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James Horler – My Life in Hospitality

11 September 2009 by
James Horler – My Life in Hospitality

James Horler is the proprietor and executive chairman of Ego Restaurants.

If James Horler hadn't injured his leg during a rigorous game of rugby, his illustrious career in the hospitality industry might never have begun - although frustratingly football was his first passion. "I pulled my leg ligaments during a single rugby match and this effectively ruined my football career," he says.

In 1981, aged 16, Horler listed possible careers he could enter and arrived at hotels and restaurants. He wrote to all the hotels in his home town, Cambridge, and was offered a kitchen porter job at a Trusthouse Forte hotel. Towards the end of the summer he was also offered some waiter shifts and, consequently, a role as a management trainee.

"I worked across all the different departments and I clearly remember earning £27 a week. I loved it because it was what hospitality is all about - the energy, hard work, variety, the feeling you can make a difference and be charismatic. No other industry grabs you like it," he says.

Horler says that hospitality is the only industry that allows you to directly get out what you put in. "The rewards are directly linked to the amount of work you put in, there is no discrimination. Anybody can do it if they have the flair for it and get it right," he says.

This dogged determination perhaps explains why Horler progressed so swiftly to the Forte group's roadside business where he rose to become Little Chef's youngest regional director, aged 24.

After moving to Granada to oversee nine motorway service areas with an annual turnover of £210m, Horler was made managing director of City Centre Restaurants, where he expanded the Frankie & Benny's brand from three to 65 outlets over five years. In 2001, he bought restaurant chain La Tasca for £28.2m. In 2005, he saw the group float for £54m and in 2008, he embarked on his current project - Ego Restaurants. "I'm into brand building," he says, adding: "To make money and deliver shareholder value you need to target a specific audience, deliver a consistent product at a consistent price with consistent levels of service."

HIGHS… I enjoy developing strong brands and I love seeing people grow with me. So many people have worked with me over the years and I have seen the businesses getting bigger and the people getting stronger and more confident as they are rewarded and make money.

Buying La Tasca, successfully floating it, taking it public and successfully selling it was a big high. Not many people do that. You have to believe in what you do and set your strategy over a good two years to get your shareholder value.

Developing Ego has also been exciting. We've just opened a new branch south of Lytham St Annes and I've been up there constantly. I believe in an inclusive management style. I'm an operator at the end of the day. Anyone can learn the business stuff and running the restaurant with front-line restaurant staff, training, coaching and getting them better and better at what they do is the most exciting thing. We're opening two more Ego restaurants in Leeds and Manchester before Christmas.

LOWS… We bought La Tasca on 9/11 at 2am UK time for £28m and the month that followed was scary as hell. We had 16 sites and trading was awful. We had a restaurant in Canary Wharf which was absolutely dead. I thought I might lose my house. I thought we were going to have to break the covenant with HBOS straight away but we managed not to. We got through it and we were fortunate to find a site in Bluewater shopping centre that just flew. We went from strength to strength and had 74 sites by the time we sold the company.

Age 44
Status Married
Drives Porsche Cayenne Turbo
Favourite holiday Seychelles resort called Maia
Working motto Think big, act small

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

1995 Managing director at City Centre Restaurants - now the Restaurant Group - where he expanded its Frankie & Benny's brand from three to 65 outlets over five years
2001-2007 Acquisition, flotation and sale of La Tasca restaurant chain
2004 Catey award for Group Restaurateur of the Year

RECESSION-BUSTING TIP

Keep it simple, stay focused and reduce central costs. Put all your money into your restaurants. Use your general managers to do the marketing and push people hard. We have good systems and my staff spend just an hour and a half in the office a week which frees them up to work in the restaurants.

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