Sir Rocco Forte: 'Fuddy-duddy' isn't his Forte

Nothing is sacred at his prestige hotels - and the City 'is a bloody bore'
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The Independent Online

"It was all a long time ago," says Sir Rocco Forte - smiling, reserved and polite, and with just a hint of irritation. "I only talk about it when people like you bring it up."

The 61-year-old hotelier is referring, of course, to the bitter takeover of Forte, the company founded by his father. Just four years after the 83-year-old Lord Forte handed control of the group to his son, a successful £3.3bn raid was unleashed by Gerry Robinson's Granada, despite the family's passionate defence.

It's not me, though, who brings the subject up. Before the interview, Sir Rocco has presided over the official opening of a West End Travelodge - an event that has deeper connotations than high-profile hotelier opens hotel. Travelodge was set up by the Forte family and then sold off after the Granada acquisition (it is now owned by the private equity firm Permira). And this particular one used to be Sir Rocco's office. He has not been back since he left, defeated, in 1996.

"[Travelodge] had a rather bruising hiatus under Gran-ada management," he tells the assembled press and beaming PR girls. "I would say that, wouldn't I? But it's true, they really buggered it up." Laughter all round.

So in some small part it evidently still rankles - a sentiment probably not helped by our photographer's suggestion that he have his photo taken in his old office (now room 764).

Has he spoken to the former Granada boss - now Sir Gerry, star of the TV series I'll Show Them Who's Boss - since the takeover? "No." Would he speak to him if he saw him? "No." He breaks into a smile, however, when asked what he thought of the failed attempt by his nemesis to take control of rat-catcher Rentokil Initial. "It was quite amusing," he concedes. Conversation is also peppered with references to the "old company" and digs at the Granada management.

Yet budget hotels, hostile takeover battles and the antics of Sir Gerry - an easy-going Irishman and the antithesis of the immaculately dressed Sir Rocco - are things of the past. With his share of the sale proceeds (the family stake brought in around £300m), he set up Rocco Forte Hotels.

The original family business owned the Posthouse chain and, despite being a shareholder in the Savoy Group, was known for its mid-to-budget hotels. Sir Rocco, by contrast, went down the luxury route and in 1997 acquired his first hotel, the Balmoral in Edinburgh, from Bank of Scotland, which also provided a £60m loan. He now has 12 hotels across Europe, and in the year to April 2005 profits came in at £7m on turnover of £82.7m.

His latest hotel opening was Brown's in Mayfair, acquired 18 months ago and extensively refurbished since. It launched with much razzmatazz and Baroness Thatcher as his guest of honour. Not all the reviews, particularly of its Savoy-imitating Grill, have been kind but Sir Rocco is philosophical. "We normally have a hotel for four weeks before opening, to train the staff up, but we didn't with Brown's. We moved in and we still had the builders around, so it was quite difficult."

Brown's dates back to 1837 and has an eclectic history. Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call from the hotel and Rudyard Kipling wrote The Jungle Book there. But, says Sir Rocco, it had lost its way, having to sell its rooms on the cheap because its typical customers weren't big spenders. "We have turned it into a different hotel in a different market.

"You take over a hotel that has a long, traditional following and everyone says 'don't touch it, don't change it'. But they don't use the place. Sometimes you have got to bite the bullet."

It can be a risky strategy. "With the Richemond in Geneva [another of his properties], it's always been the hotel. But it was run-down and fuddy-duddy." He says the overhaul now taking place will create a hotel that is "quite modern", adding: "So maybe some people won't like it, and I'm nervous to see the result."

His father, an Italian immigrant, started the "old company" in 1934 with a milk bar in London. By the time Rocco was born, he had a chain of them, and as his son grew up (the only boy among five sisters), so too did the business, into a £1bn empire. Rocco's first job was at one of the family's hotels as a 14-year-old during the school holidays.

He does admit to getting things wrong, despite his pedigree. The big gap in the portfolio is Paris - as he says, if you are going to be a luxury hotel operator, you have to be in the French capital. "I had one or two opportunities early on and I didn't have the courage to go in. Paris was a difficult market and we had the union problems then. I was a bit scared but I would have got it at a fraction of the price."

The group has focused solely on Europe, and Sir Rocco has no plans to follow the crowd into the burgeoning markets further east. "I don't want to go to Asia - it's a long way away. I don't understand it or have any sense of how anything works out there. I'm also too old to get jet lag going backwards and forwards."

A renowned workaholic, he occasionally finds time for other things in life. There's his family: his 41-year-old wife and three children, the oldest of whom works at Brown's. He competes in Iron Men competitions and triathlons, and likes to shoot (he was, famously, out shooting the day the Granada bid was launched). A friend of Prince Charles, he also has strong opinions about how the country is run. He has long been vocal, for instance, about high taxes stifling competition. Has anything improved? "It's getting worse. There seems to be a consensus among the parties that we should be a high-tax economy."

Both he and his father have backed the Conservatives, politically and financially, and he recalls with relish how he saw off attempts by the unions in the 1970s to "infiltrate" Forte. But he has yet to be convinced by David Cameron.

"I had met him before he become leader; I'm a friend of his wife's mother. He's very attractive, a very attractive personality. But I'm not quite sure what they are up to in terms of the policies they are trying to follow.

"This Government is very unpopular. It's in decline and it has very little chance of getting re-elected. Cameron doesn't have to reinvent the wheel to get himself elected." Asked if he will help the new Tory leader financially, he replies: "Don't know yet. I'm not going to give money to something I don't believe in."

As for the business, he wants to go on adding hotels, has no plans to retire and no exit strategy. But on one thing he is adamant: he will not be returning to the Square Mile. "The City is a bloody bore. You've got to spend a lot of time schmoozing the institutional inves-tors, and it's time you're not spending on the business. You talk to financial journalists who are trying to get something out of you that you don't want to tell them."

He pauses. "If you can be private, it pays to stay private."

BIOGRAPHY

BORN 18 January 1945.

EDUCATION

Attended Downside public school before reading modern languages at Pembroke College, Oxford. Trained to become a chartered accountant at Wilson Dixon after graduation.

CAREER

1969: joins Forte, working for its internal consultancy, before going on to hold various other roles at the hotels group.

1970s: joins board as personnel director.

1982: chief executive.

1992: chief executive and chairman.

1995: knighted for services to tourism.

1996: leaves following acquisition of Forte by Granada and sets up Rocco Forte Hotels.

1997: acquires the Balmoral hotel from Bank of Scotland for a reported £35m.

2006: portfolio numbers 12 hotels, with several more to open in the next two years.

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