Pittman Digs Hard Rock

U.K. papers are naming MTV co-founder Robert Pittman as the leading bidder for Hard Rock Café, the restaurant chain put up for sale by British leisure company Rank Group.

He’s reportedly bidding via his Pilot Group investment company, which he founded in 2003, with the opposition expected to come from British private equity groups Permira and TDR Capital, and American buyout firm Apollo.

Hard Rock, which has outlets in 40 countries and sells more than 8 million burgers a year, is expected to fetch more than £500 million.

Pittman quit MTV in 1986 after failing to buy it out from parent company Viacom, then he joined Time Warner, heading various divisions before leaving to run AOL.

He rejoined Warner when the two companies merged in 2000, and stayed for another two years.

Rank announced in July that it would carry out a strategic review of Hard Rock to find the best way to take the operation to a “new phase of its development,” which amounted to bringing in the investment bankers from Merrill Lynch to auction it off.

The deadline for the next round of bids for the company that’s famous for its walls plastered with rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia is scheduled for November 6th and, according to The Times of London, intense competition is expected.

Although Hard Rock is owned by a British company, most of its business is in America and that seems to be leading analysts to believe that it’s likely to be bought by a U.S. investor.

Hard Rock was founded in 1971 by American entrepreneurs Peter Morton and Isaac Tigrett. The first site opened near Park Lane in London – and is still famous for its constant queues of tourists – but the business did not begin its international expansion until 1982.

Rank became involved in 1990 when it bought Mecca, which had previously acquired Tigrett’s interest in the chain. Today, the business is run by chief executive Hamish Dodds, who is widely believed to be keen on staging a management buyout.

Ian Burke, Rank’s new chief executive, has continued the program of asset sales begun by predecessor Mike Smith by hiving off the Clermont casino in Mayfair and the company’s film duplication business.

Once the assets disposals have been completed, Rank will be left to concentrate on its other casinos and bingo houses.

The Maidenhead-based group would be the last remaining quoted casino company in Britain, after the takeovers of Stanley Leisure and London Clubs International.

– John Gammon