Bob Cotton has been in the hospitality sector for nearly 40 years, but it’s his work at the British Hospitality Association that has shown his commitment to giving the industry a voice. Linda Pettit reveals the man behind the BHA
Anyone listening to Radio Four’s You and Yours on the last rain-drenched bank holiday Monday, would have heard a discussion concerning an EU proposal to exempt small food businesses from certain food safety regulations.
On the programme was a restaurateur who felt it was a bad idea. There was no need to make small restaurants exempt, she said. Also on the programme was Bob Cotton, chief executive of the British Hospitality Association.
Cotton’s view was clear: turnover and number of employees had no correlation to food-safety risk. It was critical, he said, that all food businesses adhered to good hygiene practices, as a potentially fatal outbreak of food poisoning was just as likely to come from a small restaurant or café, as a large one. The style was typical Bob Cotton – professional, persuasive and like a true politician, getting his point across.
It has been Cotton’s ability to communicate that has helped the former Gardner Merchant man raise the profile of the BHA, and establish it as the mouthpiece of the hospitality industry. In his eight years as chief executive, membership has doubled, and now includes all the large hotel groups along with the major contract caterers and restaurant chain groups and a huge swathe of independent operators. He has appealed to them by establishing committees dedicated to each sector, on which key figures sit to discuss pertinent matters.
The BHA has also developed enviable links with Whitehall and a true understanding of how government works. Its numerous lobbying successes have included bed tax, the smoking ban, London’s successful Olympic bid, the national minimum wage and the tronc.
Part of its success has been down to Cotton’s communication skills. On average, he undertakes four or five media interviews a week and has never been known to turn down the opportunity of getting the BHA’s views heard.
“I think you learn that from the propaganda route,” he says, “you have to keep saying the same thing over and over to get the message across. One thing I have brought to this job is to know the importance of good communication – if you can’t communicate, you can’t be a chief executive in this day and age.”
The views of John Dyson, the BHA’s food and technical adviser, are typical of people who have worked with him. “Bob’s ability to communicate with government, with ministers, with civil servants and with MPs, and his ability to be patient and explain things 33 times if he needs to, has raised the profile of the BHA. He quickly gets to the nub of an issue, listens to advice and decides what approach to take. He also tells it like it is.”
Cotton was born to farming parents in Oxfordshire in 1948. His mother passed on a love of food and cooking which took him into the catering industry. Following a degree at the University of Surrey, his first placement was with contract catering giant Gardner Merchant, where he worked in the kitchens with former chief executive of Compass Michael Bailey. He later returned to Gardner Merchant, managing its contract at the Ford Motor Co. In 1979, he was asked by managing director Garry Hawkes to become his PA/company secretary, a position he occupied for 20 years, broadening his role into corporate strategy and communications.
At the time, Hawkes was one of the most powerful figures in the contract catering industry, and a strong character. During the years they worked together they never argued, but Cotton says he was never afraid to speak his mind.
Hawkes says that there is no doubt Bob Cotton has raised the profile of the BHA. “He is consistent, intelligent, good at networking, and not threatening. He is happy to assist the cause rather than push himself forward. Bob is not a great risk-taker, but is suited to the role he is in – he is brilliant at public relations, he did an excellent job at Gardner Merchant.”
In 1993, Cotton was responsible for communicating news of the £400m management buyout of Gardner Merchant from Forte, and then the sale of the company just 14 months later for £780m. Cotton, who says he has never been money-orientated, admits he was disappointed by the decision to sell.
“We had bought this giant company and I wanted the chance for us to run it, to prove to ourselves that we could,” he says. As it was he stayed on for a while under new owner Sodexho, but never enjoyed having to liaise with its Paris head office.
In 1999, Cotton was appointed chief executive of the BHA, following a 15-month stint working for the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), a secondment that gave him first-hand knowledge of how Whitehall works. His links with Whitehall are now such that he knows what civil servants are discussing, is in personal contact with key ministers, and is often consulted first on industry-related issues.
Prior to his arrival, a BHA council had been established, giving larger companies a voice, alongside the smaller players. Cotton also brought the Restaurant Association back into the BHA fold, following their split back in the 1960s. “It was a lengthy and difficult discussion, but I was determined it would happen,” he says.
Probably his darkest hour as chief executive came in July 2005. London had just won the bid for the Olympic Games. The following day was the BHA lunch, where the mood was expected to be one of celebration. Tragically, that was the morning of the London bombings, where 52 commuters were killed and 700 people injured. “It was a very different day to the one we’d expected,” Cotton says.
His itinerary – often working 16 hours a day – would test a man half his age, but the pipe-smoking Cotton, who is 60 next year, keeps going with the same passion and vigour as he did eight years ago. He rarely gets stressed, preferring to focus on what’s coming next, rather than what’s happening tomorrow.
He escapes early from London on Friday afternoons (although he’s usually in touch with the office via mobile phone), and schedules in a couple of days away at least every seven weeks. He is happy, he says, if he can go home at the end of the week knowing he has done his best, whatever the outcome.
He rarely drinks, tries not to eat every meal out, and never hangs around after industry events. To switch off he is a keen gardener at his home in East Sussex, growing root vegetables, tomatoes and strawberries. During the football season he follows Chelsea and has a season ticket at Stamford Bridge. It seems the only thing that stresses Cotton is watching rugby, the game he played himself for years.
Former BHA chief executive Jeremy Logie is just one of the people amazed at Cotton’s ability to keep going. “Bob Cotton has raised the profile of the BHA so that it is now the organisation for hospitality and tourism. Lobbying government is what the BHA is all about, so it’s quite important that the BHA is listened to and consulted by ministers at all levels, whereas before it was difficult to get an audience with them,” he says. “His personality has helped with this, he has great drive and enthusiasm – he is a PR professional, so he knows how to do it. I was an administrator and hotelier his personality and tenacity has helped.
“Under Bob, the membership now includes all the major hotel groups and most of the restaurant groups. To get them in during such a period of churn of ownership and corporate apathy where people don’t want to pay out for memberships is credit to his tenacity and enthusiasm. And he’s got the stamina to keep at it and to stay enthusiastic after so many years. I did it for four years and it does becomes tiring.”
Cotton’s staff at the BHA are also hugely supportive. “He always makes a point of thanking you for what you’ve done – few people actually do that,” said one. “He doesn’t badger you, he sets down the objectives and the policy and then expects you to get on with it.”
Miles Quest, who works closely with Cotton on BHA communications, pays credit to his energy. “His stamina is extraordinary and he always looks fresh and keen – I think that’s his secret. He also enjoys what he’s doing.”
Industry consultant Naomi Arnold, who has known Bob Cotton for many years, describes him as “one of the nicest, kindest people you could ever find. He is a jewel of the industry. The list of people he has got sitting and chairing the BHA committees is like a roll-call of the industry – it’s very impressive that he has got people of that stature to give up their time. He is a real achiever, a remarkable person and will be an impossible act to follow.”
So how long will Cotton keep going as chief executive? “I can’t do it indefinitely,” he says. “There’s got to be a time when it’s right to pass on to someone else. My main motivation is to make a difference. If people say that during my time at the BHA I made a difference, then that’s fine by me.”
But for now, he plans to carry on. “I’m healthy, I’m enjoying it, and there’s still a lot to do.” And with that, he’s off to his next meeting…
A day (or two) in the life…
Two typical days from Bob Cotton’s diary
9am Tourism Alliance breakfast meeting with Shaun Woodward MP at the Marriott County Hall, London
12pm Working lunch at the BHA
3pm Meeting with Hilton
7pm Enjoy England Awards for Excellence 2007, Banqueting House, London
7.45am Meeting with Aramark, Four Seasons Hotel, London
10.30am You and Yours interview, BBC
12pm Institute of Hospitality annual lunch, Royal Garden Hotel, London
3.53pm Train from Euston to Fawsley Hall, Northamptonshire
7.30pm Heart of England Meal of the Century dinner, Fawsley Hall
Bob Cotton down the years…
- Born 26 August 1948
- 1966-1970 University of Surrey. Degree in hotel management
- 1970-1975 Operational experience with Chrysler and Hawker Siddeley
- 1975-1976 District manager, Gardner Merchant
- 1976-1978 General manager, Gardner Merchant Northern Ireland
- 1978-1979 Operational management, Inchcape Group
- 1979 Rejoined Gardner Merchant as personal assistant to the chief executive
- 1980 Joined Gardner Merchant board of management
- 1988 Assumed responsibility for public relations and strategic communications for the Gardner Merchant Group
- 1993 Gardner Merchant, director of communications and strategic development
- 1993 Committee member, Catering Arena
- 1995 Member of National Executive of the BHA. Chairman of the BHA’s contract catering forum
- 1998 Appointed tourism adviser, DCMS
- 1999 Appointed chief executive, BHA
- 2001 Special Award by Master Innholders
- 2002 Won Catey Special Award
- 2003 OBE for services to tourism & hospitality industry
- 2003/4 Chairman, Tourism Alliance
- 2004 Visiting Fellow, Bournemouth University. President Hospitality Action. Commissioner – London ICC Mayoral Commission
- 2005 Trustee, Springboard UK. Council member, People 1st. Honorary masters degree from London Metropolitan University
- 2006 Chairman, Hospitality Action