News for the Hospitality Executive
|Financial Mail on Sunday, London
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Feb. 22, 2004 - The best part of eight years has passed since Robert Peel lost the love of his life when he was ousted as chief executive of Britain s second-largest hotel group, Thistle, in a torrent of publicity.
Peel never married, but the hotels group was my wife and kids he says now. Despite the pain of the break-up, Peel not only survived, but bounced back with another, admittedly smaller, hotels business. Ironically, his new business landed a contract to manage 32 former Thistle hotels, the UKpound 645 million purchase of which proved his undoing in 1989.
It was a deal too far he admits now, though he had built the original Mount Charlotte Investments which became Thistle into a business worth UKpound 900 million at its peak.
Brierley Investments, the highly indebted corporate raider that bought control of Thistle and refloated it, suddenly changed the agenda. It had backed Peel for most of the Nineties, but Peel knew his number was up when he was called to an urgent meeting at Brierley's New Zealand headquarters and accidentally saw a memo proving that the search was on for his replacement as chief executive.
It was the second dramatic setback of his life. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, his family had been cotton tycoons in Egypt, where he spent his early years. But the family business was seized during the 1956 Suez crisis.
After the shock of the denouement in New Zealand, Peel flew back to London a broken man. His brother Charles, co-founder of stockbroker Peel Hunt, told him over an emotional dinner that he had registered the name Peel Hotels so he could start again.
But Robert clung on at Thistle for months. It was his baby and he could not bear to give it up.
He says: I loved my job at Thistle. I could be blindfolded in any of our hotels and find my way around. Systems don t make profits, people do.
He adds ruefully: When you really love something to death and it is taken away, it is very hard to love something else as much. We had between 12,000 and 13,000 staff at Thistle, many of whom I knew. To go from this to starting again with one little hotel, to have to do things like buying the postage stamps, was very depressing at first.
But Peel, 56, eventually found that the experience re-energised him. And this time he and his brother kept a majority of the shares, even though the business is floated on the Alternative Investments Market.
Though the early days with one hotel the 118--room Bull Hotel in Peterborough seemed bleak,, it was only five months before Peel won a contract to manage the 32 former Thistle Hotels that invest-By Stella Shamoon ment bank Lehman had bought and renamed Grace Hotels.
That contract was worth UKpound 1 million a year in gross profits to Peel and it has underwritten his company s expansion in the past five years. The Peel estate has grown to six four-star hotels: the Midland in Bradford, the Avon Gorge in Bristol, the Golden Lion in Leeds, the Caledonian in Newcastle upon Tyne, the Bull in Peterborough and the George in Wallingford, Oxfordshire.
Peel s early years were unpromising. After Suez, he and his brother were sent back to school at Eton, thanks to funding from an uncle. Robert left at 17 with few qualifications.
He worked first at the George V Hotel in Paris and from there had a series of jobs cellarman,, porter, receptionist and sous chef.
Aged 20, he landed his first management job as catering manager at Brown s, the prestigious London hotel that became part of the Trusthouse Forte empire.
It was his brother who tipped him off about the job at Mount Charlotte Investments, created when Slater Walker put its stake up for sale.
Peel turned a ramshackle array of loss-making fish-and-chip shops, seaside hotels and nightclubs into a formidable hotels chain.
Despite setbacks, he remains a workaholic. At Thistle he reckoned to take only a couple of Saturdays off each year - little wonder that he never found time to marry. He is, however, a bon vivant, a former 60-cigarettes-a-day man, who loves fine wine and adores beautiful women.
He cut back his smoking five years ago at a rate of five minutes extra abstinence a day. But his partner of ten years, Joyce Simpson, a svelte blonde, is testament to the fact he has not weaned himself off glamorous women.
While he may now have time for a little salmon fishing in Canada or potting in the greenhouse of his Surrey mansion, Peel is still driven by work.
He regrets not having children, but his biggest regret is the loss of Thistle. "The hardest thing to come to terms with is all the hours and the effort I put in to grow and sustain a business that in the end was not mine."
"I feel sometimes that I wasted all that energy. It was like being a top athlete for 20 years I put the company before everything else."
"Was it a waste of my life? No, it wasn t. I loved it and, anyway, I did quite well out of it."
"And now I am back in the driving seat of a business I love and there is huge scope in the hotels. I have got the time, experience and energy to do the deals."
Few would doubt him.
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(c) 2004, Financial Mail on Sunday, London. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.