Escoffier was our Forte: Forte have wanted the Savoy for 15 years. But the late Sir Hugh Wontner fought them off, and a rough fight it was. Now, at last, Fortefication is nigh. James Cusick reports

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On Saturday, the Savoy Hotel will celebrate its 105th birthday. As the cars arrive , passing under the gilt figure of Peter, Count of Savoy, the 13th-century aristocrat who once had the Embankment site for an annual rent of three barbed arrows, champagne glasses will be clinked in remembrance of the man whose vision began it all, Richard D'Oyly Carte.

The theatre impresario, who made his fortune with the huge box office successes of WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, dreamt of creating a palatial hotel like no other when he recognised that London in the late 1890s lacked the comfort and service of hotels he visited during productions in America. He wanted the Americans to stand back in awe. They did.

Now another big-money drama - one full of snobbery and violence - looks to be drawing to a close after running on and off for 15 years. As takeover battles go, only Tiny Rowland's fight for Harrods excels the battle for the Savoy in length and bile. A classic, shot through with elitism and xenophobia, it pitched the owners of the Savoy, old school types (we've always done it this way) against the Italian family Forte, redolent of motorway stops, mass catering and ever-developing management. In 1989 the two groups, signed a legal armistice which stopped some of the jollity, but in three months' time that will come to an end and Forte's look certain to collect the prize they have so long fought for.

The story of Forte's frustration can be told in figures. They own 68 per cent of the Savoy Group, but only 42 per cent of the boardroom votes. Describing the dispute, one analyst said: 'Forte invested in a war, only to find they couldn't direct the troops.' The D'Oyly Carte Charitable Trust owns 14.1 per cent of the shareholders' votes, the Wontner Family Settlement 10.66, the Savoy Educational Trust 11.45 and La Foundation pour La Formation Htelier 5.74 per cent. The Savoy directors hold 0.06 per cent, and Forte plc 42.12.

Sir Hugh Wontner (knighted in 1972), who presided over the Savoy for 48 years, was the grandee who fought the Fortes with everything at his command. Appointed managing director of the Savoy Group in 1941 when he was just 32, he held the job till 1979 when Giles Shepard took over. Sir Hugh thought first of following his parents on to the stage. 'There's not a great deal of difference in the two professions. In running a hotel, an understanding of the theatre is useful.' He is still, following his death two years ago, regarded as the Savoy's guiding light.

Reduced by the share situation to commando raids rather than full frontal assaults, the Forte initial tactics were to rubbish the Savoy management. Savoy in turn, would rubbish Forte. In a now legendary tale, Rocco Forte is alleged to have said he would not employ Giles Shepard as a doorman. Shepard got to hear of the comment and greeted Rocco Forte entering the Savoy dressed as a doorman.

Other battle scars are not yet healed. Blood often dripped from the pens of PR executives set the task of behind-the-lines infiltration. The effect of their work is still seen even after all these years. This month in the city sections of more than one establishment broadsheet, Forte were summed up as 'running Little Chef and Welcome Break motorway service stations besides hotels'. The 'besides hotels' is not expanded to name the prestigious Hyde Park in London, the George V in Paris, the Ritz in Madrid, the Sandy Lane, Barbados, or the Plaza Athenee in New York.

Although November will see Forte released from its five-year promise not to increase its share stake or seek to win management control, new laws in Switzerland, where the trusts are held, have placed Rocco Forte in unexpectedly strong position to achieve what his father, an Italian immigrant, never could.

Charles Forte opened his first milk bar in 1935. He dreamt of owning what everyone - including the Post Office - apparently knew as the capital's premier hotel. In 1959 a letter was posted from Czechoslovakia addressed to 'The manager of The Greatest Hotel in London'. It was forwarded to the Savoy.

The Fortes may yearn for its reputation, style, history, elegance, legend, and cachet. They would also hope to make it a rather better business. The Savoy Group, which also runs the Berkeley, Claridge's and the Connaught in London, and the Lancaster in Paris, made only pounds 725,000 profit last year. Dividends were halved. The previous year to December 1992, on a turnover of pounds 76.76m, it made a pre-tax loss of pounds 1.42m.

Under Swiss law the trusts have a duty to maximise potential income. That is not happening. There is head-shaking and hands-open astonishment among hardline City analysts. One simply wrings his hands and says: 'It's a hotel group, restaurants everywhere. They don't own a deep freeze, no microwaves, no central buying of food, they've a team of lady embroiderers sewing 100,000 Savoy crests a year. Last year the company report seemed proud off-loading pounds 290,000 worth of Chablis about to go past its best. What were they doing with pounds 290,000 of Chablis?'

A lot of what is said of the Savoy is nonsense. Of course there is a freezer. They keep ice-cream in it. And there are fridges, lots of them. But all food is fresh, bought daily. That is the way they have done things since 1890 when Auguste Escoffier joined as Maitre Chef des Cuisines.

The City believes Forte's international marketing network would cut Savoy's costs; central buying would bring economies of scale; centralised training, perhaps closing the Savoy's own school, would be another economy. Forte's 'exclusive' international hotels would be incorporated into the Savoy brand, a remedy that would free the Savoy Group from the slavery of worry over the dollar-pound exchange rates.

The process is nicknamed 'Fortefication' in the City. But before Fortefication must come control, and control of the trusts, like a magic pass key, will open doors Forte have so far found closed.

Forte, for Sir Hugh Wontner, was an over-my-dead-body thought. He formed a strategic alliance with Dame Bridget D'Oyly Carte in opposing the threat of Fortefication in the Eighties. Giles Shepard and his staff will also fight for their independence to the last slice of Melba toast (invented, among an array of other things, in the Savoy for the celebrated opera singer, Dame Nellie). The advice in Deuteronomy that 'Man doth not live by bread alone' may not have been written with the Savoy in mind, but it is becoming more apt as the number of meetings behind closed doors between Forte and the trust increase.

Insiders believe Rocco Forte has already convinced some of the key trust members that he is not a bull in a china shop. One said: 'He loves the Savoy. Look at the Hyde Park. No Forte signs anywhere. Showered with awards one of them the 'Best Hotel in the World'. Those who say that he'll put a Little Chef in the Connaught need their heads examined.'

The man thought to be the key broker, the Acas, the go-between between Rocco and the secretive trusts, is the Hon John Sinclair. A former member of the Savoy Educational Trust and a non-executive director of the Savoy Group, he is regularly to be found on the slick, fast American-style greens of East Sussex National golf course where he is chief executive. His company, Granfel Holdings, controls three hotels, including the Half Moon Beach Club in Sarasota, Florida, and highly civilised Number Sixteen in Summer Place, London.

There has been no need for Mr Sinclair to jet between Geneva and London on any peace mission. The trusts are held in Switzerland, but how they function and who influences them is an international concern. Nor will there have been gaffes by Mr Sinclair, snapped by unknowing paparazzi in the wrong hotel with a clue-giving person. As he says: 'It has always been my policy never to comment.'

Instead, like the announcement of a new Pope, a puff of smoke from a flambe at the Savoy Grill may signal a new era. The 'Other Club' founded by Churchill when he was out of office between the wars, and which still meets secretively in one of the Savoy's private rooms under the gaze of a gallery of prime ministers, will doubtless have discussed the impending changes.

But only one regular diner at the Savoy will have heard all. While staff talked of traditions dying, independence lost, history, and the spirit of D'Oyly Carte and Cesar Ritz (the Savoy's first manager in 1889), 'Kasper' has kept mum.

In 1898 a guest hosted a dinner party for 13 after a last-minute cancellation. He ignored the superstition that whoever leaves the dinner first would be destined to die first. Two weeks later the host was shot dead. In 1926 the Savoy solved the problem. A 3ft-high black cat was carved from a single piece of plane tree. With napkin tied round his neck, Kaspar has been a guest at the most celebrated and hush-hush dinners. He has not missed a single dinner of the Other Club since 1927. Kaspar has been frequently interrogated, but, like Mr Sinclair, it is his policy never to comment. Quite so.

(Photographs omitted)

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