Exclusive: Chef Jamie Oliver's empire whips up investor interest

The Naked Chef Jamie Oliver slices fish during an appearance on NBC's "Today" show in Miami Beach, Florida February 22, 2008. REUTERS/Eric Thayer
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By Pamela Barbaglia and Freya Berry LONDON (Reuters) - British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is looking to outside investors to help expand his growing network of Italian restaurants and to fund an online TV project, sources familiar with the situation said. Oliver, who has amassed a fortune of 240 million pounds ($377 million) according to the Sunday Times Rich List, could raise funds early next year to support his media initiatives. The sale of a minority stake in Oliver's media interests would be the prelude to a larger investment in Oliver's Italian restaurant chain in around 12 months, the sources said. A representative for Oliver declined to comment. Oliver, whose simple recipes earned him the nickname "The Naked Chef", has grown his restaurant business to more than 30 venues in Britain and has a presence in Brazil, Russia, Singapore and Dubai, among other markets. The restaurant business has revenues of 110 million pounds with core earnings of around 14 million pounds, the sources said. Jamie Oliver Holdings, which houses some of the celebrity chef's TV production activities and cookbooks, reported operating profit from continuing operations of around 5 million pounds in 2013, according to its financial statement. "Jamie has been conducting an internal review for some time. The first step is to sell a minority stake within his media business," one of the sources said, cautioning that a formal process has yet to start and no banks have been mandated to advise on it. RIGHT INGREDIENTS Oliver, who started his career as a pastry chef at Antonio Carluccio's Neal's Yard restaurant in London, has been frequently approached by private equity firms who were mainly attracted by his casual dining restaurants, the sources said. But Oliver wants to continue growing his newest brand, Jamie's Italian Trattoria, aimed at smaller towns and London suburbs, before picking an investor, one of the sources said. The cheaper and more rustic version of Jamie's Italian restaurant format could take up to 18 months to make a wider push in Britain, he said. Oliver is also seeking to grow his YouTube channel Food Tube which has 1.17 million subscribers. A number of private equity firms are making regular calls to the 39-year-old chef to track the financial performance of his restaurant empire, which has the ingredients for a leveraged buyout with a growing revenue stream and low capital expenditure on the back of franchise deals overseas, the sources said. Oliver, who has inspired chefs across Britain and has campaigned to improve standards of school canteen food, could become the latest food entrepreneur to rely on private equity money to fund growth. In November Prezzo, the Italian restaurant chain, sold to U.S. private equity firm TPG [TPG.UL] for 304 million pounds. Jamie's Italian restaurants could also attract Asian investors who are looking to export Western brands in Asia. For example Hony Capital, one of China's largest private equity firms, bought British restaurant chain Pizza Express for 900 million pounds in July. (Editing by Alexander Smith and Keith Weir)

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