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In April, John Zhao learned through investment bankers that London-based Pizza Express (Restaurants) was for sale. Zhao, CEO of Beijing-based private equity firm Hony Capital, loved to go out for deep-dish pizza while he was studying for his MBA at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in the mid-’90s, and he felt there was money to be made in bringing the U.K.’s largest pizza chain to China. After all, the country’s burgeoning middle class had developed a healthy appetite for Western food, making China the biggest overseas market for Yum! Brands’ Pizza Hut chain.

Within a week of hearing the news, Zhao was on a plane to meet the top executives of Cinven, the British buyout firm that owned Pizza Express. In the ensuing weeks his firm outbid three rivals, including Chinese financial conglomerate CITIC Group, and took over the restaurant chain in June. The £900 million ($1.54 billion) investment was the largest ever for $7 billion-in-assets Hony Capital, a ten-year-old firm backed by Legend Holdings Corp., parent company of computer maker Lenovo Group.

“Pizza Express may have more than 50 years of history and more than 500 stores in the U.K., but it entered Hong Kong and Shanghai just a few years ago,” Zhao says. “It only has 12 stores in Hong Kong and nine stores in Shanghai. I see many new stores opening in China in the coming few years. We also see many Pizza Express stores opening in emerging markets all over the world in the coming years.”

The growing appetite of Chinese consumers has propelled the country’s companies to the top ranks of the global league tables for mergers and acquisitions. In 2013, Chinese firms completed 367 overseas deals worth a total of $68 billion, ranking second globally behind U.S. firms, which completed 1,693 deals worth $200 billion, according to data provider Dealogic. Corporate China’s demand for overseas assets continued to grow this year, reaching $51.1 billion as of August 26, but that was good for only sixth place in the M&A league tables, as deal making picked up in Canada, the U.K., Switzerland and France. Chinese companies are acquiring a wide range of assets, however, ranging from minerals, energy and natural resources to agriculture and technology companies, and consumer brands such as Pizza Express.