Haydn Fentum is feeling rather pleased with himself. Aged just 33, he is the new owner of the Lygon Arms, one of the oldest and most celebrated hotels in Britain.
Fentum bought the 16th-century 69-bedroom hotel in the Cotswold village of Broadway seven weeks ago from Blackstone, the US company that owns the Savoy Group. He is not prepared to say how much for, other than he paid something in the region of £15m.
Fentum is not the Lygon’s sole owner. He bought it with his parents, Michael and Linda, and his sister, Sara Fentum-Wicks, through their family business Furlong Hotels.
The Lygon is the third hotel in the Furlong group, a company Fentum’s parents founded in 1969. Its sister properties are Billesley Manor, near Stratford-upon-Avon, and Combe Grove Manor, in Bath.
Haydn Fentum, who as managing director of Furlong is the main driver of the business, was born and bred in the Cotswolds.
He has always loved the Lygon and, as a boy, enjoyed many a family party there. Buying it has, in part, fulfilled a childhood dream, although he is adamant it wasn’t a purchase based purely on sentiment.
“I suppose it was always somewhere that I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely if… ‘,” he says, adding: “I would like to think it was my heart ruling my head, but it was very much driven by the fact that I thought it was a good hotel with a good commercial base.”
Fentum explains how he and his family came to buy the Lygon Arms. It all started in November last year when he contacted Blackstone to ask whether it would ever consider selling the Lygon. He didn’t offer a price and Blackstone said only that it might consider it.
Nothing further happened until March, when he heard from property agent Jones Lang LaSalle that the hotel was for sale off a guide price of £18m.
From there, briefly speaking, the Fentums viewed the Lygon, put in an offer and, at 3pm on Monday 30 June, exchanged contracts.
Other names rumoured to have been interested included entrepreneur Richard Branson, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and hotel groups Orient-Express and Von Essen.
With such powerful and wealthy competition Fentum never really thought his family stood a chance. “I didn’t think we would be successful. In fact, I was almost certain we would not be. These were all big guys with very big pockets and I just assumed someone other than us would buy it,” he says.
Putting the family’s success down to economic nervousness following the Iraq war and the outbreak of the Sars virus, he says that clinching the deal has surprised him in two ways: first, that it has happened at all, and second, that it has generated an enormous level of interest in him and his family.
Until now, few people have heard of the Furlong Group, even though the family has been buying and selling hotels since 1969. Previous properties have included Homewood Park and Hunstrete House, both near Bath.
The purchase of the Lygon has catapulted the company into the limelight. “We have always flown under the radar, and I thought that would continue,” says Fentum, adding: “All of a sudden people are wanting to know who we are.”
This is hardly surprising, seeing as Furlong has just bought an immensely well-known property from a company with an extremely high profile.
When the Savoy Group bought the Lygon Arms in 1986 for £4.7m, it was the first time it had been owned by a public company.
For the Savoy Group, whose four hotels in London are the Savoy, Claridge’s, the Berkeley and the Connaught, it was its only provincial hotel.
Fentum reckons, probably rightly, that the Lygon is one of the few hotels that you could ask any man in any street in England about and chances are he would know it. The same could also be said of the Savoy Group properties. Following in such big footsteps is, in Fentum’s opinion, “like going from the sublime to the ridiculous. Here you have this company with very fine hotels, and then there is me. It’s a pretty hard act to follow.”
So, how does he intend to follow it?
He plans to dedicate the next three years to refurbishing the Lygon at a cost of more than £2m. Breaking this down, he intends to spend about £700,000 in the first financial year, £1m in the second and £700,000 in the third. He wants, he says, to give it a “fresher look” but maintain the historic feel that is its greatest asset.
Much of the Lygon’s original timberwork still exists, and its association with history – in particular with Oliver Cromwell, who stayed there before the battle of Worcester in 1651 – is well documented. Tourists, particularly those from the USA and Japan, love its wealth of history and its quintessential Englishness.
Bearing this in mind, Fentum stresses that any changes he makes will be only superficial. Curtains and carpets will be replaced, but the antiques will remain.
On the financial side, by the time the work is completed he expects annual turnover to have increased from £5.2m to £6.3m, with profit having risen from £1.4m to £2m.
“If I were being cheeky, I would say that I think this is the sort of place that will benefit from our private ownership, because we will be able to dedicate more time to it and make it a bit more personal.
“We won’t be getting hung up on what this means to the group. We’ll be worrying about how we can improve the hotel.”
And, when the work is done, he’ll begin his search for the fourth hotel in the Furlong group. “I certainly hope to make another acquisition in a few years’ time,” he says. “I eventually want between six and 10 hotels.”
That aside, his focus for now is clearly on the Lygon and how he can make his mark on a property that has been captivating guests with its charm for centuries.
He says: “When you read the history of the hotel you are aware that you are just the custodian for a short period of time.
“I want to do the best for it in that time, and I won’t be disappointed if people come here and don’t know who Furlong Hotels are. What is important is that people come here, enjoy it and want to come back.”
Haydn Fentum, managing director, Furlong Hotels
Haydn Fentum was born on 25 August 1969 in Weston-Super-Mare, Somerset. He grew up in Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire, and left Cheltenham College with nine O levels and four A levels.
After college he spent a year working and studying French in Lausanne, Switzerland, before going to university to study business and French.
In 1994 he got his first job in the hotel industry when he joined his parents’ business, Homewood Park, near Bath, as assistant manager. During his time there, sales increased by more than 40%, profit by more than 50% and the restaurant won a Michelin star.
In 1997 the family bought Hunstrete House, between Bath and Bristol, and Haydn became general manager. Sales increased by 25%, profit by 30% and another Michelin star was awarded.
The following year, in September 1998, the family sold Homewood Park and Hunstrete House.
Today Haydn spends his time running the family’s three properties: Billesley Manor, Combe Grove Manor and the Lygon Arms. He also has a consultancy company, Furlong Management, is a director of the Bristol Hotel Group and a non-executive director of Alfresco drinks.
He lives near Bath with his wife and young daughter. His hobbies include cricket.
The Lygon Arms: a brief history
The first recorded date in the history of the Lygon Arms, then the White Hart Inn, is 1532. The inn was a popular resting place for travelling wool merchants during the 16th century.
Later, in the 18th century, it became a staging post for coaches travelling from London to Wales.
In 1820, William Lygon, part of a distinguished Worcestershire family, bought the inn for £1,580. He promoted his butler Charles Drury to manager, and it was Drury who named it the Lygon Arms, in tribute to the family who had promoted him.
At the turn of the 20th century Sydney Bolton Russell bought the Lygon for £6,000. He passed its management to his son, Donald, in the 1930s who, in turn, appointed his friend Douglas Barrington to the board of directors. In 1956 Barrington became managing director.
In 1986 history was made when the Savoy Group bought the Lygon Arms for £4.7m. It was the first time the property had been owned by a public company.
Seven weeks ago, on 30 June, it went back into private ownership when Blackstone, owner of the Savoy Group, sold it to Furlong Hotels for approximately £15m.
The Lygon Arms
Broadway, Worcestershire WR12 7DU
Tel: 01386 852255
Fax: 01386 858611
Accommodation: 69 bedrooms
Room rates: from £149 to £495
Facilities: 45-seat Oliver’s bistro, 75-seat Great Hall fine-dining restaurant, 60-seat Cotswold Bar and patio, plus five meeting rooms
Leisure facilities: spa, gym, billiard room, sauna, swimming pool, tennis court
Furlong Management is a hotel consultancy firm launched in 2000 by Haydn Fentum and hotelier Robin Sheppard.
David Coubrough, a non-executive director of contract caterer Holroyd Howe, is a director.
Furlong Management runs three hotels: the 68-bedroom Marwell in Winchester, Hampshire; the 52-bedroom Hawkwell House in Oxford and the 112-bedroom Hotel Bristol in Sheffield.
Furlong Hotels is a limited company whose shares are held by the Fentum family.
The family comprises chairman Michael Fentum, secretary Linda Fentum, managing director Haydn Fentum and executive director Sara Fentum-Wicks.
Properties in the Furlong portfolio
Bought in October 1999 from Queens Moat Houses for £5.2m
Turnover 2003-04: £3.6m
Profit 2003-04: £1.5m
Average occupancy: 68%
Average room rate: £98
Combe Grove Manor
Monkton Combe, Bath
Bought in November 2001 from Singaporean company MPH for more than £4m
Turnover 2003-04: £3.1m
Profit 2003-04: £900,000
Average occupancy: 75%
Average room rate: £80
The Lygon Arms
Bought in June 2003 from Blackstone, owner of the Savoy Group, for about £15m
Turnover 2003-04: £5.2m
Profit 2003-04: £1.4m
Average occupancy: 64%
Average room rate: £152