Family succession at the Castle hotel

07 October 2010 by
Family succession at the Castle hotel

Kit Chapman's book, My Archipelago, tells the turbulent story of how he took over the running of the family hotel, the Castle in Taunton, which tore the relationship with his parents apart. Here, he tells Janet Harmer that the relationship with his own sons means handing over to the next generation will go a lot smoother this time.
Kit Chapman has never been one to hide his opinions. Indeed his forthright views on badly misbehaving guests at the Castle in Taunton, Somerset, which this month celebrates 60 years under the guardianship of the Chapman family, once almost landed him in court.

In An Innkeeper's Diary, Kit's comments about the errant guest resulted in a threatened lawsuit. But it is his examination of the Chapman family history and the breakdown of his relationship with his parents which he writes about with searing honesty in his new book, My Archipelago, which is central to our conversation today.

We meet at the Royal Oak, the Michelin-starred pub in Paley Street, Berkshire, where Kit's eldest son, Dominic, is the head chef. The easy going banter between the two as they greet each other and chat before Dominic disappears into the kitchen to cook lunch is something which would not have happened between Kit and his parents, Peter and Etty.

"The relationship my wife Louise and I have with our sons is totally different from the one I had with my parents," Kit explains. "We regard our sons" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">Dominic has a younger brother, Nick], who are now both in their thirties, as equals. There is no hierarchy or reluctance by any one of us to express a point of view. But that never would have been the case with my parents."

It is the dynamics between Kit, Peter and Etty - gradually broken down over a period of many years - that is central to the story of the Chapman family as told in My Archipelago, the title of which refers to the island location in Greece where much of the book was written.

It was the running of the Castle and the undermining of Kit's authority as managing director which was the catalyst for the split between the family. "However, the central problem was the conflict between mother and son, which the father - who I adored - couldn't control," says Kit. "My father put my mother on a pedestal and would not challenge her, even though it was often clear that he knew she was in the wrong."

The book recounts many instances of how Etty's behaviour had a damaging impact on the management of the Castle throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s - a time when the business was haemorrhaging money. In 1990, the losses for the year were £125,000, as the hotel edged towards a total debt of £900,000.

Etty's extravagance at purchasing furnishings for the Castle from Harrods at great expense could not be ignored by Kit. For instance, when a bedspread in one of the bedrooms was ruined by a spilt bottle of ink, Etty wanted to replace the item, originally purchased in the Knightsbridge store for £650, for a similar one costing £900. Kit put his foot down and Louise found a respectable replacement locally for £30.

On another occasion, Kit and Louise discovered that his mother had squirreled away the best pieces of furniture from the hotel's bedrooms. A cornucopia of paintings, lamps, mirrors, tables, desks and much more had been removed and put aside to furnish the home Peter and Etty were going to buy upon leaving the penthouse on the top floor of the Castle, which they had occupied for many years.

Plans to sell the Castle in 1990 for offers in excess of £5m only resulted in driving a further wedge between Kit and his parents. The collapse of the property market in the midst of a recession and the hotel's miserable trading figures resulted in little interest in the business and only one serious offer of £3.5m.

Peter and Etty were prepared to sell at that price, but Kit was insulted by the offer and decided that the only way to rescue the business was to encourage his parents to step down and relaunch the hotel. However, in saving the Castle - which eventually moved back into the black as a result of a lot of hard work, innovative marketing initiatives and the building of a new management structure - the relationship with his parents was doomed.

The fact that Kit has now told the story of this extraordinarily difficult time - warts and all - may upset some people who knew Peter and Etty well. However, after discovering boxes of archive material in his parents' home following Etty's death in 2004 [Peter died in 1997], Kit believes it was a story that deserved to be told.

"I had a choice to either put the material back into the boxes, burn everything or tell the story," he said. "It is such a compelling story and I have no shame in writing the book as it covers the kind of family dramas - love, hatred, jealousy, betrayal, inter-generational conflict - that will resonate with people everywhere."

There is no doubt that My Archipelago depicts the family unit as a complex and combustible unit. While Kit's relationship with his parents is central to the story, the book also highlights other dramas which have afflicted the Chapman family over many years, in particular the suicide of Henry Prüger, Kit's grand-father, and one time general manager of the Savoy.

It is a fascinating read for anyone with an interest in the hotel industry, the human psyche and family sagas. For Kit, who is now 63, the writing of it has clarified the need to ensure that when he and Louise are ready to pass the Castle on to the next generation, that the family are very clear as to how it should be done.

As they started thinking about the succession, the Chapmans were invited by a television production company to appear in a programme screened on BBC2 called Keep It In The Family.

The resulting programme saw Dominic and Nick spending time at the Castle, in order to decide which one of them would take over the reins of the business, with the outcome showing that Nick, managing director of an internet company based in London, would be the one to eventually run the hotel.

"It was a decision everyone was happy with," explains Kit, who is unsure when the hand-over will take place, but it could be within two to three years. "When it does happen, we have all got to be absolutely clear exactly how it should happen. I accept that Nick will probably run the hotel very differently from me. And that is absolutely fine."

When the time comes, Kit says he will be more than happy to stand back from the day-to-day running of the hotel. He looks forward to spending more time writing, although he is keen to continue his involvement in the hotel's musical weekends that he has successfully run for many years.

"Succession management is an incredibly complex issue and Louise and I have been scarred by our own experience. What we don't want to see is history repeat itself," he concludes.


Kit and Louise's two sons, Dominic, 37, (left)and Nick, 35, (right) are already actively involved in the Castle through their presence on the hotel's board which they have joined in the past year. "It is wonderful when they join us as they really liven up the meetings," says Kit.

"Both have a lot to offer. Dominic is invaluable from a food point of view and is currently involved in helping us recruit a new head chef to replace Richard Guest, who is leaving the hotel at the end of October.

"Nick has different strengths. His experience in running an internet company has helped us in reorganising our web marketing strategy."

Dominic explains that while he is interested, as a shareholder in the future of the Castle, he is not particularly keen on returning to Taunton, where he grew up. "I very much like living in Berkshire where I am now. I'm itching to run a business that I can call my own, but it is more likely to be in Berkshire than Somerset."

Meanwhile, Nick says that he is very proud of everything his parents have achieved at the Castle and does not imagine he will make any radical changes. "I'm sure Mum and Dad will still be involved in some way - maybe with the music events or the wine lists - but not operationally. I'm happy for them to continue to do some of the fun bits and leave the boring stuff to me. Two generations of a family in a business can be a recipe for disaster."


Mum and Dad should stand back from the business, once the children take over.
â- If there is just one property involved, do not allow two siblings to run it together. Only one person should be in charge.
â- Only pass the business on if you are confident that the son or daughter has the ability to protect the family interest, drive the business forward and grow it. If not, sell the business and move on.

Readers of Caterer and Hotelkeeper can buy a signed copy of Kit Chapman's [My Archipelago]( at the special price of £20 plus post and packing (RRP: £25). Contact Caroline Warwick on 020 7722 5466, or e-mail [](

[The battle for the Castle hotel >>

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