Robert Breare: Businessman who succeeded despite his shambolic corporate strategy

 

Robert Breare's life could so easily have been uneventful, prosperous and respectable. After Eton and Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he read Law and, more importantly, gained a Blue for rowing, he could have spent a peaceful few decades running the family's group of local newspapers, R Ackrill. But his creative hyperactivity and an ability to charm birds off the trees, together with restlessness and endemic disorganisation, led to a career which combined sensible projects with a fatal incapacity for the vulgarities of business administration. "If you have only cost control without creation, you die," as he said, but as a former business partner put it in 2000, the reverse was also true.

It did not help that Breare, was notoriously scruffy, a fanatical lover of sailing, fast cars, good food, fine wines and fat cigars. In 2001 an interviewer noted that his office contained a night bag slung in the corner with its BA executive gold card attached and a Hermès tie box on top. Papers poked out of a bulging briefcase, while every surface of his very large desk was covered with piles of documents, spreading out on to the floor by his chair.

As the last of his three wives, Susie, put it, "Robert was always chasing a dream and in many ways was an absolute genius, but you needed to harness that enthusiasm. He was like a runaway train. If he could have found a way to channel that energy, he could have been the next Richard Branson." But as she added, not surprisingly he was "a difficult man to be married to." Yet with his hearty laugh and infectious enthusiasms ("I go out and like good dinners, decent wine and drive a Ferrari like the next person"), many found Breare extremely likeable. He also had a vision, basically of improving the reality of British hospitality in hotels and restaurants, "to make them sing and dance", as he put it, by concentrating on superior food, branding, decor and atmosphere – a dream he sometimes turned into reality.

When Breare did arrive at Akrill's he immediately wanted to expand the business, but he was opposed by his father. Fortunately for both of them, after his father's retirement he sold the business for an improbably high £5 million. He invested the cash in the Westminster Press newspaper group. Three years later he sold the business to the ambitious Emap publishing group for £18 million.

In 1987 he joined Parkdale, a Leeds–based commercial property developer, as its chief executive. He naturally concentrated on hotels, golf courses and country clubs. In 1989, having increased the company's profits from £1 million to £8 million, he agreed a takeover of Parkdale by Pavilion Leisure and in 1990 formed Arcadian. All was going well until later that year, when a major recession hit.

Breare, who had put a lot of his own money into the business, described how in the next three years "I went from a house in Chelsea and a Ferrari Testarossa to a rented flat in Clapham and a share of an old Golf". But as the recession ended he came back fighting, and towards the end of the decade had co–founded the Malmaison hotel chain, a dozen historic hotels and three resorts in Europe, and gone into partnership with Sir Terence Conran.

Together, in a typically bold project, they bought and modernised the Great Eastern Hotel at Liverpool Street Station in London. Breare sold the group in 1998 for £100 million and went on to found Noble House Group, a private restaurant and pub chain.

Unfortunately he used Noble House as his launch pad for a fatal bid of £470 million for Wolverhampton & Dudley, maker of Marston's, Britain's biggest regional brewer. At that point Breare's record was good enough to attracted some respectable financial backers. But the chairman, David Thompson, whose family had run the business since before it had come to the market in 1890, rejected the idea of a bid as "all froth and no Breare".

All Breare's faults showed through as he asked for more and more information – including the firm's laundry bills – without making a firm bid. Not surprisingly the company's shareholders voted to remain independent. Nevertheless the mere threat of a bid had greatly improved the firm's management. In Breare's inimitable words his bid was "like a gigantic enema to a constipated management team". Despite this setback, the following year he was brought in to run the Scotsman Hotels group by its owners, and was subsequently credited with turning the group round.

His last, typically off-the-wall, venture was Snoozebox. The idea came to Breare after a fruitless search for a toilet at the Le Mans 24 Hours race. As he put it, "there's got to be a better way." His idea was to provide pop–up hotels for special events, stackable converted shipping containers containing bedrooms with en suite bathrooms, air–conditioning, television and free wi–fi. Although Snoozebox proved popular at sporting events and music festivals, the project went sour after a contract to provide portable hotels for the Olympics resulted in a shortfall of about £1.6 million and Breare's abrupt departure from the business last year. Coincidentally Malmaison, the scene of an earlier triumph, went into administration a much the same time.

Breare was found dead at his home in Ascot by his ex–wife Susie, who had been married to him for 14 years. She and his four sons survive him.

Robert Roddick Ackrill Breare, businessman: born Claro, North Yorkshire 18 March 18 1953; married three times (four sons); died Ascot 12 July 2013.

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