Two years ago, Calum Ross was Unilever Foodsolutions' Man in Latin America. Now he's back in his native Scotland and running the three-star, two-rosette Loch Melfort hotel on the Highlands coast of Argyll with his wife, Rachel. Mark Lewis caught up with the supplier-turned-operator to find out how decades on the road fine-tuned his sense of what makes a great hotel.
How's life in the Highlands, after your tour of duty in South America?
Colder and safer would be the short answer, but having swapped a life of overnight flights and board meetings based in Sao Paulo (a city with a population approximately three times greater than Scotland) for one near Oban, there is a lot more to it than that. Looking after our guests, employees, Highland cattle, ducks and hens is usually less stressful. Running our own business has allowed me to be at home to watch our young son, Hugh, growing up, which is a great privilege. In the summer I can work all day in my office but still spend time with Hugh, walking down to our beach and back before changing to come down to welcome guests to dinner.
Describe the career path that led to the Loch Melfort.
I left school with the ambition to be a salesman, but at 18 I didn't have the right experience, so I went to work for a bank. I stuck it for a couple of years; then a job at Caterplan came up, and so began 23 years in food service supply. By coincidence, the job was on the team my father had left 18 months before.
I became the boss of my dad's boss in 1990, when I became the youngest divisional manager in Caterplan, covering the Northern region, from Stoke to Scotland. It was a formative experience - I was young and in at the deep end. Being able to forge good relationships with everyone on the management team, all of whom were older than me, was pivotal.
How did the move from Scotland to South America come about?
Three years later I relocated to England as national sales manager for Catering Development as part of a restructuring of the business. Being a passionate Scot, it took some time to decide to move. I told friends I was going for one year for the experience, and came back 16 years later. More promotions followed. Then, when Unilever acquired Best Foods (owners of Caterplan) in 2001, I became managing director of the new food service business, Unilever Foodsolutions. Finally, in 2005, I hopped off to become chief operating officer for UFS Latin America, which became a €200m business. Latin America was a wonderful personal, cultural and professional experience.
So why the shift from such a successful career?
From my earliest involvement with the industry as Unilever customers, I had an ambition to eventually own my own hotel, restaurant or pub. I received Caterer (via the company expense account, of course), and I'd rip out recipes and menus. Late in 2007 a reorganisation gave me the chance to put my hand up for a package and come back to Scotland. From the start, acquiring a hotel was what I really wanted to do. It was the next step for me, to see if I could run a hotel myself, having watched hoteliers do it for 25 years. The first chance we had, we got on to the Christie's website and started searching.
What made you choose the Loch Melfort?
I knew the Loch Melfort from years ago. I was on the road for my first couple of years with Caterplan, and I had once knocked on the door and tried to sell them Knorr Bouillon. I remembered the location when it popped up in our property search. We took over a tired and underinvested property, but in a location to die for. The opportunity to live and work here had a wow factor - although we do have to make sure we look out of the window from time to time! It would have been easy to buy a business that could have ticked along but we wanted a really challenging development project.
Funding and business planning was an exhilarating rollercoaster, and then in September 2008 we walked through the door and promptly wondered what we had let ourselves in for. We ran until Christmas and New Year, then shut for five weeks and refurbished the main house. We did the design work and sourced fabrics ourselves, which was fantastically rewarding. Then we relaunched last March.
How did your Unilever career equip you for life as a hotelier?
I had many roles in a relatively short space of time, so I was always learning and developing new skills. Hotels and restaurants have always been my customers and my second homes. For 24 years I lived out of a suitcase; I participated in meetings and organised conferences; and I was privileged to have huge experience of the best restaurants and function rooms in the world. I built a great appreciation of the standards that could be achieved in hotels.
And what people skills did it teach you?
Working in different countries for UFS, I had to be a people person. I developed the ability to speak to customers and engage with them on their level. These skills translate into the environment I'm in now. Our customers are from differing walks of life and the ability to interact with them in an appropriate manner is critical.
In management terms, working for a large corporate taught me the importance of employee selection, training, and development. People development has always been a great passion of mine. Here at Loch Melfort we are a small business, so the quality of our staff is critical: we must get the best out of them so that they provide the best service to customers.
What's the biggest difference between your work now and your work at UFS?
Almost too many to mention and many of them related to size and scale. Working in partnership with Rachel would be a big difference that we are often asked about. It's easy, we usually respond - I'm the boss, but Rachel is bossier!
Seriously, the biggest difference has to be the immediacy of customer feedback. In a large corporate there were lots of levels of organisation between me and chefs and their paying customers. Now my customers are in my establishment and I talk to them and get feedback every day. You can instantly translate this feedback into action. We are not always perfect but we believe we can always improve and implement any changes immediately.
What's it like being sold to?
I am the classic poacher turner gamekeeper. Given my knowledge of purchasing and supply it's lots of fun meeting with suppliers. More than once I have stopped them, and said, "look, I know the script, let's cut out the first 10 minutes". Of course, it's critical to get best value from your suppliers - but that needn't necessarily mean the cheapest price.
Has the experience lived up to expectations?
Being here and successfully realising our dream is an ongoing high. We think: "We've done it, we're doing it, and we're learning every day." Every day is rewarding and the level of business is always stepping up. Of course there are challenges, such as securing good staff in such a remote location. And there are never enough hours in the day! In terms of lows, we took our first negative review on TripAdvisor extremely hard. But then we got a good review from someone who had stayed in the same room (we are now at 89%). There is now a wow factor when past visitors walk in. The atmosphere here is one of homeliness. People feel comfortable here. We are welcoming them into our home.
Has the recent snowfall been a problem for you?
Not really. In fact, while we had more snow up here, the impact seemed to be lot worse in London on some days! Being so close to the sea, any snow here disappears fairly quickly and the roads to get to us are usually cleared very quickly. The weather since before Christmas has been amazing - cold but bright sunny days with glorious views.
What else troubles you?
I have to say that I have been surprised by the level of regulation, red tape and bureaucracy that small businesses have to cope with especially in the start-up phase of a new business. At times, it felt like someone was trying to strangle us at birth!
What's your motto?
It used to be "Work hard, play hard." Now it's "You get out of life what you put in."
ROSS'S HOTEL HOWLERS
Once in Mexico City, on checking into a hotel at 5am, having just arrived on an overnight flight, I'm not sure who was most surprised when I opened the door to my room and found that the bed was already occupied by another guest!
More recently in a boutique hotel in Paris, the fire alarm went off in the middle of the night. Having made our way to the lobby, we were encouraged to sit down and wait. The staff had no idea what to do - and basically ran about like headless chickens for 30 minutes before telling us to go back to our rooms. No register of guests was taken and we found out the next day that some guests had slept through the whole process - thankfully it was a false alarm.
As an occasional user of hotel laundry services I have never lost any items given over to the service. However, I have been surprised on many occasions by the items of clothing that have been returned to my room that did not belong to me!
When Ross took over the Loch Melfort hotel in Argyll the business was struggling, but the spectacular location convinced him it was a good investment
HOW TO EXCEED EXPECTATIONS
Stay focused on the things that need to be done. Great marketing and purchasing are the two critical things we needed to do to get the property on its feet and our two guiding principles. It's also important not to over-promise and under-deliver. A guest's experience starts the moment someone looks at an advert and picks up the phone to book and ends when they get in the car to leave. Everything has to add to their overall experience. Your product must deliver on their expectations or exceed them. They must feel they have value for money.