Stuart Johnson, general manager of the Rocco Forte Hotels-owned Brown's hotel in London, has been named the 2012 Hotelier of the Year, sponsored by the Casna Group. He shares with Janet Harmer his thoughts on empowering staff, being approachable and celebrating success
You started your career as an apprentice chef at the Savoy hotel. How did that role set you on the road to success as Hotelier of the Year?
I think much of my career has been a series of lucky circumstances. Being reasonably accomplished at equestrian sports, it was my ambition growing up to become a mounted policeman. However, when I didn't get into the police, my mother suggested cooking as a career, as she had seen an advert for apprentice chefs at the Savoy Group.
Having applied for and been offered the position, I started in the Savoy kitchens on 26 August 1974 under the legendary Silvano Trompetto.
The two years I spent in the kitchen stood me in good stead as a general manager. It is hard to be empathetic to chefs unless you have worked in a kitchen. The fundamental disciplines and almost military regimentation of working in that environment have stayed with me throughout my career. Ultimately, it taught me to always look smart and work in a ship-shape and methodical fashion.
Why did you want to leave the kitchen and move into hotel management?
Twelve years ago you took a break from running hotels to become publishing director of Condé Nast Johansens. What did that experience teach you?
At the time, a lot of people wondered what on earth I was doing. However, it proved to be a useful experience and taught me a lot about sales and marketing, as well as helped me understand the running of hotels at many different levels.
Working in the luxury hotel sector can be like living in a bubble and probably made me rather arrogant. When I was with Johansens I spent a great deal of time talking to operators in bed and breakfast businesses and conference centres, as well as hoteliers in every sector. It was a really enriching period of my career.
So why did you step out of publishing to run Brown's for Sir Rocco Forte?
It was a fantastic challenge. The hotel had closed for refurbishment - having been in a rather dilapidated state - nine months before I arrived. The intention was to place it into the premier division of London hotels and seven years later, we have achieved that.
It has been wonderful to work with Sir Rocco Forte and his sister, Olga Polizzi, who carried out the design, as they care enormously about the hotel, as they do about each one of the 13 properties within the group. While we have a corporate structure within Rocco Forte Hotels, each general manager is responsible for their hotel's performance.
What makes Brown's stand out from its competitors?
One of the most frequent comments I receive from guests is regarding the warmth and friendliness of the staff, who aim to go above and beyond everyone's expectations. Part of the reason that happens is because I believe in empowering the team by ensuring every member is equipped with the knowledge and equipment they need to carry out their job to the best of their abilities.
I stress the importance of everyone - from the person who empties the rubbish, to the doorman, receptionist and so on - playing a significant role in ensuring every guest has a happy visit. We are a very happy team and even when a member of staff is having a bad day, the guest would never know.
What are your thoughts on training for the team?
It's vital as the strength of the hotel is its people. We have a strong training culture and in fact have just won an award [the HR initiative of the year for small and medium enterprises at the 2012 CIPD People Management Awards] which has recognised the work we have been doing recently.
We created the Nourish Leadership Development programme - to help managers improve vital skills in areas such as leadership, HR management and understanding a balance sheet - as well as the Discovery programme for staff at supervisory level to develop management skills. And we also have an Unrivalled Customer Service programme, which is open to every team member to gain an NVQ certificate in customer service.
In the tough economic climate of the past few years, how have you ensured that Brown's has remained at the top of its competitor set?
We've had to be flexible and tap into the markets that are strong. While the UK, United States and Europe continue to be our largest markets, we are also developing our business in Brazil, Russia, the Middle East and Asia. It is all about relationship building.
Having the name of Sir Rocco Forte really helps to open doors and generate business. We have largely maintained our occupancy, but the average room rate has fallen in some markets - however, in the latter part of the year, we have experienced a very good bounceback.
You were praised throughout the Hotelier of the Year judging for the extensive support you give organisations outside the hotel such as Springboard UK and the Master Innholders. Why is this work so important to you?
It is all about supporting an industry that has been so good to me. However, I always ensure that the hotel never suffers because of what I do - in fact, if anything, I end up compensating and doing two hours back here when I've only missed one hour.
One of your key achievements has been setting up the Savoy Society Mentoring Scheme. Why is mentoring so important?
It came about in order to try and change the fact that 40% of students who take vocational hospitality courses do not remain in the industry. The idea is to have someone who is not a parent or employer, who will coach students and provide unbiased support. As mentors, we provoke thought and suggest options, but we don't make decisions on behalf of the individual.
The scheme was set up in 2008 and 67 young people have since gone through the programme, and I'm proud to say that we have a 100% retention rate. While mentoring is not new to the industry, I don't think it's been done in such a structured way before.
I have three mentees and the agreement is that both parties commit to two years - however, the reality is that the relationship goes on for much longer than that through six to eight face-to-face meetings a year and contact via email and text.
Until recently, you spent two years as chairman of the Master Innholders. What was your greatest achievement in the role?
Heightening the importance of management development in an industry that is not often seen as a recognised profession has always been extremely important to me. So I was delighted that under my chairmanship we succeeded in getting off the ground the Master Innholders Aspiring Leadership Diploma, which is aimed at all hotel employees that have leadership potential.
How would you describe your management style?
Hopefully the team would say firm but fair and approachable. I have an open door policy and encourage the staff to come and talk to me at any time, whatever the matter, personal or work-related. They also know that they can contact me 24 hours a day by phone. Giving the team access to me is a huge part of gaining their respect.
I'm very visible front-of-house and aim to do a complete tour of the hotel twice a day, always spending time talking with the housekeepers, who are the unsung heroes of our industry. If any member of the team receives a mention on a guest comment card, then I will always go to see them and thank them. Sharing success is important - it can go a million miles.
Who has been the most influential person in your career?
There have been three. John Sinclair - from my time at Cliveden - who helped me achieve a very cool, calm and collected style, while being attentive underneath and professional at all times.
And then, since arriving at Brown's, Sir Rocco and Olga Polizzi have been extraordinarily inspiring for their support, inclusive management style and forward thinking approach.
To what do you contribute your success?
A drive for perfection - I am unable to accept mediocrity - determination and not being frightened of hard work. Having started at the bottom and worked through all departments, I have the ability to empathise with all team members irrespective of their status.
I never leave a task uncompleted, always assessing how it can be done better in either service delivery or efficiency. Creating team members who support each other is vital, as is questioning methodology and remaining target driven to achieve sales goals.
STUART JOHNSON CAREER HIGHLIGHTS
1974-1980 Trainee, Savoy Hotel Company, London
After starting his career in the kitchen at the age of 17, as an apprentice chef at the Savoy hotel, Johnson swiftly moved on to become a management trainee within the wider Savoy group. His front-of-house career with the company took him through the cellars, Causerie restaurant and food and beverage administration department at Claridge's, as well as into the Grill dispense and American Bar at the Savoy.
1978-1980 Assistant banqueting manager, Claridge's, London
After completing his training, Johnson had the opportunity to spend a year on a work experience placement at the Beau-Rivage in Lausanne, Switzerland, a position he never took up.
"It is something that I hark back to now, as I have never worked abroad and I encourage young people to do so as it helps them widen their horizons and broaden their knowledge of other cultures," he says.
Instead he took up his first senior appointment in the banqueting department at Claridge's, where, at the age of 21, he worked on his first state banquet, for the President of Kenya, Daniel Moi.
1980-1982 Manager, Bishops Table hotel, Farnham, Surrey
During this time, Johnson also undertook some work for the football pools company, Zetters, to create a â¨hotel group.
1982-1986 Personnel & purchasing manager, Connaught hotel, London
Johnson describes his time at the Connaught, where he was responsible for 297 staff and purchasing or negotiating the contracts for all non-consumable goods, as "four and a half wonderful years". He worked for general manager Paulo Zago who ran "an extremely good ship, with attention to detail that was second to none."
1986-1990 Resident manager, Cliveden, Taplow, Buckinghamshire
Arriving at Cliveden was, according to Johnson, another "lucky break", as it enabled him to work alongside one of his most influential mentors, John Sinclair (now Lord Thurso).
"It was a very exciting and quite a decadent time in which we hosted a number of very special and high profile events, including a party for Sir James Goldsmith for 750 people in a marquee," he recalls.
At the time Johnson left, the hotel was achieving an annual turnover of £5m and the highest average room rate outside of London.
1990-1994 Hotel manager, the Savoy, London
Returning to the Savoy as hotel manager, Johnson launched the hotel's Fitness Gallery, monitored food and beverage standards and staff welfare and training, prepared annual budgets and took an active role in sales and marketing.
1994-1999 Director and general manager, Cliveden, Taplow, Buckinghamshire
During his first general manager role, Johnson helped Cliveden achieve a raft of awards including the Hotel of the Year Catey and Egon Ronay Hotel of the Year, both in 1996. By helping to maximise revenue and profit, the property grew to a business with a turnover of £9.3m and 150 staff.
For 18 months, Johnson undertook a number of consultancy projects including setting up a private members' club in St Andrews, writing a business plan for the Newbury Manor hotel and working for a small hotel company in Canada.
2000-2005 Publishing director, UK & Ireland, Condé Nast Johansens
Johnson had responsibility for 16 inspectors and three guides, with publishing sales of £3.5m.
2005-present General manger, Brown's hotel, London
Rocco Forte Hotels acquired Brown's from Raffles Hotels in 2003. It had previously belonged to Rocco Forte's father's company Trust House and then later Forte, until 1996. The hotel was closed in April 2004 for a £25m refurbishment, with Johnson joining what was essentially a building site in January 2005. The hotel re-opened at the end of that year and has gone on to achieve five AA red stars and two AA rosettes for its restaurant, HIX Mayfair. The 117-bedroom hotel has 250 staff.
WHAT THE STAFF SAY
Stuart is a general manager who is very much out and about in the hotel, including the â¨back-of-house areas. He cheers my morning up by passing by my work area to give me a high-five! He even arranges ice-creams and Krispy Kreme doughnuts as a reward for the hotel team after a very busy and stressful period. Thoughts like these really make it a pleasure to work here.
Sam Opoku-Addie, goods receiver, Brown's hotel
Stuart likes to consult us on everything he does. He likes to include everyone in the process when it comes to change. This really helps to gain respect for him and ensures that any change runs smoothly.
Harry Fernandes, hotel manager, Brown's hotel
Everyone here plays a part in the development of the hotel. Stuart is very involving, so nothing is a surprise. From a personal point of view, he has been enormously encouraging and put me forward as the first head concierge to become a St Julien's Scholar - something I couldn't have achieved without his support.
Simon Thomas, head concierge, Brown's hotel
WHAT THE JUDGES SAY
Stuart Johnson is a first class hotelier and a worthy winner of this coveted and prestigious award. During the past few years he has made an enormous contribution to the hotel industry.
Harry Murray, Chairman, Lucknam Park hotel & spa, and 1986 Hotelier of the Year
Stuart represents the hospitality industry at its finest. Not only does he capably manage one of the best hotels in the UK, he also finds the time to be personally involved in an impressive variety of worthwhile industry associations and various charities.
John Stauss, Regional vice president and general manager, Four Seasons Hotel London at Park Lane, and 2005 Hotelier of the Year
Stuart exemplifies the skills and qualities of a five-star hotelier, but it is his tireless personal commitment toward management development - particularly in the field of mentoring - which stands out as an inspiration for us all, and makes him a worthy winner of this award.
Richard Ball, Managing director, Calcot Manor, and 2006 Hotelier of the Year
Stuart has displayed so much empathy to the needs of our industry - far outside of his day job, which already is demanding enough in running Brown's as a well established competitor to us all!
Michael Gray, General manager, Hyatt Regency London - The Churchill, and 2007 Hotelier of the Year
Stuart is a hoteliers' hotelier. He is highly visible front of house, very in touch with his team and known to his regular customers. Over a relatively short period of time he has turned Brown's back into a London institution, which blends a classical hotel approach with a dash of modern style and a real sense of place that some other luxury properties in the capital lack.
Andrew McKenzie, Managing director, the Vineyard Group, and 2008 Hotelier of the Year
Stuart is an exemplary hotelkeeper and his commitment to the wider industry, especially the development of young people, is legendary".
Andrew Stembridge, Managing director, Chewton Glen, and 2010 Hotelier of the Year
Besides being a very accomplished hotelier Stuart is renowned as an advocate for developing the next generation of managers. He is a passionate promoter and practitioner of mentoring both within his own company and the industry at large, giving both impetus and inspiration to the future leaders of hospitality."
Stephen Carter, Chairman, De Vere Cameron House on Loch Lomond, and 2011 Hotelier of the Year
Stuart is a superb ambassador for our industry and has given so much of his time and energy to the likes of the Master Innholders, Springboard and Oxford Brookes University. Most impressive is Stuart's work with the Savoy Society Mentoring Scheme which he pioneered and is current chairman.
Simon Numphud, Hotel services manager, AA Hotel Services
Stuart is the consummate modern hotelier, combining an up-to-the-minute sales and marketing strategy with old world hospitality and a passion for the wider industry. He is a worthy Hotelier of the Year.
Dominic Walsh, Business reporter (leisure/drinks), The Times
WHAT THE SPONSOR SAYS
Casna is delighted to support the Hotelier of the Year Award because it recognises and rewards excellence in the hotel industry. â¨Like ourselves, the award is all about redefining gold standards for the industry. That is why we originally chose to sponsor the award and why we are proud to continue sponsoring it. We also enjoy seeing the hard work and success of our clients formally rewarded, and sharing their enjoyment of the accolade.
Nick Appell, managing director, Casna Group
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