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Rocco Forte On His Way to Hitting Target of 20 Luxury Hotels

By Nicholas Faith, Evening Standard, London
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News 

Jan. 25, 2004 - Eight years ago, Sir Rocco Forte appeared to be heading for business oblivion. Within two years of finally being allowed to take charge of the family hotels business by his redoubtable father, the veteran Lord Forte, he had conceded defeat to a hostile bid from Granada. It was a humiliating episode -- one from which there seemed to be no return. 

Roll forward, though, and the tables are well and truly turned. Granada, then headed by Gerry Robinson, is not the stock market darling it once was; Carol Galley, the City fund manager nicknamed the "Ice Maiden" whose decision swung the battle Granada's way, has melted away since a damaging lawsuit by one of her clients. 

Meanwhile, Forte, seemingly dead and buried, has bounced back, building a new group of eight luxury hotels from Cardiff to St Petersburg. Already, his new business has a turnover of UKpound 90 million a year and is riding high in the Fast Track 100 ranking of growing companies. Forte is well on his way to hitting his target of 20 hotels, which would make Rocco Forte Hotels the biggest such group in Europe. 

In a symbolic seal on his comeback, he has also attracted the City's power-brokers to his premises, persuading them to leave their old haunt of the Savoy Grill, now under new management, for his Brown's Hotel in Mayfair. When the Grill's new star chef, Marcus Wareing, changed the menu -- to the consternation of some regulars -- Forte nipped in, recruiting seven senior staff, headed by Angelo Maresca, the long-serving Maitre d', to Brown's. 

Not surprisingly Forte, sitting in his modest L-shaped office in St James's, is far more at ease than when he ran the far-flung empire created by his father. He is also absurdly fit for a 59-year old, the result of a strict training regime that has made him one of the leading triathlon athletes for his age in the world. It's no joke, combining, as it does, a 1.5-kilometre swim, a 40km cycle ride and a 10km run. 

Lord Forte clung on for years, finally retiring at the age of 84. His son had no chance to make a difference to the group before Granada sprang its attack. This new business is a purely personal one, carrying his own name. He's determined to keep his name upmarket -- of the two hotels he controls in St Petersburg, one, the five-star Astoria, is a "Rocco Forte Hotel" while the four-star Angleterre is simply a "Forte Hotel". 

At the end of February 1997, a year after the bid, Forte dipped a nervous toe in the business cauldron again, buying the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh. It was a defining moment, for all sorts of reasons. He was putting in UKpound 50 million of his own money and the Forte family chipped in too. It was a big responsibility -- and it was entirely his. "I was handed the keys. I didn't have any management at all. I didn't know if I could do it'." 

The seller was Bank of Scotland, which has provided the financial backbone for his expansion ever since. The bank has supported him in an eclectic mix of sites, from glamorous Florence to down-to-earth Manchester and Cardiff. The only elements they have in common is that they are all located in the centre of town and are not too big and not too small (Forte's minimum is 100 rooms). 

Like Forte, his sister, Olga Polizzi, has also come out from under her father's firm control, being allowed to express herself in designs for her own hotels and for Rocco's. "I thought I would buy a few hotels, smarten them up a bit, sell them and then move on to the next one," he said. But his sister has made them more stylish than he thought possible -- and made him want to hang on to them. 

Polizzi has her own boutique hotel, Tresanton, in Cornwall. Both realised, says Forte, that "with the increasing popularity of informal boutique hotels, larger luxury establishments had to change too". 

The formula worked well in Rome, where his rivals were stuffy, so his Hotel e Russie was profitable within the three-year forecast. By contrast, his St David's Hotel in Cardiff Bay proved a slow starter. He's not unduly concerned: each project is individual. For instance, Brown's, which Forte bought last July for UKpound 51.5 million from a Singapore group, will need complete refurbishment. At present, the room rate is the same as in 1995 when the Fortes lost control, so that will change once the rooms are revamped and Sir Rocco plans to add up to 20 "glamour" rooms and suites. 

Forte enjoys not having to kowtow to the City. His business is private. "I don't have to cope with all that nonsense about quarterly results and dealing with investors." 

The advantages were particularly evident after 9.11. While quoted hotel groups had to react by make swingeing cuts, Forte took his time, looking at each hotel individually "to see how we could replace the lost business". 

When Iraq was invaded 18 months later, again he held back from a knee-jerk response. 

Forte is still looking for hotels, though his criteria are strict, and restrictive. Venice, for example, "has no premises which are big enough" while every prospect in Paris "seems to be grossly-overpriced". But over the past few months, Forte has branched out in two directions. He has taken on management of the Chateau de Bagnols in Beaujolais, a 13th-century chÉteau restored by a Forte family friend, Lady Hamlyn, widow of Sir Paul. 

Far more spectacular is the Verdura Golf and Spa resort in southern Sicily, due to open in 2007. The cost of euro124 million (UKpound 85 million) is lessened by grants totalling euro35 million from the Italian authorities. "In Italy, I know my way around, I'm treated like an Italian," he says, smiling. 

The project covers 550 acres along a mile and a half of seashore, land which had to be bought from 72, often stubborn, owners. The plan is for 200 rooms and 50 villas, combined with two 18-hole golf courses. 

These days, Forte keeps a low profile and doesn't blow his own trumpet much. He's still bruised from the Granada fight and the City's rejection of him. 

There's no doubting, though, who is having the last laugh. 

-----To see more of the Evening Standard, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to 

UKpound preceding a numeral refers to the United Kingdom's pound sterling.

(c) 2004, Evening Standard, London. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. HBOS, 


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