Sir Rocco Forte: 'I still haven't got to Paris...and I want to try New York'

He lost one empire to Granada, but now hotel magnate Rocco is well on the way to building another

Brown's Hotel in Mayfair, where Rudyard Kipling wrote The Jungle Book, to see the current owner Sir Rocco Forte. The sleek interior is a very different setting to the last time I interviewed him, in January 1995 on the occasion of his 50th birthday. He had just been knighted and had not long taken full control of the family business.

Back then our conversation took place in the back of his limousine, which swished us up the M40 where he opened a new Welcome Break service station – to the delight of the staff. The triumphalist headline read: "Young Forte comes of age", holding no hint of the acrimonious Granada takeover bid that, 10 months later, blew apart the hotel empire built by his Italian father, Lord Forte, and divided the City into warring factions.

Sixteen years after that cataclysmic event I am ushered into the calm of the Dover Suite at Brown's, the London flagship of the 13-strong group of luxury hotels in, mostly, European cities that Forte has put together since then. The décor, designed by Forte's sister Olga Polizzi, is all muted greys and greens, set off by elegant glass lamps.

Forte has sprouted a beard but, apart from that, is the same immaculately suited, somewhat reserved chap. Like other British-born children of foreigners – his father arrived here from Italy when he was three years old – Forte has cultivated his British identity almost to the point of pastiche. The voice is deep, clipped and upper class, his manner slightly aloof, his humour dry. Yet he is known to have a fiery Mediterranean temper, and his shoes – loafers in two textures of leather – are definitely Italian.

This formal persona though, is not the only Rocco Forte I have sighted over the past 16 years. He is a different man boogying down into the small hours at society weddings and parties with his glamorous and feisty Italian wife, Aliai, whom he married in 1986. Dubbed a playboy during his extended bachelorhood – he was 40 when they married in Rome – he has never forgotten how to party. Their social whirl includes European royalty, international tycoons and Gulf sheikhs, as well as the British shooting set. They are both also trustees of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, whose principal conductor, Valery Gergiev, Forte counts as a friend. It is a wonder he finds any time to work.

Yet work he does, particularly since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. "Life has been very difficult since Lehman went down," he says. "Immediately afterwards our sales dropped 40 per cent across the board for two months. It took until June 2009 for sales to return to normal."

The banking crash took place at a time when his debt was uncomfortably high and he was in a joint venture with Bank of Scotland, which had problems of its own. Luckily, he was able to sell a hotel in Geneva and refinance. "We are quite comfortable now," he tells me. Sales grew by 10 per cent in 2010, but only by about 8 per cent this year. Other hoteliers tell me Europe is not the best place to be at the moment, which is perhaps why, earlier this month, Forte opened a 281-room, curving glass wave of a hotel in the Middle East, called simply The Rocco Forte Hotel Abu Dhabi. "It was being refurbished when we were brought in so Olga was able to take over the design," he says. "It is quite sophisticated for that part of the world; it has real class."

It is a joint venture with Middle Eastern partners, and the first hotel he has taken under contract. Prices are temptingly low at just £200 for a standard room, compared with say, £420 at the Hotel de Russie in Rome or £462 at Brown's, but, as a new and large hotel, it needs to entice the customers. Abu Dhabi is the first of five hotels in the Middle East and will be followed by openings in Jeddah, Marrakech and Cairo in 2013. In Egypt, Rocco Forte Hotels will also run the Luxor Hotel, which was built in 1880 by John Cook, son of the travel pioneer Thomas Cook.

"Having built up a good nucleus of hotels in Europe we now have the credibility to take on hotels under contract," he says, adding that his partners in these ventures approached him.

By the time Forte was born in Bournemouth in January 1945, his father, Charles, was a decade into creating the world-famous hotel and catering group Trusthouse Forte, including the motorway service stations so pilloried by Egon Ronay. He grew up among girls – with five younger sisters – and was not sent to board at the Catholic Downside School until he was 13. He feels fortunate to have been taught by Benedictines, who have a more robust view of life than Jesuits. "They are bon viveurs."

The young Forte took their lessons to heart and at Oxford University, where he obtained a Fencing Blue and just managed a fourth-class degree (since abolished) in Modern Languages, he embraced all that the early 1960s had to offer and emerged, by his own account, rather too full of himself.

His father took him to business meetings from a young age and he worked in various hotels during the holidays. After Oxford, though, he took articles at accountants Dixon, Wilson, which brought him down to earth. Once qualified, he joined Trusthouse Forte as his father's bag carrier and progressed through the company to be chief executive in 1983. Naturally he and his father clashed from time to time and it was hard for him to forge his own business identity in the shadow of such a big personality. But then came the Granada bid, eventually taking out the group at £3.8bn, and everything changed.

For a short time Forte was consumed by anger, not just against Granada but also at the institutions who had sold their shares, most notably Carol Galley, of Mercury Asset Management (MAM), who had built a pivotal 15 per cent stake.

Holed up in the offices of his PR adviser, Brunswick, his first reaction was to try and buy back some of the premier hotels, such as the George V in Paris and the Hyde Park in London; but by the time he had raised the money – although the family netted around £350m only a part of that was his – the prices had got away from him.

His sister Olga went off and quietly bought the Tresanton in Cornwall and later the Endsleigh in Devon, both very successful, while he set about building a luxury-hotel group, starting with the Balmoral in Edinburgh. Hotels in Florence, St Petersburg and Brussels followed, but it was not until April 2000, with the opening of the Hotel de Russie, near the Piazza del Popolo in Rome, that the travel industry really started paying attention. "I have never seen a hotel take off like that," says Forte. "People still ring me up asking if I can get them in."

The Lowry Hotel in Manchester followed, named after L S Lowry. Lord Forte's collection of works by the artist fetched £17.7m at Christie's last Wednesday. This included a world record for the painting Piccadilly Circus, which went for £5.6m. "With six siblings, [the sale] seemed the only sensible course of action," says Forte.

More recently came four hotels in Germany, another in Prague, and then a diversion into a golf resort in Verdura in Sicily.

Surely there are plenty of golf resorts in Europe, I say. "There was nothing really classy where you have a 5-star hotel and a 5-star golf course," he retorts. "I have built two equal 18-hole championship courses designed by Kyle Phillips [who is rated the best in the world]. Verdura is a sensational place with 500 acres and 1.5 miles of coastline." It took 72 negotiations with land owners to put it together, but it was Sicilian bureaucracy that nearly defeated him. "Ten times worse than Italy," he sighs. "It was a nightmare that cost me £30m."

As in all the hotels, Polizzi has designed the interiors. She is a director and shareholder in the group. "Olga came along reluctantly at first, but she then really got into it," he says. "She's a very clever businesswoman."

So, Rocco Forte Hotels is a family affair with little chance of it ever floating on the stock market? "Never say never, but you would have to have a good reason for floating."

And, does he feel the Granada bid, terrible though it was at the time, proved a good thing in the end?

"From a business point of view, no, because it was the destruction of an institution," he says. "They broke it up and they didn't even make any money out of it. From a personal perspective it was a good thing. I had to face the vicissitudes of building a business rather late in life, but I have learned a lot from it, and probably I am a better and stronger person as a result."

He is already addressing the succession and, luckily, he has three children who are all showing enthusiasm for the business. His elder daughter, Lydia, graduated from Oxford last year and worked at Mark Hix's new restaurant in Soho before being headhunted to join a Chelsea restaurant as assistant manager. Irene is still at Oxford, but was such a success working at Verdura last summer that the management tried to persuade her not to go back to university. They were overruled. Charles, Forte's youngest, is at NYU, but worked in the bar at Brown's this summer.

At the end of August, Forte took the girls out to lunch. "I sat them down and said, I'm 66 now and if you want to come into the business you had better get on with it." Within the hour they both had plans to sign up to business school to be ready join within 18 months.

A keen athlete (see box), Forte is talking about competing in a London marathon again. "I think I could do well in the over-65 category," but retirement looks some way off.

"I haven't finished in Europe yet," he says, slightly impatient. "I still haven't got into Paris, Madrid or Barcelona, and I also want to try New York."

It looks like his children have some time to play themselves in.

Curriculum Vitae

1945: Born 18 January, in Bournemouth

1958: Attends Downside School

1963: Graduates from Oxford in Modern Languages

1967: Articled at Dixon Wilson

1970: Joins Trusthouse Forte

1983: Chief executive

1986: Marriage to Aliai

1993: Executive chairman

1995: Knighted

1996: Starts RF Hotels, which later became Rocco Forte Hotels

1997: Bought first hotel – The Balmoral in Edinburgh

2001: Represents Britain at World Triathlon Championships, also in 2002, 2003 and 2007

2005: Came second in category in Iron Man event in Austria

Likes: Shooting, golf and cycling

Favourite composer: Stravinsky

Favourite holiday: At parents-in-law's castle in Tuscany

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