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The Caterer Interview – John Brennan

02 February 2011 by
The Caterer Interview – John Brennan

After 23 years at Four Seasons, John Brennan thought he had left the operational side of the hotel business, having joined investment firm Avestus Capital Partners to manage its hotel portfolio. But the summer of 2009 saw the 49-year-old back in the hot seat as Avestus asked him to run its mid-market chain Jurys Inn. He talks to Daniel Thomas about his surprise at the decision and his strategy for growth

When we last spoke in 2008, you were interim chief executive and vowing to have someone new in place by March 2009 and yet here you are, in charge yourself. How did that come about?
As head of asset management at Avestus, I was sitting on the Jurys Inn board and was asked to step in to be interim when the chief executive [Niall Geoghegan] moved on.

They started the recruitment process and the culmination was that the board said, "we found a couple of good candidates but actually we would prefer if you would stay and become chief executive".

This was an unusual thing - and surprising for me. I come from an operating background, but made the change to private equity and thought I would continue my career there.

But the combination of business itself, in terms of hotel positioning, marketplace and opportunity, got me excited after a couple of years away and I enjoyed the interim role. When the board came to me I had not thought about it, but realised that it did actually interest me.

So, 19 months on, what have been your highlights? We have managed to get through what has been a challenging set of circumstances. We have put together a good team, clearly positioned the brand and put in place a strategy for running the business. It has been about achieving the balance between people, product and profit through the worst economic recession any of us have ever seen in our lives, particularly in Ireland, but also the UK.

How did you combat the recession?
We looked at the strategy and our objectives and put together an action plan. It was about addressing challenges but also wanting a business that was going to be here for the long haul. First of all, we asked ourselves whether we had enough capital to weather the cycle and also capitalise on the opportunities that were going to present themselves. So we raised finance from shareholders and our lenders.

…which has not been easy for many businesses since the credit crunch hit
None of these processes are straightforward. It was about coming up with a plan. Myself and the chief financial officer worked closely with the board and the shareholders and our lenders very much bought into it. It wasn't one day to the next, but we got the way we wanted to get to. Any business that has the support of its shareholders is always going to find it easier to do things.

What other steps did you take? We wanted to ensure that the cost base was right so we took strong action, from simple stuff such as better purchasing and re-drawing contracts to more complicated things, such as centralising reservations. We also worked on labour costs, with steps like unpaid leave and 10 or so redundancies, all in the context of trying to stay efficient.

But we then said that if we are going to address costs we also need to focus on driving revenue. We put more resources into online marketing and public relations to boost it and it worked - brand awareness jumped from 46% in 2009 to over 60% in 2010 [according to analyst BDRC].

We looked at customer feedback and made a considered effort to upgrade physical properties. This included room upgrades and key touch points such as the breakfast product, speed of check-in, quality of sleep, and things like the towels and the toiletries.

You launched a new strapline last year - "Exceptional, Everyday, City hotels". What was the thinking behind that?
It articulates the brand message. We were trying to move away from the budget perspective that perhaps Jurys Inn was known for. We are really focused on value, but with full service, fully manned, food and beverage and in key city centre locations.

We are very much a mid-market hotel operator. We do compete with the upper end of the budget market, but equally with full-service properties. A lot of the budget hotels moved towards the retailer position, but we are adamant - we are hoteliers, not retailers.

The people that run the business are the general managers and the management teams, and they are passionate and driven, focusing on people development and the customer experience.

You mention people development - what is your training strategy? We have invested more in training, in areas such as customer services, IT, product, management and sales. We also re-introduced our graduate recruitment programme.

On the management side, there is the supervisory and management development programme as well as the general manager development programme, building the next generation of talent that will be going on to run the hotels. We are quite lucky that most of our general managers are promoted from within and, even when we recruit from outside, the deputy will be an internal hire.

One of the key positions that I recruited when I came into the business was a director of human resources, Jennifer Lee, who is part of the executive team and reports to me. My belief is that people are central - not a touchy feely comment. It's about performance, getting the right people in the right jobs.

What about the 2012 Olympics - will it be the panacea for hospitality that many believe?
It is a great opportunity to showcase the country and London, but it is only a short-term event. You can get overly caught up in just the Olympics. We know that it will be busy but the real question is the positive legacy. It's an opportunity to harness all the industry activity towards a showcase event but not the be all and end all of everything. It's revenue for three weeks out of 52 weeks.

The previous government was not noted for a close relationship with the tourism sector, but there have been some positive noises from the prime minister about the industry. Are you expecting more support from the Government? The resources available to market Britain as a destination have clearly reduced but a strong message from the top saying tourism is a priority can only be good. It sends a powerful message that the Government sees it as an opportunity to create jobs and deliver trade. It is also up to each individual business to play its part.

What are the plans for growth at Jurys?
We have a number of scheduled openings this year, in Bradford, Newcastle and Portsmouth. We don't have a specific target for more - it is critical that opportunities stack up and make sense. Is the rent right; is the location right; is the design right?

We would like to have more properties in London, but then again so would everybody else. London is a huge city, but there are limited opportunities. The property market has improved but getting a deal is still difficult.

What's next for you? Do you see yourself returning to the investment side? This is now my day job. I do a bit of consultancy for Avestus, but I am here for the foreseeable future.

We have gone through some difficult years, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. I am excited about what we can achieve.

JURYS INN

Jurys Inn, which has 31 hotels in the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe and employs about 2,000 staff, was founded in Ireland and previously owned by Jurys Doyle Hotel Group.

The heritage of the Jurys Group can be traced back to 1881, when William Jury opened his first boarding house in Dublin. The first Doyle hotel, the Montrose, was built in Stillorgan, Dublin, in 1964 by PV Doyle.

Jurys Doyle Hotel Group was formed in 1999, when the Doyle portfolio of Dublin, London and Washington DC hotels was acquired by the Jurys Hotel Group.

In 2007, the Jurys Inn portfolio of hotels was bought by Derek Quinlan's Quinlan Private Venture Capital company for £1b (a price that included the business's debt). In April 2009, the Oman Investment Fund invested £172m for a 50% stake.

John Brennan's tips for business success


â- Work hard
â- Maintain integrity at all times
â- Put yourself in the shoes of the customer when thinking about the business
â- Constantly strive for improvement

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