'Rocco has lost everything his father built'

Granada raid: Forte senior grieves as pounds 3.8bn bid ensures son lose s the family hotel and leisure chain that was lifetime's work
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The Independent Online

"It takes a lot of courage to blame oneself when things go wrong. An unsuccessful person often blames everyone except the real culprit - himself." So wrote Lord Forte in the final chapter of his autobiography, Forte, published in 1986. Brave words, but, at the time, meaningless.

Then, Forte plc, the multi-million-pound hotel and restaurant company he had built single-handedly over five decades and wished to see expand under the leadership of his son and heir, Sir Rocco, had occasionally faltered but it had never fallen.

Now, though, after a life-time's work - he is 87 - Lord Forte's dream is over. Granada, the television and leisure giant, has succeeded in its pounds 3.8bn hostile takeover bid, ending 50 years of independence. Nobody other than those who know him can possibly imagine the scale of the old man's grief.

Friends say he is bound to summon a family gathering, either at his Belgravia home or his Surrey mansion pretty promptly. They believe he is unlikely to wait until the habitual family lunch on Sunday, at which he still sits at the head of a vast dining room table.

"It will be absolutely awful," said one who knows the family well. "There will be a huge Italian explosion. Poor Rocco will have completely lost face. It is going to be ghastly."

If the scenario sounds absurdly like the plot of one of Al Pacino's films, one should remember that the story of the Fortes' rise to prominence was not itself far off a rags-to-riches fairytale.

Charles Forte was born to a peasant family in the hamlet of Monforte, in Italy. They emigrated, moving to what was formerly Clackmannanshire in Scotland where the young Forte had to engage in playground fist-fights in order to win friends at the local school. His father took over an ice-cream parlour cum cafe, known as the Savoy - a very far cry from the hotel group he was later to take a stake in.

But the young Charles had a shrewd grasp of figures. Working on the principle that if one cafe could make a profit of Y from an investment of X then there was no reason not to build a chain on the same X:Y ratio, he bought first one "milk bar" in Regent Street in the west End of London, and then another and another.

"His real talent", says one person who worked for him "was that he could spot an undervalued property instantly."

But relative business success, Forte soon realised, was not sufficient to succeed in Britain. Even after he had merged with the Trusthouse group - the manoeuvre that was to launch him into the league of super-rich industrialists - fought off a hostile bid from Allied Lyons and managed to take the whole company over by 1973, he still could not shake off the City's derogatory tag "the Milk Bar King."

Forte hated being a misfit in a snob-ridden society more than anything else. "In this country," he wrote "I believe that we are far too pushed around by an articulate minority."

Trusthouse Forte, which in 1973 was valued at pounds 23m, therefore, contained one major problem for Forte - its image. It was a middle-market chain, comprised of unluxurious hotels and a plebian clientele. Forte wanted class; he wanted the Savoy. "Mention the Savoy anywhere," he has sighed openly and nostalgically to reporters in these past few fraught weeks, "It's the name, the Savoy."

But in the Eighties when he launched his bid for it there were many, including the Savoy's former chairman Sir Hugh Wontner, who thought his ambitions deluded. "Everybody knew that the Fortes simply did not understand the concept of luxury," says a City source. "Everybody" it seems, were right.

Despite an increasingly strong personal friendship with the Tory establishment - Forte had instant access to Baroness Thatcher and her Tory aides, Sir Charles Powell and the late Lord Thorneycroft - (who became president of the THF board) - he never gained total control of the Savoy. By 1994 he owned 68 per cent of the shares but only 42 per cent of the votes.

By now Forte had finally relinquished control of the group to his son, Rocco, 51, who had been appointed chairman in 1992. (He was appointed chief executive in 1983, but in practice Forte Snr still ran the show).

Forte is fantastically proud of his only son (he also has five daughters) whom he groomed for the succession since he was in his teens. According to Tatler magazine, Forte would visit Downside public school in Somerset every weekend ostensibly to take his son fishing, but in reality to discuss the finer points of entrepreneurialism.

These past few weeks he has been confident that Rocco could fend off Granada's hostile bid. "We don't need a white knight," he has said publicly. "We've got Rocco."

But for whatever reasons - some say it is his fault for not ensuring decent dividends, others say the rot started before he was in a position to do anything about it - Rocco has been unable to repeat history and stave off attack from outside. For him, yesterday must be the worst day of his life. "He has effectively lost everything his father built," a business colleague said. "He must feel awful."

The closeness of the family only emphasises the tragedy. Even though his six children are all grown-up and have children of their own, if he has not seen them for a couple of days, Lord Forte reportedly always asks them two questions: "Where have you been?" and "Have you rung your mother?"

Olga Polizzi, his eldest daughter, and the managing director of Forte, once said that they never saw much of other children when they were little because they had so much fun playing with each other.

They still go on holiday together, spend Christmas together - almost 40 of them in Lord Forte's house in Belgravia - and every Sunday lunch together, chez papa.

Conversation this weekend is likely to be a little strained, but, their friends insist, the Fortes are made of stern stuff. They will survive this humiliation and start again.

"I think they will learn from this," a former associate of Lord Forte's said. "If anything, Charles Forte's greatest mistake has arguably been not to give a far more senior role to Olga Polizzi. She is far and away the brightest of them. Her tragedy is that she wasn't born a man. Now her tragedy has become theirs."

Ms Polizzi, who is married to the journalist William Shawcross, is a famously successful (and well paid - her salary has been estimated at pounds 2.2m) businesswoman. Being female, she was never considered by her father to be in the running for the top-dog position in the company. Now, however, her energy and her brains may play a pivotal role in the family's next move.

"My bet," a rival hotelier who does not wish to be named said, "is that they'll buy back some of the most luxurious hotels in the world from Granada. They'll take the Hyde Park in London, the Westbury in New York, the Ritz in Madrid and so on, and the person running the negotiations for them will be Olga."

Meanwhile, the Fortes must face the present as a dynasty, which has temporarily lost its momentum, but not its courage. In the final chapter of his autobiography, Lord Forte isolates one paragraph from the rest of the text. Its philosophy is strangely anxious.

"I can't say I have complete peace of mind, however, and I won't have as long as I continue working. Things are never right in a business, particularly in the hotel and catering trade. You always try to improve everything that is being done and you never quite succeed. I spend my life trying to do this, but success depends on so many people and so many different chains of events. So, every day, you have got some other worry. Furthermore, I have people round me whom I love and I am fond of. They provide worries, when they are not well of if they are unhappy," he wrote.

On that prophetic unfinished note, it closes. At 87, Lord Forte must begin again.