|By Andy Williamson, Evening Standard, London
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Oct. 20, 2003 -- Guy Hands built a gilded reputation -- and a personal fortune -- as head of the principal finance group at Nomura International, on the back of a string of successful deals that involved everything from rolling stock and Ministry of Defence homes to pubs and TV rentals. Hands explained at the time the link between these seemingly disparate investments: "They are all basic service industries -- they are all people-facing and none can be replaced by a computer or man in Delhi."
He has now added a personal deal to this list: "My wife and I also own a small chain of hotels." This is Hand Picked Hotels, a group of 14 country-house properties run by Hands' wife, Julia. The brand is being launched this month after a UKpound 25 million refurbishment.
The multimillionaire couple decided to invest in hotels in 1999, snapping up seven properties from Virgin Hotels and 11 from Wyndham International for a total of almost UKpound 100 million. Three of the hotels that didn't fit the Hand Picked mould were later sold while a fourth does not yet meet the brand standards.
"We thought the properties were a solid real estate purchase with good cash flow," says Julia. "We bought them as a passive investment to be managed by someone else." However, she admits: "I think even then I knew what I wanted to achieve with them. I don't think anyone else can do that for you." So the management contract was terminated and in March 2001 Julia, then aged 41, decided to run the hotels herself.
Guy has taken a back seat in the running of the hotels. "He doesn't really have any involvement," she says. "He is aware of what's going on but as we both work very hard, it's amazing how little time there is to talk about hotels."
Typical of Hand Picked Hotels is Brandshatch Place in Kent, a Georgian mansion with 41 rooms and a health club. "The aim is to create a collection of individual country-house properties, all set in extensive grounds with an extremely high level of service, good food and a high level of interior decoration," she says.
The couple live in Sevenoaks in a house originally given to Winston Churchill by a grateful nation. It was refurbished for them by John Minshaw. Julia liked his work and, although he was also a newcomer to the hotel arena, he was given the task of revamping the group's hotels.
Julia has had to face up to some of her greatest fears in her new role. "I find speaking in public absolutely nerve-wracking. The first time was the worst when I gave a talk to the general managers, even though these were people I knew quite well," she says.
She is still uneasy about being interviewed. When asked about her main strengths, she laughs nervously and pauses to consider before replying: "I am very practical and pragmatic. I'm a very reasonable person and a good manager of people." The new head of Hand Picked Hotels admits to being apprehensive when she took over but adds: "I realised that if I employed the right people, life would be a lot easier. And that's how it's proved to be."
She is aware that many people will label her simply as Guy Hands' wife and there are also those who accuse her of being a dilettante, but she is not deterred. "I'd like them to see the hours I work and then tell me it's just a hobby!" she says. "It's very time-consuming and I'm very much looking to the long term. I want to build something we can all be proud of."
Julia Hands believes her lack of hotel experience has some benefits. "To take over as a manager after 40-odd years as a guest means that you come in with a guest's perspective rather than having had a hotel perspective all along," she says.
Julia has already tasted success, with four Hand Picked properties -- Crathorne Hall in Yorkshire, Chilston Park in Kent, Gwesty Seiont Manor in Snowdonia and Rookery Hall in Cheshire -- awarded Red Stars, the AA's highest accolade. Twelve of the 14 hold two AA rosettes for food quality.
But she has big ambitions: "We've set two rosettes as a minimum standard. Twelve have this, so now the target is to get three rosettes in at least some of the properties. It's raising the bar." That's certainly something to talk about over breakfast.
-----To see more of the Evening Standard, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.thisislondon.co.uk
UKpound preceding a numeral refers to the United Kingdom's pound sterling.
(c) 2003, Evening Standard, London. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. NMR, 8604,