PizzaExpress to cut 1,100 jobs and sell UK business

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Italian chain to close 67 restaurants as it takes action to tackle debt

PizzaExpress has put its UK business up for sale and warned of 1,100 job cuts as it takes more drastic action to stave off collapse as the coronavirus crisis deepens for the casual dining sector.

The 55-year-old Italian pizza chain will close 67 restaurants — 15 per cent of its UK estate — and offload its Chinese business as part of a sweeping restructuring deal agreed with Hony Capital, the Chinese private equity firm that owns the group.

Hony, which bought PizzaExpress in a debt-fuelled £900m deal in 2014, has agreed to take the Chinese arm of the business, leaving PizzaExpress’s UK and international sites, as well as the brand, in the control of its senior secured creditors unless a buyer is found.

The arrangement, which will also see £144m of fresh capital injected into the business, is designed to provide stronger financial foundations for PizzaExpress after it revealed net borrowings of £1.1bn with interest charges of £93.1m in April last year.

Half of the £144m will be used to refinance debt and the other half to fund the reopening of its 449 UK restaurants. The 67 restaurants earmarked for closure as part of the restructuring will not be reopened.

The company said on Tuesday that it also planned to its cut debt substantially, from £735m to £319m, and that the transaction would “significantly strengthen the group and provide funding to deliver its future growth plan”.

Andy Pellington, chief financial officer, described the deal as a “complete solution to our balance sheet issues”. 

The UK’s casual dining sector, already weakened by huge oversupply in the market and rising overhead costs, was particularly vulnerable coming into the pandemic.

At least 15 national chains have put themselves up for sale or appointed advisers since the crisis began. 

Some, including Casual Dining Group, the owner of the Bella Italia and Las Iguanas brands, and Azzurri, which owns ASK and Zizzi, have been sold off in cut-price deals to private equity houses in recent weeks.

Unlike many other chains, the majority of PizzaExpress’s restaurants were profitable on an individual basis before the crisis hit, but financing its debt was weighing heavily on the group.

Talks for a major financial restructuring had been under way since last summer.

A person close to the negotiations said the company voluntary arrangement — which will allow the chain to exit the 67 underperforming sites — was not a “do or die matter”.

“It’s a very important component for PizzaExpress, [but] the rent bill is not the largest of their issues,” they said.

In order to secure the business, any potential bidder would have to offer more than the £465m that PizzaExpress owes to the senior secured bondholders, the person added.

A source close to the business said running a sales process was useful in order to give the company a provable valuation while negotiations with its unsecured creditors are ongoing but said that they thought it was “pretty unlikely” a buyer would emerge.

The deal is expected to complete in the autumn with the CVA to take place shortly after that.

David Beadle, vice-president of Moody’s Investors Service, said the amount of cash PizzaExpress had to burn through while it was closed would “negatively impact the recoveries for existing lenders in the proposed restructuring”.

PizzaExpress has so far reopened 166 of its restaurants in the UK and said it planned to open another 80 on Thursday in order to take advantage of the government’s Eat Out to Help Out discount scheme, which is running throughout August.

Lazard, the investment bank, is running the sales process while Houlihan Lokey and Kirkland & Ellis are advising PizzaExpress on the restructuring.

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