Dynasty that climbed mountains to claim the Savoy

Forte takeover: Behind Granada's pounds 3.1bn bid for a hotel group bathed in success lies a family's rise from humble origins
Click to follow
The Independent Online

If Granada's bid to take over the Forte group succeeds, it will mark the beginning of the end of one of Britain's richest and fastest-growing business dynasties.

The Fortes' rise began in 1911 when Lord Forte's father, Rocco, left a life of agricultural labour in Monforte, a hamlet in the Italian mountains, to emigrate to Scotland. He entered the restaurant trade, albeit in a humble way, running the Savoy Cafe in Alloa, in what was then Clackmannanshire. Though the cafe did not bear much resemblance to its London namesake (it had a reputation for good ice-cream) he had made a gigantic leap.

Rocco's ambition was multiplied 10 times over in his eldest son, Charles. Even as a teenager he worked out that if you knew the figures that equated to a profit/cost ratio in one cafe, there was no reason why other cafes could not be run according to the same rules.

When Charles hit his twenties expansion became the family motto. Milk bars were his area. "I did not even know what a milk bar was," he says in his autobiography, but he read about them, visited one in London and bought a chain. "He had," says one acquaintance, "a shrewd eye for undervalued property - that was really what made him so successful."

In 1938, Rocco retired and the Fortes moved south. Charles's appetite increased. He moved from milk bars into hotels - most famously buying the Trust House empire.

The basis for Forte's success was his skill with figures. He knew the sums that would reap financial reward. However, those same sums cost him quality. The Trust House hotels were criticised for going down-market and the food and drink in Trust House Forte establishments was legendary for its poor quality. But they made money.

By the Eighties Charles had a helper at hand. His son Rocco, knighted last year, who had an Oxford degree and had been born with something of a silver spoon in his mouth, nominally took over as Forte chief executive in 1982. (His father did not relinquish real control for several years, causing Sir Rocco to have a downtrodden image which proved difficult to lose).

Now, though, it is universally accepted that he is a great success in his own right. "Rocco does not have the same fire in his belly as his father," says Christina Odone, editor of the Catholic Herald (of which the Fortes own 20 per cent). "But that is not to say he is not ambitious.

"He is always incredibly well-prepared at board meetings. And he is utterly charming. A surface of charm, if you like coats his steely core."

Sir Rocco's quieter nature was arguably what procured the prize that his father had sought for so many years. In 1985, he agreed to something his father would never have contemplated: to own 68 per cent of non-voting shares in the Savoy. This meant he was not the hotel's owner but merely a rank and file director.

The tactic, however, paid off. In 1994, when the Savoy management was deemed simply too "laid-back", the Fortes took over.

Sir Rocco, who has an heir of his own, Charles, four, is not the only member of the Forte children to have helped Lord Forte. Rocco's sister, Olga Polizzi, is often quoted as being Britain's highest-paid businesswoman. She reputedly earns more than pounds 2.2m a year as the person in charge of the chain's interior decor. She is also famously responsible for Norman Lamont's black eye (she was saying good night to him, when her then beau allegedly got jealous).

Ms Polizzi's eldest daughter, Alexandra, 25, has been working in a hotel in Hong Kong. So the dynasty continues to expand. Or does it?

Granada's bid is not the only thing halting the family's obsession with the hotel business. Ms Polizzi said recently of her daughter's plans: "Alex would make such a good barrister. I really do not want her to go straight into the family business. I would prefer Alex to do something on her own. Rocco understands this."

Grandpa, presumably, would not agree.