A Man on a Mission: Michael Robertson interview

Michael Robertson

Susan Young in conversation with Michael Roberson.


I first met Michael Robertson 30 years before either of us were in hospitality, and we have remained friends ever since. It was a pleasure to catch up with him to hear about his new venture with Fraser McIlwraith and David Lockett – Hospo Talent and to talk about his career.

Michael has worked with some of the most successful hospitality businesses in the country. These include Tiger Tiger and Living Ventures, Novus Leisure and Lynett Leisure, the TDQ Group – which operate the Gin 72 bars and the Broadcroft Hotel. He is also a Director of Partick Thistle and now to add to these talents he is moving into recruitment with Hospo Talent.

But first, let’s find out what set him on the route for a career in hospitality because it wasn’t his first choice. Indeed he spent 15 years working for the Civil Service and working his way up. He tells me, “I always wanted a job that involved people – I even tried hairdressing for a short stint, but I really found my feet when I joined the Civil Service with a job at the Benefits Agency. My father was in the military and I was used to this type of environment.”

His role initially was to meet and greet and that certainly gave him a very good grounding when it came to front of house. He explains, “I had to interpret legislation for clients, translate it so they could understand it. I also had to deal with worst-case scenarios. The people I was dealing with people had a real need. My experiences have lived with me my whole career – and it puts a lot of things into perspective. The life skills I learned included negotiation skills, empathy and understanding, but I also took away the knowledge that if you cannot do anything about a scenario, you have to find a way of working around it.

“There is a misconception that people who need to use the government system understand the process because they use it regularly but some people are using it for the first time – and are uncomfortable and need help and reassurance. It’s the same when customers come into your unit and are waiting to be seated you need to make them feel comfortable, because they may not have been in your establishment before.

After 15 years when Michael decided to change career, he put in an application to be cabin crew on British Midland, got the job, and absolutely loved it. “I was doing hospitality at 50,000ft and I enjoyed it. I realised that it really was my vocation. It felt like I had my own plane to look after and, on one occasion we took the Rangers team to a cup tie in Inverness – it was like private dining but on a plane.”

However, it was a visit to Croyden that opened his eyes to hospitality. He tells me, “I was playing in a football match against the police in Croyden and afterwards they took us to Tiger Tiger for a night out. I remember thinking this is amazing – if only we had one in Glasgow.” However, he continued flying until just after 9/11 when he gave up his cabin crew role and re-joined the civil service briefly. But shortly afterwards he saw a job advert for a new venue in Glasgow – Tiger Tiger, and on the spur of the moment, he applied for part-time work, did the training and before long joined full-time.

Michael tells me, “The first night we opened I was working in theBabble bar, with four others, and there was a queue to get into the venue which went all around the block. Then they all flooded in. I remember thinking please just order a soft drink or water, but my first order was for three Brandy Alexanders. For the next nine months, we were literally three deep at the bar most nights. It was the longest successful opening of any Tiger Tiger outside of London and it taught me so much including the value and the necessity for training. In Tiger Tiger, the same drinks menu was in every bar, and the drinks had to consistently good over the nine bars, whether you had a Cosmopolitan in the downstairs bar or the lounge it had to be the same.

“It also gave me my first introduction to management. I was quickly promoted from bar staff to supervisor (after four weeks) and then four weeks later to duty manager. I loved the lifestyle, the buzz of the bar, looking after people and the atmosphere.”

Within a year Michael was promoted to Bar Manager looking after nine bar areas. He says, “That’s where I learned the value of costs. Line checks every day, stocks checked every week, and every Monday from 7am and 7pm I had to count nine bars and a cellar and get the stock to balance. I had a team of 25, and the man-management skills that I had learned at the Benefits office came into play.

His GM during his time at Tiger Tiger was the one and only Michael Bergson. The two worked together for three years and Michael credits him for teaching him the magic of front of house. “He is fantastic with people.” He credits Gary Ross with teaching him the restaurant side of the business. He admits, “That was the hardest training because Gary was unrelenting.”

Talking of training, sport has been a big part of Michael’s life, another passion that his new business partner share. Fraser excels at rugby and many other sports but it is football and hockey that float Michael’s boat. Since school he has played in goals, playing for various clubs including Hillhead Football Club. He is also an SFA qualified coach and has a B licence (only 10 people out of 600 qualify for it each year).

As for hockey, Michael represented Scotland while working for the Civil Service and joined Hillhead Hockey Club. He has his coaching qualification for this sport too – SHU B Level.

Michael finds sport a great opportunity to take a break from his day job. “I am used to telling people what to do – and sport gives me downtime and allows me to switch off from hospitality. It cleanses my head and allows me to refocus on my job. You need that balance. If you can’t get away you become unproductive, uncreative and potentially resentful – the job becomes all-consuming.

From Tiger Tiger, he went to the Living Room, a Living Ventures business, as Assistant General Manager. It was there he refined his back of house skills. “I learned that everything had its place. they operated on a four-week schedule and everything had to be done in advance. It was the first time I was accountable for costs. I had to justify everything.”

Again he was swiftly promoted to General Manager but this also involved a thorough Living Ventures induction which saw him working in different departments of the company around the country. It meant that Michael got to work in its flagship venue in Manchester. He says, “It was very intimidating and although I had been well trained I didn’t feel I was up to the standard of the team there. But the head bartender said I had done well and would like to have me on his team, (I will always remember that). I also worked in Edinburgh in the kitchen during the festival – we were doing 400 covers a shift for lunch and dinner – I had to send everything out over the pass. You learned about the necessity to make it all flow – and the importance of the link between the kitchen and flow – we had strong tough shifts but the team ethos made it seem a breeze. By the time I was finished, I felt ready for anything.”

In 2008, his former boss Michael Bergson, who had moved on to work for Lynnet Leisure as GM of One Up and their Private Members Club, decided to leave Lynnet to set up his own business, and he recommended me to the owners, the Mortimers.

I joined and for six years I felt like I was James Mortimers, right-hand man. I loved it, was fantastic. It combined my corporate background and allowed me to tweak it to an independent environment. I was responsible to the owner and that was the first time in my career that had been the case. We had a brilliant relationship. I could go to him with anything. He was a great support and had a real understanding of life. We looked after Glasgow’s glitterati.

“The funny thing was James had come to have a look at Tiger Tiger and I had shown him around, but I didn’t know who he was. He had realised that in Tiger Tiger all the rooms were open so you could see when a room was quiet. What James realised was that if you compartmentalised the spaces the atmosphere was contained within each of the rooms and he did this at One Up.

Roll on January 2014 and I decided that I wanted to take all I had learned and try to run my own bar. I had the opportunity to take the lease out on McPhabbs which was a small local bar near Glasgow’s Charing Cross. I thought it suited my personality and it had a kitchen which allowed me to do food too. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The difference was I had no one to turn to. It was quite liberating in a way. If I made a decision on the menu or a bottle of wine I had to live or die by that decision. For instance, I put in a wine that was more expensive than the house point of entry, the staff didn’t think anyone would buy it because it was more expensive. But they did. I was taught to believe that customers wanted quality and value for money it is not about the expense. I still believe that.

“I took MacPhabbs from five to twelve kegs a week. It was a rolling lease and the first year it was fab. We had great weather and the Commonwealth Games, I thought I had cracked it. Reality kicked in the next year and I realised I couldn’t make enough to make it sustainable to me. But I had learned I was entrepreneurial and it validated my experience.”

He decided to put all his experience to good use and became a consultant to hospitality businesses, supporting start-ups and established businesses, and he has been gainfully employed ever since. Clients have included the owners of Krothel and Pianola and Paul Reynolds at Gin 71. He also did a Project for Glasgow CaledonianUniversitytochangetheirfooddeliveryoncampus.This project brought him to the attention of the Chairman of Partick Thistle who was looking for someone to develop and support the hospitality offering/delivery at Thistle both for match day and for increasing revenue outwith match day. Says Michael, “I had always supported Thistle and I went in as a director with my remit to support that part of the club.”

this is also the project that led him to meet Fraser and the two kept in touch over the last few years. Says Michael, “David Lockett came to me, he was the catalyst. I had looked after him within the private members’ clubs at 29 and we had struck up a friendship. He was already doing recruitment and he suggested Fraser and I got involved too. Initially, I said no because I had had lots of recruitment companies coming to me and sending staff and they weren’t what I needed. I expressed that view to him and he said that’s exactly why we should be doing it. He also knew Fraser and he thought we would all make a good team.

“We are focussing on standards. If someone needs a member of staff we will ensure that the person we are sending is fit for purpose and well trained. We have all been to these function when the waiter doesn’t know how to open a bottle… enough said. Another example comes to mind – I was doing one of my consultancy jobs for an opening the pub was using a recruitment company and the staff who had been put in place didn’t seem to care. They were not dressed properly and there were no processes in place.

“I took an opening team of five people down – changed the processes and left it set up to operate viably. We have a recruitment company have to have the right people in place to deliver to businesses. Businesses need their needs to be met and the right people in situ that are suited to their business. That is relevant right across the board – whether staff are required for the kitchen, hotel or bar.

“I think recruitment is very difficult just now. People want a job and will apply, but their skills may not be the right skills, and others have too qualified for the roles. Ultimately we want people to stay in their roles.

He continues, “Both Fraser and I can read CVs like a book. We know when they are embellished and we can tell within a few moments of meeting someone whether they have the skill set.

“I love a challenge, all three of us do. We all have a lot of drive and a passion for hospitality and we are bringing this to Hospo Talent.