James Horler began his career in hospitality aged just 16, much to his family's initial disappointment. But plenty of training and encouragement meant that he rose through the ranks quickly. Thirty years later, he now owns and runs his own business, 360 Restaurant Group, with 13 restaurants in total. He tells Neil Gerrard why he wouldn't change a thing about his career
You've enjoyed a 30-year career in hospitality. What is your current role? I am chief executive of 360 Restaurant Group, which consists of two brands. We have eight Ego restaurants in the North, in suburban locations. And we also have Rocket restaurants, of which we have five, so we have 13 restaurants in the group in total. Rocket is a cocktail bar serving upmarket premium pizzas and the Ego sites are family restaurants serving modern Mediterranean classics to a family audience.
How did you find your way into the hospitality industry? By chance. I was 16 and there was a recession in 1981, so I started applying to different hotels, offering my services for free during the summer holidays and I started washing up for nothing in a Trusthouse Forte hotel in Cambridge. They then took me on a management training programme at the very young age of 16, which I did for 18 months before I moved into working in other hotels for the group.
Did you always know that it was always hospitality that you wanted to work in? No, I didn't. My family had never worked in hospitality and I played a lot of sport as a youngster, but I had an injury which resulted in me having to think differently about what I wanted to do. I went through a whole list of industries as a 16-year-old, decided which ones did and didn't appeal to me, and I came up with hotels and restaurants. For me it was an industry that I had never earmarked to be in, but I am delighted that I selected it at a young age.
How did your family react to your decision? My family reacted in a way that was quite negative. My father was a director of Barclays Bank and he didn't appreciate that the industry had the potential for career development. However, it is fair to say that in later years I think he regretted his initial response to my joining the industry. It is an industry that allows you to flourish, to grow and to develop. And if you have a natural bias towards hospitality then I think the rewards in terms of personal growth - and money - can be considerable.
How easy or difficult did you find it to progress in the industry? From a very young age, the ability for me to progress in this industry came about because I was prepared to work hard. I think it is one of those industries where the more you put in, the more you get out. So from a young age I was offered the management training programme. I then developed into a night manager with Trusthouse Forte hotels and then moved on to banqueting manager, and then I moved into food and beverage. It was at that stage, when I was around 20 years of age, that I knew it was food and beverage where I wanted to go on and develop my career.
Tell us about your career in a nutshell from there to now To take it all the way through from those early years when I was working as a management trainee with Trusthouse Forte Hotels, I had got to a position within the hotels as F&B manager and then I joined Little Chef, which in those days was one of the hardest companies to work for. I joined as a branch manager, and developed my way up to regional director when I was 23. I then joined Granada and worked with Charles Allen on the Granada hospitality business and then I progressed from that into developing Frankie & Benny's in 1995 through to 2001.
We then acquired La Tasca in 2001 with some private equity funding and some bank debt and my own resources, which was a successful business which we expanded. I floated it on the AIM in 2005 and we sold it in 2007. Now, with a very similar team to the one I had at La Tasca, we are expanding our current 360 group.
Did you have anyone to help or mentor you throughout your career? I have had many mentors throughout my career that have helped me progress. I wouldn't say any one has been more important than the others. What I have tended to do is take the positives from some. When I worked in hotels, Douglas Goodall, who was general manager of one of the hotels, taught me a lot. The biggest thing that Douglas taught me was how to see rather than look, which I thought was always very interesting. I have also worked with Charles Allen, who was an inspiration. I have worked with John Barnes who was my chairman at La Tasca, who was also inspirational, and now I am fortunate enough to be working with Luke Johnson, who is a very talented restaurant investor.
Do you think there are any sacrifices that you have to make to be successful in hospitality as opposed to any other industry? I don't think there are sacrifices that you have got to make to work in this industry. I think you have got to be committed to it. Yes, there are long hours involved, but those long hours are really enjoyable long hours. If people are clock-watching then I don't think this is the industry for them.
There is a perception that salaries in hospitality can be quite low, at least in the initial phases of a career. How would you address that concern? I think salaries in this industry have pushed forwards beyond belief over the past 10 years. I now have managers at a very young age who are earning top salaries that are competitive with other industries, if not more than other industries. We have reward schemes and most companies within our sector have reward schemes, bonus schemes that can take someone's potential earnings to a very high level, and most importantly, at a very young age.
What would you say to a young person who was considering starting out in the industry now, or perhaps even those who haven't considered it? This industry, for anyone starting in it, is the best industry. It is a huge part of the British economy, it provides wonderful opportunities for people. You don't have to have qualifications to enter it. If someone is prepared to commit and to work hard, can be in tune with the customer and can work with management teams and staff teams, there is no better industry for someone to join.
What do you feel hospitality has given you as a person? Hospitality has given me a wonderful life. I have been in the business now for 30 years, I have had some fantastic experiences, I enjoy dealing with the public. I have been fortunate enough to employ lots of talented staff, I spend all of my time in the restaurants, working with my teams to improve our offer, and I can't think I would do anything other than what I do now.