Brownsword Hotels is the parent company of two distinct hotel brands, the Gidleigh Collection and Abode Hotels. In a rare interview, founder Andrew Brownsword speaks to Janet Harmer about the company's recent growth and consolidation. She also catches up with his two lieutenants, Michael Caines and Nick Halliday
Andrew Brownsword is something of an enigma. Having sold his renowned greetings card business for about £195m in 1994, he has gone on to make a considerable splash in the hotel industry by snapping up some of the UK's most iconic country house hotels as well as creating a chic city centre brand.
Yet, despite what is very much his hands-on involvement in the development of the business, little is known about the character who has given his name to Brownsword Hotels.
"The hotel was meant to provide us with a respite from the hard work of publishing after selling our greetings card firm," he explains. "We knew and loved the hotel well, regularly coming here for dinner on a Friday evening.
But the business then went into receivership and everything started to fall apart: staff began to leave and the food went downhill. We decided to buy the property and turn it into a home, as we thought it would be easier to live in than our five-storey house in Bath's Royal Crescent."
However, having decided that the hotel was actually too large and impractical as a house, the Brownswords turned it back into a hotel and so began their second career as hoteliers. While it is well documented that the couple
made their fortune from selling their greetings card empire, it is less well known that Andrew Brownsword built up the business from nothing, initially selling cards from the boot of his car. He was studying on a business
course at Brighton Polytechnic - which, ironically, he was undertaking as a potential stepping stone to a career in hotel management - when he took a summer job with a printing firm at the end of his first year.
"I quickly realised that there was a good business to be had from something which cost very little to produce - greetings cards. It was a light bulb moment. I was 20 years old, dropped out from my course and never looked back."
Optimism Originally from Wolverhampton, Brownsword - who unexpectedly breaks into a Black Country accent from time to time - believes that it was his naÁ¯vety alongside optimism, inspiration to create a better product, instinct and luck which drove his success. "I never considered the hoops I might have to jump through to create the business and just carried on."
The philosophy is one that he has pretty much followed in growing the hotel company. There has never been a master plan for expansion; instead, Brownsword has acted on the opportunity to buy each hotel as it has been
presented to him, usually when the business has been in administration. In fact, eight out of the 12 properties that make up Brownsword Hotels today were distressed sales.
In each case, it has been Brownsword's intention to breathe new life into the hotels by investing cash into the fabric of the buildings, which have often been left to deteriorate, and restore a high level of hospitality to each
business "Our motto for the hotels is the same as it was with the publishing business - OPQ - originality, personality and quality," he says.
Today, Brownsword oversees a portfolio of 12 hotels, for the development of which he says he owes a great deal to bringing on board the right people and, in particular, his two lieutenants, Michael Caines and Nick Halliday.
He describes his meeting with Caines in 2003 as a matter of good luck. "I went to eat at the Royal Clarence hotel when my daughter was at Exeter University and got talking to Michael, who owned the hotel restaurant.
Within six weeks I owned 90% of the hotel. Michael brought an edge to the business and has continued to do so at all the hotels for the past 10 years."
Today, Caines is food and beverage director of Brownsword Hotels as well as being executive head chef at Gidleigh Park. A year later Nick Halliday was recruited as head of operations for Abode Hotels from the Malmaison Newcastle, where he was general manager. He went on to become managing director of Abode Hotels before being promoted in 2011 to chief executive of Brownsword Hotels.
Brownsword's success in publishing over 20 years, he explains, owed so much to understanding the marketplace and pushing the right people to the front - factors that apply equally in hotels.
"We like to grow our own people and recruit from within as much as possible," he says. "This business offers such great opportunities for a young person to do well and eventually run an individual property as if it was their own business. We regard each of our general managers and head chefs as a key and integral part of the business, and we want to encourage them to aspire to be the next Michael Caines or Nick Halliday."
While it is Caines and Halliday who oversee the day-to-day operation of the hotels, the Brownswords - who met when Christina worked as a bookkeeper in the publishing company - like to get involved in the appointment of all the general managers. They also play an integral role in the design of all the hotels.
Clear vision Together, husband and wife have a clear vision of how every hotel should look, choosing every fabric and item of furniture, backed by Bathbased interior designer Carole Roberts and project manager David Matthews, who is also their son-in-law.
"We use a standard palette at the Abode hotels, where we've created a slick, chic design, while the properties in the Gidleigh Collection are more individual and quirky. Here [the Bath Priory] and at other hotels in the collection, we want to create a second home for guests to relax in. We have big, comfortable sofas everywhere and great bathrooms which often merge into the bedrooms, and we allow the light from outside to be used to create a great space.
"We also have a lot of original 20th-century art, with many pieces from our own collection. There is nothing 'chocolate box' or replica about what we do. It is all totally authentic."
While Brownsword is fairly happy that both the Bath Priory and Gidleigh Park are "pretty much where we want them to be", he admits that achieving the same standards at his latest four acquisitions, from the administrators of Von Essen, is still a work in progress.
"We hope before too long to achieve the very best in hospitality and food at these businesses, as we have with our other hotels.
"Buckland Manor is absolutely charming. It is like a mini-Gidleigh Park, about twothirds of the size. Lower Slaughter is like a French chÁ¢teau and Amberley is a fairy-tale castle," he explains.
"Once we decided to buy Lower Slaughter, it made sense to also buy the other former Von Essen hotel in the village - Washbourne Court. Now we have 50 bedrooms in the village of Lower Slaughter and a total of 70 bedrooms in the Cotswolds, which is a really important region for attracting foreign visitors."
Although Brownsword cannot say what his expansion plans are - he simply doesn't know - he admits that he would like to add a second hotel in the capital to Sydney House. "Ideally it would have 80 to 100 bedrooms and would be part of the Gidleigh Collection," he says. "I had the opportunity to buy six hotels in London in 2000 and I now regret not doing so."
The financial bounty that came his way from the sale of the greetings card company has enabled him to invest in numerous other businesses. There have been retail enterprises such as Snow & Rock and Cycle Surgery, as
well as Bath rugby club, all of which have been bought and sold on.
Currently, Brownsword owns the Paxton & Whitfield cheese company, which has three shops in London, Bath and Stratford-upon-Avon, alongside a wholesale division, as well as 4,000 acres of arable land in Norfolk and Cambridge, where barley, potatoes, carrots and parsnips are grown for Tesco and Marks & Spencer.
However, it is the hotel business which consumes most of his and Christina's time - alongside their work for the Andrew Brownsword Arts Foundation and the Andrew Brownsword Charitable Foundation. Any suggestion
that their involvement in investing in hotels is purely a whim is swiftly dismissed. "This is very much my second career and one that has got to work commercially," he says.
Brownsword Hotels: The history
The birth of Brownsword Hotels dates back to 1994, when Andrew and Christina Brownsword bought the Bath Priory, a country house-style property in the centre of Bath.
Finance came from the sale of Andrew's greetings card business earlier that year. A chance meeting between Andrew and Michael Caines, executive chef at Gidleigh Park, at the Royal Clarence hotel in Exeter in
2003 resulted in a meeting of minds. Together they acquired, for more than £4.5m, the Royal Clarence, which went on to become central in the development of Abode Hotels, which today comprises outlets in Canterbury,
Chester, Exeter and Manchester as well as two townhouse bed and breakfast properties - the Arthouse in Glasgow and Sydney House in London. The four main Abode hotels feature a food and beverage offer run by
Michael Caines Restaurants.
A second country house property was added to the burgeoning collection of hotels with the acquisition in 2006 of Gidleigh Park in Chagford, Devon. The hotel closed for an extensive refurbishment before reopening in
2008, since when it has gone on to add a plethora of awards to the two Michelin stars it has held since 1999.
The falling into administration of Von Essen Hotels in 2011 provided the Brownswords with the opportunity to snap up four more country house properties - Amberley Castle, Buckland Manor, Lower Slaughter Manor and
Washbourne Court (now renamed the Slaughters Country Inn) - off a guide price of £32.5m.
Nick Halliday was managing director of Abode Hotels until the purchase of the Von Essen properties, when he was appointed chief executive of Brownsword Hotels.
Michael Caines is executive head chef of Gidleigh Park and food and beverage director of Brownsword Hotels.
Brownsword Hotels is wholly owned by Andrew and Christina Brownsword, with all acquisitions and improvements being self-financed. They are joined on the board of the company by Caines and Halliday,
alongside Jocelyn Houghton (company secretary) and Jeremy Hancock (director).
Michael Caines and Nick Halliday on the expansion of Brownsword Hotels
The acquisition of the four hotels that previously belonged to Von Essen, in 2011, provided Brownsword Hotels with an opportunity to create two distinct brands. "We ended up with five properties which are part of Relais & ChÁ¢teaux [the consortium of independent hotels]," explains Michael Caines. "While Abode was already a brand in its own right for our city centre hotels, we needed a name to embrace the other hotels and make them distinct from Abode. We chose the Gidleigh Collection because Gidleigh Park is an iconic property which is well known as one of the best hotels in the country. The intention was to have two different segments of the market which people can identify with and buy into."
Absorbing the four additional properties - all deemed to be in a physically tired shape - into the Gidleigh Collection has been a major operational challenge.
"There had been little investment in the hotels; staff was skeletal and those that were there were demoralised; and the sales and marketing strategy were non-existent," Nick Halliday says. "The first thing we had to do was put in place a proper operational structure, with accounts, human resources and health and safety auditing. We have opened a new head office in Bath and have boosted the finance and sales and marketing teams."
Improvements and refurbishments across all four properties are ongoing, with plans to develop certain areas - such as the dining room and kitchen at Amberley Castle - being drawn up for the future.
"There has been a serious level of investment in the hotels - in the hundreds of thousands," says Halliday. "Andrew is willing to continually invest in the hotels at a time when others can't or won't."
The company now employs about 800 staff across the two brands, with apprenticeship, management and graduate training schemes in place to grow both kitchen and front of house staff.
"Now that we have a broader base of hotels we have more people wanting to join us, as they see the company being able to provide them with opportunities to grow, as well as cross-fertilise between the city centre and country house hotels," explains Halliday.
With Caines, a two-Michelin-starred chef, at the helm, it is no surprise that high-quality food and beverage is a key element in all the hotels. While 60% of the dishes at the Michael Caines restaurants in the Abode hotels come from Caines, the chefs in the Gidleigh Collection properties have more freedom. However, with the majority of the head chefs having trained under Caines, they inevitably follow his style and high standard of execution. "We have a recipe database and I provide them all with lots of feedback," says Caines, who himself spends around 50% of his working life at Gidleigh Park.
There is no doubt that a key focus for Caines is the achievement of a third Michelin star for Gidleigh, which could be something of a challenge with his wider involvement in Brownsword Hotels. However, he denies this is
"The hotel is a 24/7 operation and I can't be there all the time," he says. "I actually work harder in my kitchen than a lot of three-star chefs, so I don't know why people question my ambition for three stars. Gidleigh has been in the top three of the Sunday Times restaurants list for the past three years, so you can't say that the restaurant hasn't been successful."
Caines explains that the menu at Gidleigh is written by him, and head chef Alistair Barnsley is constantly in touch with him, wherever he is, discussing service and texting him images of dishes on a daily basis.
After a challenging start to the year, business has been particularly strong in June and July, with the country hotels benefiting from people holidaying in the UK. Looking ahead, Halliday believes that the company is now at a manageable size and needs a period of consolidation to be able to grow the business within the existing portfolio. However, he knows that the Brownswords might act on a chance to expand if a hotel opportunity should come their way.
"We also know that our fan base would love us to expand in London. The capital is certainly an attractive proposition and it would be great to have a restaurant space there for Michael."