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  • Johnson rumored to be bidding for PizzaExpress

LONDON -- Rumors are circulating that entrepreneur Luke Johnson, who made his fortune by taking PizzaExpress public with former partner Hugh Osmond, is working to lead a bid for the troubled restaurant chain.

According to The Independent, the move would position Johnson as a counter-bidder to Osmond (See "Bargain-hunting investor group ..."), who led the Twigway venture capital group to post a £250 million (U.S. $395 million) offer two weeks ago.

Johnson is believed to be working with Hawkpoint Partners, a UK firm specializing in mergers and acquisitions.

Johnson and Osmond made £26 million (U.S. $41 million) from floating PizzaExpress in 1993, but the duo parted company after a bidding war for Whitbread's pubs division several years ago.

PizzaExpress has struggled throughout 2002 to reverse negative comparable-store sales trends at its London stores. Still, UK stock analysts expect PizzaExpress will reject Osmond's offer.

A spokeswoman for PizzaExpress said no formal offers outside of Osmond's have been made.

"We will put out a formal statement if we receive any approaches," she said. "At the moment we are still dealing with Osmond."

Not everyone is convinced Johnson will launch the counter-bid for PizzaExpress. Some analysts believe his current work directing a management buyout of his Signature Restaurants business will consume too much of his time, though the deal is rumored to be near completion.

The Independent contacted Johnson in France on Nov. 17, but he declined to comment on the rumors.

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