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Chris Heath

21 September 2006

Overall ranking: 21 (New entry)

Restaurateurs ranking: 7

Chris Heath is executive director, group chief financial officer and commercial director of Gondola Holdings, the biggest restaurant group in the UK and Irish Republic.

Gondola has cornered the premium eat-in pizza and pasta sector with its 518 restaurants that trade primarily under the PizzaExpress, Ask and Zizzi brands.

Gondola Holdings operates 319 PizzaExpresses, 110 Asks, 81 Tuscan-style Zizzis and eight non-core restaurants in the high street (58%), local neighbourhoods, retail and leisure parks, and business districts.

The group serves more than 30 million meals a year and employs in excess of 10,000 staff.

Chris Heath - Career guide
Chris Heath trained as an accountant and is a member of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants.

He worked for drinks giant Allied Domecq in a number of senior positions that included global finance director, European finance director, managing director UK and managing director Spain.

He joined the restaurant group acquired by private equity firms TDR Capital and Capricorn Ventures International (which also owns the Nando's UK chain of chicken restaurants) in October 2005. A month later Gondola Holdings floated its stable of Ask, Zizzi and PizzaExpress restaurants on the London Stock Exchange at 320p per share.

Chris Heath - What we think
Chris Heath is the front-line man at Gondola Holdings, heading up the group's market communications and investor relations role. Heath, along with PizzaExpress and Ask chief executives Harvey Smyth and Jo Fleet, report directly to chairman David Ross but Heath straddles all the brands.

While Gondola Holdings is a relatively new company, its brands have a well-established pedigree on the high streets.

CVI and TDR set the ball rolling in 2002 when they snapped up PizzaExpress, which was created in 1965 by Peter Boizot. The brand grew into city darlings under a succession of industry luminaries that included pub entrepreneur Hugh Osmond, Belgo founder Luke Johnson, Clapham House boss David Page and Ian Eldridge who most recently headed up the now-defunct Urban Dining group.

PizzaExpress wowed a public used to the deep-pan pizza with its authentic thin pizza style, based on a 180-year old Neopolitan recipe. But by 2002 it was feeling the pressure from upcoming rivals such as Ask and, as profits and share prices plummeted, it was besieged by takeover offers that included combinations of most the former directors. CVI and TDR won the battle in 2003 with a £278m bid.

Next on the menu was the upmarket Ask Central group created in 1993 by Adam and Sam Kaye, sons of veteran restaurateur Phillip Kaye, who created the Garfunkel's brand now owned by The Restaurant Group (formerly City Centre Restaurants).

The private equity partners trumped a friendly takeover by City Centre Restaurants (which PizzaExpress had tried to buy back in 2000) with a £213m offer in early 2004.

Before floating, CVI and TDR offloaded all the non-core PizzaExpress brands (such as Café Pasta, Marzano, Riviera, Gourmet Pizza and 43 PizzaExpress franchises overseas), retaining only the Kettners, the upmarket Soho champagne bar and pizzeria. Its eight non-core restaurants also include Ask's US diner-style Jo Schmo's, Lupo pizza takeaway and Bar & Grill venues.

New menus, a new restaurant design, the introduction of staff development and reward schemes and the merging of back-office functions with Ask helped return PizzaExpress to profitable trading.

Heath sees scope to grow the core brands by at least another 300 venues and the group plans to open up to 25 new restaurants a year. It opened 23 new outlets in the first nine months of 2006.

The fledgling group has made large strides towards profitability. Although it reported pre-tax loss of £4.1m in the half-year to January 2006 (down from a £7.8m interim loss in 2005), this figure included an exceptional cost of £12m from the stock market flotation.

In September 2006, Gondola Holdings faced the prospect of a return to private ownership less than a year after floating when it received a 415p-per-share offer from Paternoster Acquisitons, a bid vehicle formed by private equity group Cinven, which valued the group at £560m.

The group has granted Cinven a limited period of due diligence but majority shareholders TDR Capital and Capricorn Ventures have agreed to sell at least 25% of their equity.

Chris Heath - Further information

Gondola Holdings profile on CatererSearch

Gondola Holdings official websites

Read more about the CatererSearch 100, the list of the most influential people here

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Jacobs Media Group is honoured to be the recipient of the 2020 Queen's Award for Enterprise.

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