No more Mr Nice Guy?

Charm is the former playboy's usual method of persuasion - but Paul Rodgers finds him ready for a scrap to fend off Granada's grab for the family hotels group; profile; Sir Rocco Forte
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The Independent Online
WHEN HE got the news, Sir Rocco Forte was shaving, preparing for a crisp autumn day on the Yorkshire moors, shooting pheasant and possibly cutting a deal with his un-named companions. The call came from his brother- in-law, Michael Buckley, a stockbroker, who had seen the announcement flash up on the screens at 8:16 am. Granada boss Gerry Robinson was bidding pounds 3.3bn for the Forte Group.

"I said to my brother-in-law: 'He [Robinson] must be mad,' " said Sir Rocco. "What the hell is he doing fiddling around with hotels?"

Although he claims to have been entirely calm as he arranged to take the first train back to London, the attack must have been a surprise. Just three months earlier he had played golf with Buckley and Robinson at the New Zealand Golf Club in Addlestone, Surrey. Nothing was said to indicate Granada's three-year interest in buying the hotel and restaurant company. Buckley won, and Sir Rocco, handicap 12, does not recall who came second. "I was giving them both a lot of shots," he said, his grin quickly fading. "I'll give him some shots now too, but not that kind."

Tough talk comes awkwardly. Sometimes his face scrunches up as he fiercely disparages his tormentor, sometimes he ducks his head in seeming embarrassment. Sir Rocco is a charmer, the sort of man used to winning people to his side with persuasion rather than threats. Although his hotel and restaurant group has been acquisitive, all its deals have been agreed, except for its takeover of the Savoy in 1981. And even there, it was patience, not brute force, that finally won him a say in the hotel's management last year.

But whatever his natural bent, Sir Rocco seems prepared for a scrap. Advisers SBC Warburg and Morgan Stanley were working overtime last week preparing a defence that is expected to be as radical as any in the regional electricity sector over the past 12 months. For now, Sir Rocco is sticking to a verbal defence of his record, and a scathing attack on what he calls Robinson's lack of experience and strategy. "He's inappropriate to run this business," he said.

The emotion in his voice reflects the link between Sir Rocco and the company that bears his family name. Founded by his father Charles, now Baron Forte of Ripley, in 1935, as the Meadow Milk Bar, Forte has grown into one of the top hotel and restaurant chains in the world, with interests ranging from the Savoy to the Little Chef chain. But Sir Rocco holds only 14.2 million of the 944 million shares, the bulk of the company being owned by big City institutions and one large trust.

Most analysts are sure it will fall to Robinson, although probably at a higher price than initially offered. "That would hurt," admits Sir Rocco. "This is not a family business, but the values that run through the family also run through the business."

Just being in his office gives you a feeling for those values. Although the conference table is a modernistic piece of chrome and smoked glass, and his desk lamp is a silvery, futuristic cornucopia, the effect is softened by a clutter of family photos. By the door are three collages, one for each of his children, made by his 29-year-old wife Aliai, Lady Forte. "We are a close-knit family. I see a lot of my sisters," he said.

Although he will be 51 in January, Sir Rocco looks a decade younger, possibly due to a regime of long-distance running and regular strolls around golf courses. He claims to look more Italian than English, but really only the expressive hand gestures give him away. He counts off points on his long thick fingers and cups his hands to encompass the hotel industry. The cufflinks on his blue pinstripe shirt glint as they move. His yellow tie flashes as he shifts in his chair.

Rocco Forte was born in Bournemouth at the close of the Second World War, after his father, who moved with his family to Scotland from Italy at the age of three, was released from a detention camp. "My father's accomplishments seem all the greater when you think he was an Italian in Britain after the war. There must have been some animosity."

Sir Rocco obviously admires his father. "He taught me most of what I know," he said. While he was away boarding at Downside, the public school run by Benedictine monks, his father came almost every weekend to take him fishing or golfing. He claims to have been popular among his fellow pupils, because his father would regularly take them all out to lunch or dinner. "The food at the school was not very good," he recalls wryly.

By that time he was already immersed in the family business. "I sat in on business meetings and went on tours with him." During school holidays he held a variety of jobs with the company, working in snack bars and kitchens and the cellars of the Cafe Royal. After earning A-levels in French and Italian, he went to Pembroke College, Oxford, where he got a fourth-class degree in modern languages and a Blue in fencing.

He qualified as an accountant at Dixon, Wilson. His career was already charted, though. "As a very young man I thought it was automatic. I never realised it would be so difficult."

There were, however, questions in the City about how high he would rise. His image until he married Aliai Ricci, a stylish Italian, almost nine years ago was that of a playboy, an image he makes no effort to deny. He was often seen dancing and partying with glamorous society women, among them Bianca Jagger and the champagne heiress Chantal d'Orthez.

When his father made him chief executive there were rumblings about nepotism. "It's quite reasonable to ask these questions, but at the end of the day I stand by my track record."

Or at least the last couple of laps. "Until I was fully in charge of the business, it was hard to pursue the strategy I wanted." His first job as director of personnel might not have existed, and even his time as deputy chief executive, and chief executive, from 1978 to 1993, gets little mention from him. His focus is on the period since his father moved aside as chairman.

Since then he has concentrated the group in its core areas, sold off unwanted subsi- diaries, and rejuvenated the company's ageing management team with an injection of new blood. Those moves, and the long hours he puts in, have earned him the respect of many former critics.

Sir Rocco said he was confident he could convince his shareholders that they stand to gain more by sticking with him than by selling out to Robinson. Pre-tax profits, before exceptional items, rose 65 per cent to pounds 127m last year, and another 39 per cent on top of that in the first six months of this year.

But those gains can largely be credited to the post-recession rebound. Analysts say the group is not dramatically outperforming its sector, and the City is leaning towards Robinson's camp. But Sir Rocco Forte has surprised them - and charmed them - before.