The Caterer Interview – Harry Murray

13 March 2015 by
The Caterer Interview – Harry Murray

Alongside his role as chairman of Lucknam Park, hospitality's elder statesman works full-time supporting and promoting the wider hospitality industry in a plethora of roles. He speaks to Janet Harmer about the changing responsibilities of today's general managers

Why is the role of the hotel general manager so much more complicated now than when you started out in the business?

It is all down to the way hotels are owned and operated today. In the past companies like British Transport Hotels, Grand Metropolitan, Trust Houses, Forte and Rank all managed the hotels as well as owned the freehold of the property. Today there is a separation between ownership and management, so that now we have owners, asset managers, management companies and brand or marketing companies. General managers now have to juggle their time looking after all these stakeholders, in addition to taking care of the guests.

How should a general manager keep these various interested parties happy?

The general manager should always be the heart and the soul of the operation, but now they also need the skills to manage up the line as well as manage down, and the key to success is to develop a partnership that is in complete alignment with the vision, goals and objectives of the business.

How do asset managers fit into the operation of a hotel?

Asset managers work on behalf of the hotel owners and are responsible for growing the business, ensuring the owner gets a return on their investment. They replicate the head office of old and have expertise in financial management and revenue management as well as sales and marketing.

My concern is that some asset management companies, especially those not run by hoteliers, couldn't care less about the guests and staff - they are only concerned about the return. They don't spend money on maintenance and they squeeze the asset. If they truly understood hotels, they would know that the GM - needing to make a financial return - needs to be focused on looking after the guests.

However, there are some asset management companies, such as Michels & Taylor [run by David Michels, former chief executive of Hilton Group, and Hugh Taylor, former regional vice president, Hilton Group], that do understand how a good hotel should be run.

The appointment of asset managers by owners will continue to grow in the future as more individuals and companies invest in property. Even those owners who appoint top international companies like Four Seasons or InterContinental Hotels to manage their properties also use asset management companies to ensure the return on their investment is maximised.

Who should today's general managers look to as role models in being able to manage up and down the line?

The best hoteliers are those who understand the bigger picture as well as the needs and objectives of the owner. They should also know how to create the right culture within the hotel and be able to develop a highly motivated and engaged team to ensure standards of excellence and continuous improvements take place within their properties.

Experienced operators who know how to meet the needs of owners, as well as keep guests happy, include John Stauss of Four Seasons, Michael Gray of Hyatt, Stuart Bowery at Grosvenor House, Stuart Johnson at Brown's hotel, Teresa Maw at Marriott County Hall, Michael Shepherd at Hilton on Park Lane and Duncan Palmer at the Langham London.

How does a general manager deal with a demanding hotel owner?

I've often found that the bark of an owner can be worse than their bite. A case in point was Sol Kerzner, who asked me to open his new Landdrost hotel in Johannesburg as general manager. I initially said no as I felt that because of his reputation he would interfere too much. Sol was definitely a man who had a big bark, but from the time I accepted the job, I stood up to him by showing that I knew what I was doing.

As a result he respected me and we ended up working well together because he understood it would be counterproductive to interfere in the job I was doing.

How can general managers develop the skills required of a modern day operator?

General managers now require strong leadership skills. This is why Peter Lederer was instrumental in setting up the Executive Masters in Hospitality and Tourism Leadership course at the Strathclyde Business School. The Master Innholder Scholarship Programme is also about helping develop skills in good financial management and leadership. Revenue management, for instance, is a key skill involving driving room rates through occupancy, which general managers today need to fully understand. Senior Master Innholders also provide a mentoring scheme, which has
proved successful over the past 10 years.

Universities should now focus on business acumen, revenue management, strategic marketing - key areas of business that general managers cannot ignore. Previously, these roles came under the umbrella of the hotel head office.

Did you ever consider moving into a head office role yourself?

No; I loved being the captain of the ship and the day-to-day buzz of the hotel too much. In a regional or head office role, I would have been using my car as an office as I drove around the country telling people how to do their jobs. I didn't like to be told what to do as a general manager and I didn't want to do that to anyone else. That is why as chairman of Lucknam Park I don't breathe down Claire Randall's neck [managing director of the hotel].

Has the separation of property owner from the operator been good or bad for the guest?

It can only be good. There are so many new hotels now that it makes it a very competitive market, which raises standards. As a result, there has been an investment in the economy in a massive way, which has significantly helped reduce unemployment.

Standards have never been higher. The biggest worry though, as highlighted by Danny Pecorelli at the recent General Mangers' Conference, is that the industry is suffering from a shortage of people. But in order to get the people, we must improve the image of the industry.

How can the industry improve its image?

Hoteliers and restaurateurs have to lead the way. The situation still exists where young people coming into the industry are working 14 or 15 hours
a day, have no access to dining facilities, have no breaks, and are being shouted at by chefs. However, there are plenty of people who do care, such as Chris Galvin [who operates seven restaurants with his brother Jeff under Galvin Restaurants], who writes to parents if their son or daughter is doing well. It is not difficult to create a culture where people enjoy coming to work. The industry needs to do a selling job and invite parents into hotels on careers days. It is important to demonstrate what an enjoyable, passionate job working in hospitality can be and show how - through hard work - people can get to the top, travel the world and become CEO of a hotel company. Springboard does a great job in promoting the industry through its Inspire programme, as do the big groups.

We need more opportunities like those offered by the Edge Hotel School. As well as providing students with a degree, it offers solid and very worthwhile practical experience.

No time for retirement

Now aged 75, Murray is showing no signs of slowing down. Although no longer involved in the day-today running of Lucknam Park, he continues to play a strategic role in the development of the five-red-AAstar, 42-bedroom hotel in Colerne, Wiltshire, in his position as chairman.

Meanwhile, Murray spends the majority of his time devoted to myriad roles in the wider industry, all of which he takes very seriously. He usually travels from his home near Bath to London at least once a week as mentor to Kate Levin, the general manager of the Capital hotel, and daughter of his long-standing friend David Levin, who he worked alongside in one of his first positions at the Midland hotel, Manchester, in the 1950s and 1960s.

"Mentoring Kate is an absolute joy - she has come on in leaps and bounds over the past five years," Murray says with great pride.

He is a director of the Edge Hotel School and Wivenhoe House, the initiative that provides students with academic study combined with working in a four-star environment, in conjunction with the University of Essex.

"I'm chairman of the advisory committee, which provides a link between the school and industry," Murray explains. "The first 27 graduates are now out in the industry and acting as ambassadors for the school. I'm very confident about its future."

Murray is also a life patron of Springboard, patron of Hospitality Action (as well as sitting on the charity's south-west committee), a member of the south-west committee of the British Hospitality Association, and a trustee of the Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation - attending all meetings and
fundraising events as required.

He doesn't consider he is ready for the gentler pace of life that most of his contemporaries are now enjoying. In fact, Murray, who has been married to his wife Susan for 48 years and has three sons and 10 grandchildren, says he never sits in his lounge at home before 7pm or 8pm in the evening.

His only concession to retirement is that he now no longer works on a Saturday or Sunday - something he has regularly done throughout his 50-plus year career.

"I love what I do - I don't consider it work," he enthuses. "The moment I stop loving it, I will stop doing it. I wish I was 17 again and just starting
out, as the hospitality industry has never been so vibrant and exciting as it is now, with personalities such as Robin Hutson, Danny Pecorelli, Andrew Stembridge and Jonathan Raggett who are are a great inspiration and motivation to their people."

Fitness is an essential part of Murray's life, which enables him to maintain the highest energy levels. Having run a few marathons in the past -
including the South African Comrades Marathon, a 56-mile race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban - he continues to exercise every day, either running, cycling or yoga. He has never taken a day off work through illness.

"I had the Asian flu once in the 1950s and was due a long weekend off, which I spent in bed and went straight back to work afterwards," he recalls.
"I still have energy and stamina and the same enthusiasm for the industry as when I started."

Harry Murray CV

2010-present Chairman, Lucknam Park hotel & spa, near Bath, Wiltshire

1997-2010 Managing director, Lucknam Park hotel & spa

1994-1997 Managing director, Cape Sun InterContinental

1976-1994 General manager, the Imperial, Torquay

1973-1976 General manager, the Landdrost hotel, Johannesburg

1971-1973 General manger, the President, Johannesburg

1969-1971 General manager, the Majestic hotel, Harrogate

1967-1969 General manager, North Stafford hotel, Stoke-on-Trent

1965-1967 Resident manager, the Grand hotel, Manchester

1963-1965 Assistant manager, the Grand hotel, Manchester

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