Industry pays tribute to ‘true giant' Lord Forte

08 March 2007
Industry pays tribute to ‘true giant' Lord Forte

One of the 20th century's most iconic hoteliers, Lord Charles Forte, died peacefully in his sleep last Wednesday (28 February) aged 98.

Tributes have been pouring in for the Italian-born hospitality guru, who began his meteoric career by starting a milk bar on London's Upper Regent Street in 1934.

Having learnt his trade in his father's Scottish ice-cream parlours, the young Forte capitalised on the post-war period, snapping up key properties in London's Piccadilly, including Rainbow Corner, the Café Royal and the Waldorf hotel, earning him the nickname Mr Piccadilly.

Service stations

In 1951, Forte was awarded the contract for the Festival of Britain and was later granted the first contracts for catering at Gatwick and Heathrow airports. In 1959, when the UK's first motorway was opened, he seized the chance and set up roadside catering, building up the country's largest chain of 23 service stations.

The Forte group, by now a public business, merged with Trust Houses in 1970, and Forte became deputy chairman on the understanding that Trust Houses chairman Lord Crowther would step down after a year. This failed to materialise and tensions between the two companies' working cultures began to emerge.

When Allied Breweries launched a takeover bid for the company Forte saw his chance to strike back, and borrowed £2m to outbid Allied for control of the company.

In 1981 Forte launched a bid for the Savoy hotel group, which was rejected despite his having 69% of the shares (he had only 42% of the voting capital). Only in 1989 did he finally give this ambition up for good.

In 1992, aged 83, he retired as chairman in favour of his son Rocco Forte (now Sir), who had succeeded him as chief executive in 1983. He continued to maintain a close watch over the company until 1995, when Granada made a hostile takeover bid for it. With 940 hotels, 95,000 rooms and 41,000 employees in the group, Forte plc was eventually sold for £3.8b.

Life peerage

Forte was knighted in 1970 and accepted a life peerage from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1981, having declined one nearly four decades earlier from former Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell.

Forte once said his philosophy was "to satisfy customers, increase profitability and act with integrity at all times". In his biography, published in 1986, he said: "I went into business to create a business, do something of which I was proud. That was more important to me than financial rewards."

In 1944 Forte married Irene and is survived by her and his six children, fellow hoteliers Sir Rocco, Olga and Marie-Louise, and Irene, Giancarla and Portia.

Tributes from the industry to Lord Forte

Bob Cotton, chief executive, British Hospitality Association

"He was a true giant of the industry who created an empire, the likes of which we won't see again. He was the market leader in the hotel, restaurant, catering, motorway services and airline sectors. He had a real passion for the industry, for food, the product and the people who worked in it."

Philippe Rossiter, chief executive of the HCIMA

"The HCIMA was proud to have Lord Forte as one of its honorary life members, an accolade reserved for very few people. He was an inspiration to many people in the industry, and he exemplified the very objectives for which the HCIMA was established, having been a founder member of the Hotel & Catering Institute, one of the forerunners of the present association."

Sir David Michels, former chief executive, Hilton Hotels

"For 20 years when I worked for Grand Metropolitan he was the big competitor and looking back one forgets how innovative he was. He invented Travelodge, group hotelkeeping and was not far short of a genius. He always had time to stop and be pleasant, which is, after all, what hotelkeeping is all about."

Willie Bauer, former general manager, the Savoy

"Lord Forte was the greatest hotelier Britain has ever had. If today's hoteliers ran their companies like him we would be a lot better off - he appreciated our industry is a people industry and put a lot of money into training and ensuring that his employees got the appreciation they deserved."

Anton Edelmann, executive chef, Directors Table

"I worked for him in my first head-chef role at Grosvenor House, 90 Park Lane, and he was always extremely helpful and unassuming. He treated me - a young, arrogant chef - awfully well."

Giuseppe Peccorelli, hotel managing director, TrusthouseForte

"He was an extremely nice person and very shrewd in his business dealings, but shrewd with a heart. He would always help people but also get the best possible deal for his shareholders."

By Emily Manson

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