Luke Johnson, much admired entrepreneur of PizzaExpress fame and chairman of Risk Capital Partners, is preparing to float his company Patisserie Valerie. And today, he is writing about it in the FT: “An IPO roadshow, viewed from the inside”. He’s a good writer: Largely refraining from the usual dreaded jargon, instead making use of plain English with a good ‘flow’. And… never boring! Mr Johnson is a creative and original thinker, truly inspiring and generous in sharing his knowledge and experience with his readers. His success as an entrepreneur speaks for itself. Pinkers is a fan.
However, for once, Pinkers disapproves of his ‘performance’: The story of good old Valerie is a sad one. Very sad. In his column he writes: “Our story started almost eight years ago when we bought a six-strong chain of London patisseries. Since then we have expanded our group to almost 140 branches across the country. … It is all very exciting.”
No, it isn’t “exciting”. It’s depressing. Some of us remember the ‘original’ Valerie with a single shop on Old Compton Street: Great atmosphere, delicious cakes, friendly staff – a real ‘community’! Pinkers loved the Strawberry Gateaux: creamy, fruity and really tasting of… well… strawberries. As soon as Mr Johnson took over and rapidly turned this truly original London ‘institution’ into a highly successful commercial formula, the rot set in. Literally. The cakes still look the same… but they now taste of cardboard; sacrificing quality (ingredients!) for the sake of improving profit margins: Asset stripping in its purest form! The original Valerie ‘DNA’ has been destroyed and it took Mr Johnson only eight years to turn this much loved establishment into a mini-MacDonald’s. Well done!
Sour grapes? Perhaps. After all, from a purely financial perspective his achievement is undoubtedly admirable. But this deal was not driven by a passion for the product. It was driven by the love of money… and this is when things go wrong. Badly wrong. The sorry tale of Valerie is a fine example of ‘capitalism without conscience’ and we should learn from it. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but Pinkers does believe that commercial success can make a constructive contribution to our society. The two are not mutually exclusive. Regrettably, greed is only too often the spanner in the works.
We all mourn the passing of Valerie, may she rest in peace. Ok, Mr Johnson… you must be pleased with your success. But do us a favour: Steer well clear of Maison Bertaux! Just leave it well alone!