passed on countless opportunities to invest in successful ventures, including Krispy Kreme donuts, the Caffe Nero coffee store chain, and food delivery business Deliveroo – he determined “would never work”.

David also states that Brexit – the UK’s conclusion and continuing route towards leaving the European Union – was a “major disturbance” to both Franco Manca along with the genuine Greek, and the UK’s restaurant sector generally.

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He states that is because the weaker pound has pushed up raw material costs, and fewer Europeans are coming to the UK, which makes it more difficult to recruit employees.

Additionally David claims that the broader public are now heading out for fewer foods as UK economic growth has slowed. Back in September Fulham Shore issued a profit warning and said it had been putting the brakes on growth plans.

Roger Tejwani, a restaurant sector analyst at stockbrokers Finncap, states that the current trading environment is “tough” for firms like Fulham Shore.

However, he adds he is convinced of the group’s longer-term prospects, partly because it has such an experienced management team that have all “seen this film several times before”.

Picture copyright The True Greek
Picture caption Mr Page’s firm also owns the Real Greek series

When asked if there’s a secret for his success, David replies: “It’s not only me.” Rather he’s worked with the same team for the past two decades and says it is “one big happy family really”.

While Franco Manca may never have quite the global reach of Pizza Express, which its new owners hope will flip China onto pizza, he thinks it has potential beyond the united kingdom.

In a case of coals to Newcastle, the series already has a summertime outpost on the Italian island of Salina, north of Sicily, where creator Giuseppe Mascoli includes a home.

As David states: “Everyone likes pizza, all over the world.”

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Read more: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk

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