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Holmes truths: An interview with Terry Holmes

10 February 2006

Terry Holmes arrives at the newly relaunched Franco's, in London's Jermyn Street, to meet me for lunch and talk about a career spanning five decades. He greets the only customers in the place like old friends. Wherever he goes, he seems to know someone.

He remarks that today is possibly the first time in more than 35 years that he has walked down St James's and not gone into the Stafford. Our interview takes place just a few days after his official departure as executive director of the Stafford hotel, one of the jewels in London's crown of special hotels (and a place where I worked as resident manager before heading off to Hart's in Nottingham to work for Tim Hart). This lunch is my attempt to extract some nuggets from Holmes - a man who has been in the front line of hotelkeeping for more than 40 years.

I had a brief from Caterer and a list of questions. As it turned out, my novice status as interviewer and Holmes's tendency to make a short story long scuppered my careful planning, yet it resulted in one the most fascinating conversations I have had with anyone in the industry. Here follows a fraction of our two-and-a-half hours together.

You are very self-effacing about your career in your biography on the Stafford website. What do you really think brought you your success? I was asked to put a biography together - I hate pomposity, but I love writing - and I did it slightly under protest, as I didn't think that anyone would be interested.

I think that one of the most important things is integrity. People have to believe in what you say or what you stand for. I believe that individual hotels - not corporate hotels; individual hotels - have to reflect the man in charge. If they do not, then he is not in charge. While not everyone may approve of, or like, my style, I won't put people in boxes. If you are employing a character, there is no point telling them they can't be who they are.

You have to believe in what you do and not be a yes man. The reason for my relative success is because I am single-minded but prepared to listen and to learn. I often say to people when they come to me for advice on what they should do in the hotel business: look forward and decide where you want to end up.

So was there a time when you did that? I started at the Dorchester purely by chance. My dad started there as a pageboy when he was 15. He worked all his life in hotels and, if he had lived, he probably wouldn't have let me go into the hotel business, because every father wants something different for their children. They want something better.

The answer is, at the beginning, no, because I was surprised to actually have a job in the hotel business. I was certainly surprised to be on a management training course. Without it, I couldn't have done what I've done since then. Once I'd gone into management, I think, yes, I did look and think, "What do I want to do now; what am I going to achieve from it; and how do I do that?"

Would you subscribe to the premise that hoteliers are more about hospitality than a balance sheet and profit-and-loss account? If you don't think about profit, then you've got no money to invest for the future. If you only think about the bottom line, you never take the chance to invest in the future. If you're not a businessman and not aware of the need to make a profit, then you're not going to go anywhere.

Do you think that there are too many suits and not enough personalities running hotels these days? Without a doubt. Are there a lot of personalities? Yes. But are there enough? You can only find out by going into the hotels. And, probably, the hotels that are the least successful are those that have the fewest characters.

If you had started your career in the 21st century, do you think you would have done as well? Not having passed any exams, not being well-educated and not coming from a background of business, I probably wouldn't have got the job today. Should it be that way? Probably not. In the 1980s and 1990s there were lots of people who were only taking guys on who had degrees and had completed hotel courses but had never actually lived the life. They'd never had somebody scream at them because their room wasn't ready; never had a chef hit them round the ear because he'd burnt the chicken; never had somebody arrive without a reservation and burst into tears; never had somebody die in their hotel; never had a hotel catch fire. And I've had all of those things. I do believe there is a slight change now - people who own hotels are looking for people with shop-floor experience. I'm not saying that they're not looking for people who are well-educated, but they also need the - it's a terrible cliché, but - the "university of life" element.

Would I get on now? Maybe not. Would I try? Yes. Would I succeed? I don't know.

Tell me about your background. I was born in the Old Kent Road in London's East End. I read books about mariners and I collected stamps of places where I wanted to go to. I knew, though, that I would never achieve those things. I wanted to go to the USA. I wanted to go to the Caribbean. My grandfather was killed in the First World War and I remember my grandmother telling me that he had been in the Boer War and had stood on top of Table Mountain. I knew that I would never travel and I would never stand on the top of Table Mountain. And I knew I would never go to the Cape like the mariners I'd read about.

Some years ago I flew to South Africa. By the end of the morning I was standing on top of Table Mountain; in the afternoon I was standing on the Cape; and I cried because I'd achieved two lifelong ambitions on the same day. I would never have done that if I hadn't been in the hotel business.

As you rose up through the ranks, were there any people who were absolute heroes? Are there any characters that stand out? The first man I ever worked for in a hotel was a man called George Ronus, who was managing director of the Dorchester, and he was probably one of the last great grand hoteliers. A silly thing to remember: if you were walking down a corridor and he was walking towards a door, he would always stand back and let you through. I've always remembered that.

You do that too, actually. Yes. I always call my previous bosses "sir". I think one thing hotelkeeping does is teach you respect, and I think a lot of people have forgotten what respect means. Peter Stafford was one of the greatest front men I ever knew. I think he was Savoy-trained and came recommended to the Dorchester.

Willy Bauer was a man I always respected, and still do. I think he knew what he wanted and got on and did it. Douglas Barrington, Gerald Milsom, Martin Skan - great owner-hoteliers. Gerald was someone who'd tell anyone who wanted to listen that he'd made as many cock-ups as he'd had successes, but as long as your successes outweigh your cock-ups then you end up on top. I hate pompous hotels. I believe in friendly formality, and I've learnt a lot from those people. Although there are too many to mention, among others, Geoffrey Gelardi and Ramón Pajares are definitely in my top 10.

Stuart Procter, your successor at the Stafford, has been there three years. He's probably quite a different character from you, but what do you think that he's learnt from you, and do you see any immediate changes in terms of his personality that may come across at the Stafford? Many people have told me that Stuart reminds them of a young Terry Holmes. That could be a damnation on his career, or it might help him. Stuart very quickly learnt to stand back and observe the heads of department. It doesn't matter how long you've been in the business, you will never be as good a head of department as they are; you'll never be as good a concierge as they are; you'll never know all the tricks that they know; but you have to have some knowledge of what they know - and I think that Stuart is his own man. You have to make your own decisions. And I always tell people, whatever decision you make is the right one. Never be afraid to listen to other people, but at some point you have to say, "This now is my decision."

So what Stuart will do is take the best of what there is, which is why he has one of the highest repeat businesses in London, I think. Frank, the concierge, is probably, if not the best, certainly in the top two concierges in London. Ben [Provost] is a great barman. Mustapha [Begdouri] is a great restaurant manager. They are perfect for that hotel.

Will there be changes? Yes, of course. Same as I changed the Stafford when I took over; and I changed some things in the Ritz. But you leave the best things, the things that make a successful hotel. Stuart is a grown man, and he's got a lot of goodwill there. People will naturally compare him to me; I've been there all those years. But within a couple of months it will probably be "Terry who?"

GM of the Stafford is probably one of the best jobs in London, but if you hadn't been at the Stafford and you had carte blanche to run any hotel in London, which would it be? When I came back from living in the USA and took over the Ritz, I said that any hotelier who said he didn't want to run the London Ritz was either a liar or a fool. I couldn't believe I got the job. Mind you, nor could a lot of other people. There were an awful lot of write-ups in newspapers and diary columns, you know. "Cor blimey! Our Tel taking over the Ritz!" And talking about me being a Millwall supporter, which I wasn't. In its day, I would have loved to have run the Plaza, because although it did get a little run-down, it's still an icon for New York. I suppose the Connaught would be a place which I would love to have on my CV.

I think that when people come to London now, the discerning traveller wants to experience London as a cosmopolitan city. Although concierges - I have to say, not Frank at the Stafford or indeed all of them, but a lot of concierges - miss so much of what's going on at home, such as Beating the Retreat, one of our great military pageants, which happens every year, but you go and sit there and half the seats are empty. They don't go and see the mounting and dismounting of the horse guards, or to Buckingham Palace. They don't go and see what goes on, because the concierges don't always tell them. You go and watch the Royal Salute fired in Hyde Park or Green Park, and watch the procession in Hyde Park when you see the King's Troop charge up over the hills from the Marble Arch end, stop, dismount, unlock their guns, and their horses are moved away and then they load the guns and fire the shells… that's been happening since the days of Waterloo. Now, OK, we're in the year 2006, but by God I don't know anyone I've ever taken who didn't love it. There are so many things that happen in this town that hoteliers and, indeed, concierges miss. It's a great shame.

But that's the point, isn't it? Modern hoteliers, in many respects - certainly at the bigger hotels - seem to be more about revpar, average spends and occupancy rates than their guests. And all those things are exceedingly important, because without them you're probably going to go bust. But there's a bit extra to give.

With respect to the role of a general manager, what do you think are the greatest differences now in terms of legal and social responsibility, the environment, etc? When I was first in senior management, I didn't realise how many problems there were out there, so I ignored most of them. Funnily enough, most problems will go away. If there is a big problem, then you have to face it. I think that there is so much red tape, so much political correctness, so much legality - which are probably necessary, but which you have to abide by - that most businessmen, whether they're hoteliers or not, will say that much of it is unnecessary. I think there is far too much time spent filling in forms. A hotelier can get lost in all of that, and so sometimes it is important to employ other people to deal with it, as long as you don't get divorced from the realities of life. I think you can get far too bogged down in legislation, and probably too much of it becomes the driving factor behind the business, rather than a vehicle of help.

You are a Master Innholder, aren't you? What difference has that made to your life? I was taken in in the earlier stages of Master Innholders. Gerald Milsom and Douglas Barrington insisted - I didn't have a choice. To become a Master Innholder, you had to be an FHCIMA, which I wasn't. So they got me to become one. In those days - I'm not quite sure what it's like now - but you had to write the paper and you had to go and have an interview with the Master and some very grand hoteliers. You sat on a chair which was lower than everybody else's, facing them on a horseshoe-shaped table, and I was terrified, quite frankly. It was either Gerald or Douglas who said, "Your interview was an absolute disgrace." And it was - because I was terrified; because I had so much respect for those men who were sitting at the table. I was chosen to give the speech on behalf of the other hoteliers who were taken in. That was probably one of the times in my life when I thought, "I don't believe this is happening to me. Wouldn't my dad have loved to have seen me doing this?"

The honesty, the integrity, the respect, the history are all here and all necessary. And when I went back to the Stafford some clients and staff, unbeknown to me, had put together a little party, and I found myself making this same speech to my clients and staff… and I cried.

But I was proud to become a Freeman of the City of London [members of the Worshipful Company of Innholders are automatically made Freemen] and all that it represents: the history, the present and the future, because all those things have a future. It's only really boring, left-wing farts who want to get rid of those things, because they don't understand what the past has given the future. As Winston Churchill said, "If you want to see the future, read history."

I've been talking to a few people, putting various different quotes together, one of which was: "Terry is not the greatest administrator, but he certainly has one of the biggest personalities." Do you think you can survive in today's world without being a great administrator and by being a personality? My PA at the Ritz terrified me. She said "Mr Holmes, you're the most infuriating man I've ever worked for. You're never where you say you're going to be; you never do this, you never do that. But, God, we've had some laughs." Is my desk tidy? No. People say a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, or a cluttered desk is a sign that there's something going on. That's one of the things with e-mails: when I first started and had most of my business coming from the USA, it came by airmail, and you had five days to make up a lie. You don't have that now - it's instant.

Would you like anything else to eat - Caterer is paying for it. No, thanks. Can I just have the cash?

I spoke to several people about Mr Holmes, as we all still call him. Stuart Procter says that what he has learnt most from him is that the client is king. "Forget the budget, forget the forecasts, forget the paperwork - none of that will happen unless your client is happy. Mr Holmes is The Man - because when he has said he is going to do it, he delivers."

I also had the most wonderful chat with Timothy Hadcock-Mackay. I only realised who he was once I was talking to him. Turns out he is not only extremely charming, but also successful and rather famous. He could not say enough in praise of the man. Indeed, he reckons that he owes a great deal of the success he has had to Terry Holmes and considers him to be one of only three people who have taught him anything so far in his life. He describes him as "a proper person", someone who "inspires [his staff] to aspire to be different", "a gentle gentleman" and "one of the few people in the business who can really be called a hotelier". This is some praise indeed from the former managing director, now chairman, of Distinguished Hotels and arbiter of good taste on Channel 4's series, Time to Get Your House in Order. Hadcock-Mackay feels that the industry is less now that Holmes has retired and feels a place in the Lords would be fitting. Not a bad place to go to for the boy from the Old Kent Road.

Rupert Elliott is the former general manager of Hart's hotel, Nottingham, and a St Julian's Scholar. He took up his new post as general manager of South Lodge, in Lower Beeding, West Sussex, this week (6 February)

Terry Holmes on…
The DDA

"I think, unless you're disabled, it is impossible to understand what that means if you don't abide by it. You must take a very reasonable position on it - as is the same with lots of these acts - but some are taken too far and actually then end up being a personal discrimination. I do think a lot of legislation can go too far and become too onerous and in the end it can be self-defeating."

Litigation "I've been to 15 industrial relations courts in my younger life, and I've never lost a case, but I do believe that nobody can actually litigate against you if you have done what you were supposed to do. We have become a litigious society, which goes along with political correctness. I think, as a nation, we've given in to it. We should stand up and say stop - and when I'm prime minister, that's what I'll do!"

Smoking "You either have a total ban or no ban at all. I can't see how you can have a ban for the workplace, because it's supposed to be for the health of the workers, then you can have smoking in a private club or a pub that doesn't serve food. So does that mean that people who work in clubs or pubs have less right than people who work in five-star hotels?

The smoker himself has a choice; the workers don't. My personal preference would be for a total ban."

The best hotel in London "Until I get another job, it has to be the Stafford. The Stafford hotel got voted by [travel writer Andrew Harper's] Hideaway Report the year's number-one hotel in London. The Conde Nast Gold List voted us number one in London and number two in the world. And did I bathe in the glory of that!

I love going into the Lanesborough. When it was a hospital, I spent some time in there when I was a chef, having burnt myself, and also when I caught myself in the zip of my trousers. I love the bar there, and the concierge is one of my favourites: Colin, who worked for me at the Stafford. The Dorchester, because of its history in my life: my father working there, my uncle working there, and me working there. So the grand hotels, I suppose.

I love going into the Capital. I love what they've done with the Cumberland. That's not a grand hotel, but how they've converted it and made it look new! I think London is blessed with too many great hotels to be able to say what the favourite is, and that isn't trying to avoid the question."

The best hotel in the world "The Bel Air in Los Angeles. I always loved the Plaza in New York, and I think that was because of its history; also the fact they always gave me an enormous suite and didn't charge me. The Victoria House, in Belize, and Villa d'Este, in Lake Como, are both my favourites. The Lygon Arms in the days when Douglas [Barrington] was running it. Chewton Glen today, with its spa - not that I've ever been on an exercise machine in my life - but it's incredible. When your dad [Tony Elliott, founder member and chairman of Pride of Britain, and Catey winner] had his hotel, the Greenway, in Cheltenham - now that was a personally run hotel. You know, you knew it. There are lots of places that are run by characters. In the consortium Small Luxury Hotels of the World, most hotels are owner-managed and have characters running them."

Favourite restaurant "I always think that's a stupid question. It comes up in so many interviews. If you want to know the restaurant I've been into most in London in my life, it's Langan's.

It is owned by a good mate, Richard Shepherd. His place, all of his places - and I've been to all his places - reflect Richard Shepherd, reflect what he wants. What a courageous man to be the first Englishman - to my knowledge - to get a Michelin star and then go and be a chef in a bistro. Look at him now: a multimillionaire. Lucky bastard!"

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