Me and My Partner: Keeping the Capital in the family

David Levin set up the Capital Group 35 years ago. The group now comprises five hotels and restaurants in London and a vineyard in France. His son Joseph Levin is managing director
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David Levin

David Levin

I initially trained as a waiter and a cook. After about 10 years in the industry, I realised that if I wanted to go any further I would have to do it myself. So I bought a little pub in Berkshire. We cooked everything fresh, baked bread in the village, had pretty girls serving. It is quite common now. But in 1964 it was very innovative. In most pubs at the time you were lucky if you got a dog-eared ham sandwich.

My son Joseph was five when we moved to London and I opened the Capital Hotel. Even then, the dream was that he would eventually join me in the business. He would do holiday jobs and he would always be around the hotel. I saw him as the heir apparent. But I was nervous about it. My wife is from a family of farmers and it wasn't a success when her brothers joined her father on the farm, so we knew from experience that there were risks.

When Joseph got older, he started working for me in the business. But then I became worried that I was putting too much pressure on him. So he went off and spent some time in Australia. He went to college, then did some training in the United States. When he came back he was keener than ever to be more involved, which was great.

He gradually worked his way round all the different parts of the business, learning about the various elements and getting his hands dirty. I'm not into titles at all, but about three years ago he became managing director. I became more of the chairman, although I have never chaired a meeting in my life.

It sounds obvious, but one of the things he brings to the company is youth and style. I still feel 37, but I've been wearing a dark blue suit and collar and tie for the past 35 years. Joe wears a blue suit but only rarely wears a tie.

He is very patient and good with systems and procedures. The bureaucracy of who you have to deal with in this business is enormous and I probably would get frustrated by that. There's far too much form-filling and legislation around now.

But Joe's good at that. He's a great manager of people and resources. I'm full of admiration for him. The biggest thing that he did was to move his offices out of the hotel. I'd always worked from the hotel and still do. Joe is younger and much more technology focused, I suppose. I don't even have a computer at my desk.

We talk a lot, but I tend to leave him to it unless it's something of a magnitude where we need to sit and talk it through. The hardest period we have faced, which would have tested any partnership, was two years ago when the industry was being hit by the effects of 9/11, foot and mouth, the SARS virus and so on. We had to reduce staff and cut back. He never once said, dad, can you deal with these nasty bits?

Mutual respect has brought us closer. Neither of us are greedy for profit. We are not big into possessions. We are both quite low key. I found out the other day that some of the ties I used to buy were £75 each. I don't buy them anymore. That's an outrageous price for a tie, even if you can afford it.

Joseph Levin

I never had any doubt about what I wanted to do with my career. I was born in a pub. My wife thinks I'll probably finish my days there as well. My father worked unbelievable hours when we were children and the best way to get quality time with him was to be involved with what he did. But I never felt any pressure. It was always very natural.

I suppose I had the usual fantasies about wanting to be an airline pilot but that was crossed off the list pretty quickly. I've always had a passion for the business and I just enjoy the fact that it's a very diverse industry.

There was no hesitation about working with my father. It was lovely to be able to go home and talk to the boss over a plate of cheese-on-toast. But I was anxious to win his approval. I was concerned that here was a great man who had achieved so much and would I be able to hack it?

Twenty years later, those feelings still go through my mind on occasion. But we're individuals and I do things in a different way. When he gets cross with me, I say to him the only person that you can blame is yourself. You gave me the opportunities and the education, and as such you have to understand that I may have a different perspective on things.

I don't think the hesitation comes until you mature a little bit. I had one year's sabbatical about six years ago. I did an MBA and spent some time studying the dynamics of family businesses and that was fascinating. It was a little bit frightening, realising how challenging working with someone you love can be.

One of the great joys about family businesses is that they are quite lean. We don't have a board and I don't have to go asking 15 different people about something we want to do. We can make a decision very quickly. I enjoy that. Obviously there are difficulties. All businesses go through phases when relationships are tested. But it was only relatively recently that the family aspect really crossed my mind and that was because the information was put in front of me during the MBA.

We have different styles. I'm 30 years his junior and time has moved on. But he's always been very gracious and very supportive. His attitude is that if we don't agree, at least let's talk about it.

We see each other all the time, although we work in different offices. I need that time together because however long you have been doing something, you never stop learning. And the best way to learn is to talk to people who've done it already.

I always consult my father about decisions. Not because I don't want to take a decision, but because I think the power of two is greater than the power of one. There are certain areas where I might make a decision without necessarily agreeing with him. But I would always consult him.

It can be hard to put our father/son relationship aside when decision-making. Sometimes we need to say, forget the emotional side, we need to make a decision that's sensible for the business rather than for our relationship. But as long as you both know the ground rules, I don't think the relationship suffers.

I had no idea what to expect before we started working together. Families and emotions are always complicated. Nothing anyone said to me could have prepared me for the roller-coaster ride that it is. When you mix emotions and feelings with work, it is a completely different dynamic from just working with somebody. But it is a very positive one.

Interviews by Gareth Chadwick

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