Robert Cook I'm delighted to have you here for a chat. You have a reputation in the business for creating and developing new talent. Many of your younger managers have gone on to greater things, and you've been a mentor to many. So, how important are mentors in the business, in your opinion?
Stephen Carter I believe that mentoring is the essence of our business; we are a people business, after all. It's about developing people in the business to look after customers. It's about teaching the business side to people so that they are producing profits and generating security and securing the longevity of the business as a whole.
RC Who was your mentor? Where did it all start for you?
SC I had two mentors, I think. One was Peter Crawford at the Strathspey hotel, whose son is Guy Crawford, of Jumeirah International. He taught me how to look after the customer, how to really work a room and run a resort. I then worked for Joe Furlong, who ran Gosforth Park hotel in Newcastle - probably the flagship of Scottish & Newcastle Hotels in those days. He taught me the business aspects, and the continuing need to attract local businesses to your hotel and look after them. They were both great men, and I still keep in touch with them.
RC What was the most useful thing you learnt in the course of your career - from them or through them or, indeed, on your own?
SC Well, I suppose my mother was also a mentor. She taught me the great art of hospitality, which has never left me. The two gentlemen I just mentioned developed that for me, and that's what it's about: genuinely making people welcome within the business, making sure that everybody in the business is having fun - not only the customers, but the staff as well - and that employees can see that their careers are growing.
RC Over the years, how have you developed your leadership and management style?
SC By observing others at work and making sure I have honed the skills I have.
RC You have reputation in the industry for inspiring people, not only at St Andrews Bay, but at the Caledonian, the Holiday Inn, at the Moat House and at Cliveden. How do you inspire your staff on a daily basis?
SC I think it begins at the front end, with interview and selection. You have to bear in mind that when you interview people you are selecting people to integrate into a team; it's the team that really matters. Individuals benefit from working as a team, and individuals grow within the team.
Then it is allowing people to develop their own ideas and allowing people to fly without too many restrictions. I see mentoring as a supportive role: you have to allow young people to develop their own ideas, push out their own boundaries and stretch themselves. You are there to support them and see they don't fall too heavily. I think you've got to fail at certain things in life to get real benefit from them.
RC I remember back in 1992 when I came to work for you in Glasgow, I went through at least five interviews for the job and there were always different people coming in. So I've lived through that myself! I think that's testament to the way that you hire people, because you think that it is about how this person is going to fit into a team.
Today, the hotel industry is widely regarded as a "pounds, shillings and pence" business, looking to profits over people development. You've always been able to deliver customer service and, at the same time, generate profit. What is your business philosophy?
SC Look after the customer. It begins and ends with the customer, in terms of the success of the business. You must give your people the confidence to deal with the customer honestly. If you foul up, you foul up, and pay the consequences. But it's imperative to get the customer back. Once you start getting better, you rarely stop. And when you stop doing better, you stop being good. You have heard me say that lots and lots of times. It's just continuous improvement, growing the business and constantly searching for new ideas and new inspirations.
RC There a few people who have come through the "stable of Carter". There has been Douglas Waddle, now operations director at Hand Picked Hotels; myself, obviously; Lynne Hood, now operations director of City Inn; and Graham Nesbitt, who is now general manager at Malmaison Edinburgh. Do these people still pick up the phone and say, "Could you help me with this?" Do they keep in touch?
SC When you work with people, you obviously retain a bond. So, yes, everybody keeps in touch with me - the old man! Whether they are searching for help, assistance or support, I'm never quite sure, but they tell me how they are doing, and it's always great to hear.
RC Let's talk about your return to Scotland. You're a Yorkshireman, but I think Scotland is your adopted home. You're back here now, you've been here for five years and you've established St Andrews Bay as one of Scotland's leading hospitality venues. How did you establish this business in the high-end market in Scotland, which is quite a crowded market?
SC Again, it is about building a team, and we are very fortunate to have a great team on board here. There are only a couple of people that I have worked with before, which I think is important, because you have to continuously import new talent. We opened at probably the worst time to open a hotel, which was disheartening at the beginning. However, Scotland is a very loyal community, and if people enjoy your hospitality in one location, they will remember you in another, and come and try you.
We had the team members call on past customers we had worked with in previous locations, and built a business from that point onwards. It was simply a matter of building on what we had, improving the product and gaining the good reputation that we have earned. We also did one other very important thing, which is part of our success here, and that was to go out of our way to employ non-hotel people, individuals who genuinely want to help people.
RC I think that's something that other hotel groups are adopting, because you can't train attitudes, but you can train skills. Is the secret of your success, therefore, the way you have coached local people to grow within the business here?
SC Yes. We've seen a very distinct difference between ourselves and other hotels in that we've taken non-hotel people with the right attitude, given them the skills to do the job and then built their confidence from there.
RC Do you think that Scotland is doing enough to market itself, for example, in the likes of Japan and Europe? And do you join the Scottish bandwagon or do you do things on your own?
SC We do things on our own, but we also join the Scottish bandwagon. I think there has been a huge turnaround in Scottish tourism, and everyone is turning together. There is almost a silent revolution in England and Scotland, and I believe that our marketing abroad has been stepped up and is now reaping success, particularly in the North American market.
RC You're not just the general manager at St Andrews Bay, you're also the chairman of HIT Scotland. What does HIT [Hospitality Industry Trust] mean to you, and how important do you think it is, not just for the Scottish hospitality business but the UK hospitality business in general?
SC We are a very tough industry, so we have to develop passionate people. HIT helps with hardship cases in universities and colleges. We give grants every year to help people stay on course, to find out how valuable they can actually become. Our greatest success recently, which was started by a general manager, was our Emerging Talent conference, which has run for two years. Last year we had 500 young people there, aiming to research the industry, able to talk to their peers and meet the senior figures within the industry. We direct youngsters to areas of expertise in which they have an interest, from learning chocolate work in France to going to the Lausanne hotel school or going to Disneyland.
RC You're a hotelier through and through, but outside your roles and responsibilities in the Scottish hotel business, what do you do to relax?
SC Listen to music, the great soul giver of life. I find jazz and classical music both very relaxing. I also enjoy walking my dog along the coastal path.
RC Which you are also involved in professionally, I believe?
SC (laughing) Well, yes, I am. [Carter is a trustee of the Fife Coast and Countryside Trust.]
RC Well, it's been a pleasure, and I wish you every success.
SC Thanks, Robert, and continued success to you.
Stephen Carter's CV
2000-present General manager,
St Andrews Golf Resort & Spa
1998-2000 Operations director and general manager, Cliveden House and Club, Taplow, Buckinghamshire
1990-98 Queens Moat Houses, including general manager of the Caledonian hotel, Edinburgh, and general manager of the Moat House International, Glasgow
1989-90 Area director, Stakis Hotels
1977-89 Holiday Inn International, including general manager, Holiday Inn Birmingham; general manager, Holiday Inn Leicester; and general manager, Holiday Inn Aberdeen
1971-77 Thistle Hotels
Robert Cook's CV
October 2004 Hotel du Vin added to the Malmaison stable; became chief executive officer for both brands
January 2004 Returned to Malmaison as chief executive officer
2000 Worked with Malmaison founder Ken McCulloch on the Columbus hotel in Monte Carlo, becoming managing director for the Columbus and Dakota hotel group in the UK
1997 Opening general manager for the Newcastle Malmaison hotel, then regional operations director for the brand
1995 Resident manager, Midland hotel, Manchester
1992 Resident manager, Forum InterContinental hotel, Glasgow, which became a Moat House
1990 Food and beverage manager, Balmoral hotel, Edinburgh
1987-90 Three-year training programme with Holiday Inn
Editor's comment "Stephen Carter has inspired so many talented people, and I have always been curious to know his secret. Where does his motivation, energy and business philosophy come from? And what can we learn from his approachable style?"