Happily eating into Forte

PROFILE: Gerry Robinson; Granada's boss isn't the type to bag pheasants: he has bigger game in his sights, says Mathew Horsman
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The Independent Online
Next to Granada headquarters in Golden Square, central London, stands the mighty Regent Palace Hotel, one of 900 properties worldwide run by Britain's largest hotel operator, Forte. A small sign on one of the side entrances reads: "Forte recruitment next door."

Certainly Sir Rocco Forte, the international hotelier, does not intend to recruit the help of anyone next door at Granada. But he may have no choice. For he finds himself on the receiving end of what promises to be a very hostile takeover bid from the rentals, television and catering giant.

It is hard to see the affable Gerry Robinson, 47, being in the least bit hostile. Granada's chief executive is quick to laugh - real belly laughs, the kind you cannot help but join in - but he is mischievous, even devious, too. When told last week that Sir Rocco had been on a pheasant shoot in Yorkshire at the time Granada's pounds 3.3bn bid was being unveiled in London, he responded: "I get invited on shoots all the time. I just can't stand the idea of doing it."

The comment is nicely judged. He has said nothing against his adversary, but has managed all the same to draw a distinct line between them. Sir Rocco is the kind of man who isn't on the spot when his company's fortunes are at risk. Moreover, he is on a "shoot", that quintessential pastime of the idle rich (even if, like Irish-born Robinson, Sir Rocco comes from less-than-aristocratic origins); meanwhile, Robinson is in the City, taking questions from institutional investors, journalists and financial analysts.

Even in its blindside attack on Forte's poor performance of late, Robinson's Granada has put its criticisms carefully. The assets - ranging from "trophy" hotels such as Grosvenor House and the luxury George V in Paris to roadside restaurants such as the Happy Eater chain - have been "under-managed", and shareholders have not received the kind of value they deserve.

Compare that light touch with Sir Rocco's response to the bid: "He [Robinson] has no skills to run a hotels business. The closest he gets to marketing is his big mouth."

Later, in a conversation in the corner office of Granada headquarters, Robinson warms to the "us and them" theme without drawing undue attention. Describing the three years of work that he and his second-in-command Charles Allen put into charting the prospects of a bid for Forte, he says: "I have been in a lot of Happy Eaters and in a lot of Forte hotels. Of course, most people would expect me to be better at judging the Posthouse in Ipswich than the George V in Paris.

"Forte is viewed as being a high-class hotel company," Robinson says smoothly. "It isn't. It makes most of its money from mid-market hotels and motorside restaurants. So it makes a lot of sense for Granada to be interested."

Translation: Sir Rocco has pretensions to being an international, high- class hotelier; Robinson none.

A self-made man of the people, then, and proud of it. Ninth in a family of 10 children, born in Donegal, Ireland, Robinson studied for the priesthood, then worked at a Matchbox toy factory, rising to plant manager at 22. After stints at Lesney Products, Lex and Coca-Cola (together with studies in accountancy), he joined GrandMet, the food and drinks giant, and led a management buy-out of the catering division in 1987. The resulting company, Compass, was a huge success, and earned him a personal fortune rumoured to be at least pounds 5m.

In 1991, Granada, a tired, family-run rentals and television company, enticed him to join with a mandate to improve flagging profits and overcome a disastrous expansion of the computer maintenance business under his predecessor, Derek Lewis. Robinson did so the old-fashioned, and unpopular, way: cutting costs. Jobs went, whole layers of management were removed; even senior staff at Granada Television, the jewel of the ITV crown, got the boot. So unpopular was the restructuring that the comedian John Cleese famously wrote to Robinson, saying, "F*** off out of it, you ignorant upstart caterer."

Since then the two men have made their peace and Granada has prospered. By the time it took over LWT, in another acrimonious battle that this time pitted Robinson against Roland Rat's creator, the television guru Greg Dyke, most people thought Robinson was a real television man after all.

Critics still complain that he turned the grand old Granada, high-minded and intellectual, into "just another ITV company". Well maybe. But that probably has more to do with the Broadcasting Act 1990 than with Robinson.

Through it all, Robinson kept his cool. He tells fine tales about the great and less great in television, dropping names without appearing pretentious. But he will tell none of them on the record: typically, he doesn't want to cause offence.

Behind the jollity, the easy manner and the deviousness lies a very good, if at times brutal manager. Granada/LWT is a powerhouse among programmer- broadcasters; the rentals business is profitable despite cut-throat competition; the catering business, centred on the motorway services division, has much better margins than its rivals.

The key to his success has been a highly decentralised management, with managers in the field given room to perform. Cost-cutting, firm cash and credit controls and regular head-office accounting complete the strategy. But woe to the under-performer, the line manager who misses his target.

"People love to make their businesses appear complicated," he says. "Most are not. Hotels are about three things: managing pricing, managing costs and managing capacity." Likewise: "Television is about programming. If you have good programmes, you will succeed." He and chief operating officer Allen are about to put that to a further test, rolling out as many as four new satellite channels by next year, fed in part by gems from the Granada library.

Robinson finds he can get his work done easily between 9am and 6pm. Weekend work is out of the question. "I think most work is pointless," he says. "There are only three or four things you do a day that have any effect on your business. The rest is a waste of time."

While Robinson won't say it, the implication is clear. The notorious workaholic Sir Rocco, who works through dinner and on weekends, heads a company that has posted disappointing results in recent years. Robinson is chief executive of a growing, profitable operation, effortlessly providing shareholders with good value. Odds are, he'll win.

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