Connoisseur and ractonteur Craig Bancroft is The Caterer's Hotelier of the Year 2016, in association with Casna group. Stephanie Sparrow talks to the managing director of Northcote in Langho, Lancashire, about a life lived in hospitality
Craig Bancroft's success - at being selected as the Hotelier of the Year - pays tribuite to a career dedicated to hospitality and to nurturing the careers of others. However, his accomplishment had an inauspicious start.
"I was in a down-to-earth tapas bar in Marbella with my wife and some friends, when I noticed a number of missed calls from Amanda Afiya [editor of The Caterer]," says Bancroft. "I was really worried that something
had happened at the hotel or to Nigel [Haworth, his business partner and chef-patron of Northcote]. I rang Amanda back from the roadside, covered in the dust from passing lorries, having to shout down the phone, and she told me the news. I was absolutely overjoyed."
The tale reveals much about Bancroft: an engaging yet self-effacing raconteur, who is dedicated to all the team at Northcote. He received unilateral praise from the judging panel for inspiring others and showing "commitment
to his people".
"I know it's a Craig award, but it's not a Craig win," he explains, and goes on to list the hotel team as well as paying tribute to "the enthusiasm" of investors Richard and Lynda Matthewman and the support of his wife Helen.
The Matthewmans have been majority shareholders since the 2012 restructuring of Northcote Leisure Group. Bancroft and Howarth are now managing directors, not just of the hotel, where a £7m redevelopment and refurbishment was completed in 2014, but of a North West business they built together, which today employs 320 staff and encompasses Ribble Valley Inns, Northcote at the Rovers and Café Northcote at the Cathedral.
Northcote is a member of Pride of Britain and Relais & Chateaux and was named the AA Hotel of the Year for England 2016-17 as well as retaining its Michelin star for the 20th year.
Recently published annual accounts lodged at Companies House for Northcote hotel, which incorporates Northcote at the Rovers, reported a 21% increase in turnover to £5.5m, with a 43% reduction in the pre-tax loss to £594,597 for the year to 31 March 2016.
With typical candour, Bancroft admits that business has not always been so brisk. Competition judge Andrew Stembridge said that Bancroft had drawn on "unparalleled grit, determination and style" to build Northcote, which becomes apparent when Bancroft reflects on charting a course through several major economic storms during his 33 years at the hotel.
Weathering the storms
After six years as manager for two consecutive private owners of what was then known as Northcote Manor, and having acquired some shares in the hotel, he and Haworth secured the rest of the six-bedroom property in 1989.
"If you remember, that was the year of the great recession," says Bancroft, who is a Master Innholder. Pragmatism, good humour and a lot of hard work got them through. He recalls that after the Black Friday stock market crash, Haworth cooked them a consoling meal of "deep-fried scallops and chips," and the pair put together a survival plan. They pruned opening hours and at one point closed the restaurant for two days a week.
Then the economic turbulence of 2009/10 hit Ribble Valley Inns which, in turn, affected Northcote. "We needed to grow the hotel and not stay as we were," he says. Everything [in the hotel] needed refurbishment and we
needed to compete at the very highest level."
Restructuring allowed those ambitions to flourish and to bring the tally of bedrooms to 26. The impact of the glittering new restaurant and Louis Roederer dining room, bar, cookery school and kitchen are well documented.
What particularly caught the Hotelier of the Year judges' eye was Bancroft's commitment to secure spending behind the scenes on new staff accommodation which includes a computer room and canteen.
"These facilities are available in large conglomerates and large operations, but not necessarily in smaller [hotels] because banks won't let you invest in things that don't make a return," says Bancroft. "I would argue that these things make huge returns because they allow you to retain staff." He also runs apprenticeships with local colleges and offers training loans, and personally demonstrates the importance of continuous development by attending courses with the rest of the team, such as the recent defibrillator training.
As the judges pointed out, Bancroft is a stickler for good housekeeping and "the art of hospitality". He see healthy staffing ratios as a means to achieve this ("if my housekeeper, who has been with us for 20 years, didn't have the staff, she wouldn't have the time to do the spring cleaning and top dusting"), and employs 82 staff, some part-time, at the hotel. But treasuring talent is not just business sense for Bancroft, who lists "rudeness, particularly towards staff" as his pet hate. Some of this empathy comes from his early kitchen porter days, a period that captured the Hotelier of the Year judges' attention.
"From kitchen porter to Hotelier of the Year is a great story," says Harry Murray. For his part, Bancroft says that this career trajectory was launched from a childhood "surrounded by good food and hospitality".
His mother, who remarried and is now Lady Susan Purvis, was a Cordon Bleu cook with a sales and marketing career in hotels including Trusthouse Forte and the InterContinental Hotels Group. John Bancroft, his father, ran the family shuttle and bobbin business, supplying the textile industry. He had a great wine cellar and, together with his second wife, enjoyed game shooting and hosting dinner parties.
Northcote resonates with these family memories. For example, the wooden napkin holders in the restaurant are made by Bancroft's cousin and shaped like shuttles. The orange marmalade and Christmas pudding are recipes
from maternal grandmother Granny Isherwood and still used in Northcote today. And the hotel is also responsible for introducing Bancroft to his wife, Helen, who was a waitress at Northcote when he joined the hotel.
From pots to prizes
After a boarding school career distinguished by the enterprising food and beverage operation he ran from the common room, rather than concentrating on his exam results, Bancroft was despatched to live with his mother in London and to decide on his future. She sent him to the Kensington Close hotel as a pot washer. He enjoyed working at what was then a Trusthouse Forte property and soon expanded his role to assisting chef and then an extra job in room service.
When he was talent-spotted by the HR director, he won a place on the international management scheme. He praises its "marvellous" approach and its leaders, who included Giuseppe Pecorelli. "I still tease Danny
Pecorelli [of Exclusive Hotels and Venues] that I worked for his father," he laughs. The breadth of that training and the generosity of others in sharing their ideas has shaped the way Bancroft has focused on people
development at Northcote, something that impressed the Hotelier of the Year judges. It also inspired him to implement an open door policy, whereby any employee who wants to move on is encouraged to seek his help. He
aims to place his good people with trusted hoteliers as long as their departure date suits his business. He also accommodates three-month stagiaires from other properties.
"Lord Forte was, of course, way up among the gods when I was there, but I met him once [as a trainee] and he said, 'You will travel afar but always come back' - and this is what I tell our staff. Even if they move away, if they want to return to Lancashire or are looking for a job elsewhere, they can ask for my help."
The five-year Trusthouse Forte scheme included six-month stints as a chef at Grosvenor House and the Plaza Athénée in Paris. The keen, accomplished young cook was such a success in Paris that the head chef asked
him to remain. Bancroft, who was tempted to pursue a French culinary career, smiles at the memory of calling his father from a phone box on the Champs-Élysées. "He said: 'There's no money in cooking, lad - you need to get yourself home.'"
So he returned to the UK and continued the Trusthouse Forte training at Brown's hotel, Strand Palace, the Regent Palace in Piccadilly and others. And then, in 1983, family friend John Wolstenholme bought Northcote Manor and offered him the general manager role. Bancroft initially rejected the offer because the course ran until June 1984, but gradually succumbed to the allure and "challenge of running my own hotel".
He started badly, with parents furious that he hadn't completed the Trusthouse Forte scheme along with his disappointment that Northcote's restaurant was below par. He cringes when remembering a menu of "grapefruit with burnt sugar and truite aux amandes". The menu was saved by Granny Isherwood recommending Haworth - a family friend - as the answer to Northcote's culinary woes. By March 1984, Haworth was installed in the kitchen and so began a partnership and friendship which has endured to this day, with barely a cross word exchanged between the two of them.
"Nigel had never met anyone from front of house who was as interested in food as I was, but I loved food and understood what he was trying to do," says Bancroft. While he has a long list of leading hoteliers he admires,
from the 1980s to the present day, from Terry Holmes to Robin Hutson, he says the greatest inspiration has come from what he has achieved with Haworth.
One of the biggest successes of the Bancroft-Haworth partnership has been the establishment and growth of Obsession, the annual gourmet festival, which is now entering its 17th year. Bancroft works with Haworth and visiting chefs from all over the world to match wine flights with their cuisine. As The Caterer was conducting this interview, the 2017 programme was released and was sold out immediately via dedicated hotlines.
Complementing Haworth's food is Northcote's admired list of 600 wines, recently given the Two Glass Award by Wine Spectator. Bancroft started with 22 wines and no conscious plan to build a large cellar. "It has
just grown organically, like everything else at Northcote."
Judge Andrew McKenzie highlighed Bancroft's wine service skills and commitment to training, which has launched the careers of many a master and advanced sommelier. For his own part, Bancroft modestly insists that he is a food and wine-matching enthusiast who has "a palate which has been gifted to me by my parents". This talent is shared with his two sons, Christopher, an assistant front office manager at Lucknam Park in Colerne, Wiltshire; and James, a business studies graduate who is interested in a career in food.
So what aspirations remain for the 20 Hotelier of the Year? He is concerned about the future of the industry and wants talent management to improve: "We have to encourage children who are deciding on careers, and
moreover their parents, that hospitality is a fabulous place to be," he says. Closer to home, he hopes to complete Northcote's gardens, now halfway through a five-year plan, and freshen up earlier bedroom stock. His greatest wish is to secure a second Michelin star.
"That would be the crowning glory of our careers," he says. "I'd like that more than anything for Nigel," once again displaying his regard for the talents of other people.
An inspirational hotelier
A key thread throughout Craig Bancroft's career at Northcote has been the time and energy he has put into inspiring and encouraging staff to reach their potential. Together with Nigel Haworth, he has provided the platform to create a culinary legacy that includes Lisa Allen, now executive head chef at Northcote, and Mark Birchall, former executive chef at two-Michelin-starred L'Enclume, and who is set to open Moor Hall, near Ormskirk, Lancashire, early next year.
Many well-established hoteliers have been nurtured at Northcote, including Bancroft's "first-ever trainee," Stuart Procter, now general manager of the Stafford hotel in London, and Northcote's general manager and rising star, Craig Jackson, a 2015 Acorn winner. With uncanny symmetry, Bancroft was an Acorn winner in 1987. "Well-spotted those judges," he jokes.
Northcote, Northcote Road, Langho, near Blackburn, Lancashire BB6 8BE
01254 240 555
•Accolades Four red AA stars, four AA rosettes and one Michelin star
•Average room rate £145.43
What the sponsor says
"We are extremely proud to sponsor the Hotelier of the Year award as it highlights the excellent work taking place in today's hospitality industry. "Being successful at this level takes a huge amount of hard work, 24-hour
commitment and a total dedication to exceeding excellence. These are standards and ethics that we share at Casna. And that's one of the reasons why we are so delighted to see our colleagues in the industry reap the rewards of their hard work and to take their place as a real inspiration to others.
"The Hotelier of the Year award is an accolade of the highest honour that we are delighted to be associated with."
What the judges said
Craig Bancroft is a highly skilled hotelier who is passionate about standards, obsessed with the art of gastronomy and a true charismatic host to his discerning guests. As Hotelier of the Year he will be an inspirational ambassador (from kitchen porter to Hotelier of the Year is a great story) at a time when the hospitality industry is trying to encourage more young people to join the sector.
Harry Murray, chairman, Lucknam Park hotel & spa, Colerne, Wiltshire, and 1986 Hotelier of the Year
Craig shows huge passion for everything hospitality, but he has also demonstrated that drive, determination and tenacity, sometimes against the odds, are key to success in his sector. His achievement, progressing from kitchen porter to joint proprietor of one of the North's leading hotels, is inspirational.
Richard Ball, chairman, the Calcot Collection, and 2006 Hotelier of the Year
Craig possesses the holy trinity of skills that make up a great hotelier. He is a great host and leads from the front at Northcote - ever-present with his team and his guests. He is a great businessman - he has overseen the rebirth of Northcote and presides over a growing empire of successful hospitality businesses. And he is a great practitioner - his personal knowledge and skills around wine and wine service make him stand out from the crowd in inspiring many young people to carve out successful careers as leading sommeliers.
Andrew McKenzie, managing director, the Vineyard Group, and 2008 Hotelier of the Year
With unparalleled grit, determination and style, Craig has overcome a variety of hurdles to create the Mecca that is Northcote. He has truly raised the bar in terms of his commitment to his people and this is very evident in the investment he has secured for their new market-leading staff facilities.
Andrew Stembridge, managing director, Chewton Glen & Cliveden House, and 2010 Hotelier of the Year
Craig is the epitome of professionalism, offering a perfect blend of determination and a wish to achieve the best. He is a person who invests in the young to strengthen future generations and who always strives for perfection in a humble manner.
Stuart Johnson, general manager, Brown's hotel, London, and 2012 Hotelier of the Year
A highly regarded and committed hotelier, Craig has put Northcote centre stage in terms of culinary excellence. He works tirelessly to promote high standards of hotelkeeping and is renowned for his development of people through Northcote's apprenticeship programme.
Stuart Bowery, general manager, Grosvenor House, A JW Marriott Hotel, London, and 2013 Hotelier of the Year
Not only does Craig ersonally inspire the current generation and the next generation of hoteliers, but his story shows that, in this amazing industry, anything is possible.
Danny Pecorelli, managing director, Exclusive Hotels and Venues, and 2014 Hotelier of the Year
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