Hospitality in the blood
When Chris Rickard was made Managing Director of Strathmore Hotels four years ago, there was much at stake.
Not only was he reeling from the sudden death of his father, Ronnie, at just 63, he also became responsible for the ‘old man’s baby’ – a multi-million pound leisure empire encompassing seven hotels and a travel firm – as well as hundreds of loyal staff, many of whom had worked with Ronnie for decades and felt very much like family themselves. Backed by his mum, Barbara (65) and with the help of his sister, Louise Hamill (38), who is Sales and Marketing Director, Chris (36) threw himself into the role. He says, “It was a great laugh working with Dad, there was never a cross word, it was just fun. He was unwell for a short while and then in October 2012 he was diagnosed with cancer and died 20 days later. It was a terrible shock for us all – for the family and the company too. Nobody knew what was happening with the company and it all transferred to Mum. She pulled me to one side and said she wanted me to keep going and that it was what my Dad would have wanted.”
He adds, “Our parents were very good at teaching us right from wrong and discipline but at the same time they instilled in us our own self-belief and our own confidence that what we believe is right is the right thing to do. So when my father passed away both Louise and I had an idea what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go – there were never any doubts. We were confident that we could put our own stamp on it and make it ours.”
Louise adds, “What was great from our point of view as well was that nobody doubted our ability to take it on either – whether that was family or banks or our managers. Our first thought was just keeping the business going because you’ve got so many people to look after. Chris and I both had the attitude that we just had to come in here and get on with it, even though we all had our own grief to deal with at the same time.”
Ronnie had been in the hotel business since 1973, when he joined Norscot Hotels as operations manager, working his way up to run around 14 venues for the firm. When the company was floated on the stock exchange and then bought over, Ronnie was laid off and had to start again. Chris explains, “He was a victim of his own success really. He went round the banks in Edinburgh asking for loans and in 1991 he bought the Salutation Hotel in Perth – that was his first one. It was the height of the recession and hotels were being sold quite cheaply compared to today.”
Ronnie quickly built an impressive portfolio – snapping up the Cumbria Grand Hotel in Cumbria in 1992, Nethybridge Hotel in Inverness-shire and the Cairn Hotel in Yorkshire in 1993, and the Royal Hotel in Oban in 1994. Chris, who studied accountancy at Glasgow University, joined the company in 2001, around the time that Ronnie, who had been a 20 per cent stakeholder when he started the company in 1991, was in the process of buying it outright to head off an attempt by other investors to sell it.
He explains, “It ended up as a silent auction with two bids on the table and whoever had the highest was going to get it. My Dad pulled in money from everywhere – he didn’t even know how much he needed to put in. I’d just qualified at the time and he asked if I fancied helping him out to push the deal through and here I am 15 years later.”
The deal went through in February 2002 and the following year, in 2003, Ronnie added two Fort William properties, the Ben Nevis Hotel & Leisure Club and the Alexandra Hotel, to his portfolio.
Five years later the financial crisis was starting to ease and hotel prices were on the up so Ronnie decided to consolidate and improve what he had, rather than add sub-standard properties to the firm’s portfolio. Chris says, “You were paying maybe 20 times the hotel’s profits – if it made say £500K a year it would cost you £10m to get it so there were big calls to be made. The decision was made to swell the value of what we had already. We boosted the refurbishment package with the aim of moving more towards the three and four-star market. We were spending around £700K a year on the programme but it was all done around off-peak when trade is quieter and on a phased basis. It has never been our model to shut hotels for two years and do a dramatic refurbishment.”
At the time they were selling a lot of hotel space to coach tours but decided it would make better sense for the business if they ran their own tours, so in 2006 they launched Strathmore Travel, which is now the biggest provider of coach holidays to Strathmore Hotels.
Chris was made Financial Director four years later, in 2010, two years before Ronnie passed. One of the first things he did when he took over as Managing Director was to invest in all of the hotels to reassure the managers that they were moving things forward and that they had a future with the company. More recently, all of the hotels have become green – fuelled by sustainable wood pellets – even the Salutation, which is the oldest hotel in Scotland.
Today, aside from his own hard work, a good head for figures and a passion for the business that he admits borders on obsession, Chris is keen to credit the firm’s wider family for their progress to date. He and Louise work well together for starters – because they share the same goals and a mutual respect for what each brings to the table.
Chris says, “We both share the same drive and desire to see the business do well so it works. A good manager should always employ people who have the qualities they lack themselves. The whole thing works because of the mutual respect we all have for each other.”
Louise’s husband, Gerry (37), a quantity surveyor, took over the property management side of things and runs their refurbishment programme – no mean feat given that they aim to overhaul each of their 770 rooms, all of which are three-star, by 2026.
Both Lawrence Cormack, who owns a 17% stake in Strathmore, and is Operations Director, and Rhonda Wood, Group Reservations Manager, worked with Ronnie at Norscot and have been with him from the very beginning – something Chris is immensely proud of.
He says, “Lawrence has been in the business for 30-odd years and Rhonda is also hugely experienced and knows the Coach Tour industry incredibly well. Louise’s expertise is in sales and marketing. Gerry is worth his weight in gold also so with him on board too, it all adds up to the perfect piece.”
It is clear that Louise, who studied marketing at Strathclyde University, shares her brother’s passion for the trade. She ran her own marketing consultancy firm but was doing so much work for her father that she wound it up and joined him instead.
She says, “It’s either a love-it or hate-it industry and if you love it, you’ll always love it. Maybe it’s in our blood but Chris and I have always been drawn to it. There’s no better industry to work in – people are on their holidays, they want to be happy and have a nice time and there can’t be many other jobs that give you the same level of satisfaction when you help make that happen for them.”
She adds, “We are not afraid, never have been, to be who we are and to be what we are. There is a market in the UK for hotels that are not looking to do a massive refurbishment and become five-star. Guest satisfaction and guest returns are what matter to us.” It will be 25 years this year since Ronnie bought the Salutation for £1m and today the company’s assets are valued at around £30m, with a record year in 2015 and profits of £3.5m expected this year.
Chris and Louise are proud of what the whole team has achieved – but they won’t be resting on their laurels any time soon.
Chris says, “I hope we can not only do Dad proud but also build something for ourselves. Dad built this up, it’s his baby, he’s passed and we as a group decided to drive it on, in his name.
“Any success we have is purely down to us saying, ‘Heads down and let’s do the old man proud’ – that’s what it’s about for all