Tom Lewis – It’s a Good Life – by Susan Young

Tom-Lewis 02

TOM LEWIS the dynamo behind Monachyle MHOR and MHOR84 at Balquhidder, is hard to keep up with. SUSAN YOUNG did her best.

I have known Tom Lewis and his wife Lisa May for many years. The couple who own and run Monachyle MHOR and MHOR 84, alongside Tom’s younger brother Dick, are the modern-day equivalent of the TV show “The Good Life.”

But he is the first to admit, that the last two years have not been much of a ‘good life’, due to the stresses of the pandemic. In fact, he believes it has set the business back five years.

However, every cloud has a silver lining and Tom tells me that he knows that the business is now in better shape than it has ever been, but he says, “It’s forecasting what the season holds which is tricky.”

The 23rd of March 2020 should have been a big celebration for Tom, as he reached the milestone age of 50, instead, it heralded the start of a period of worry and reflection.

He told me, “We always work a year or two ahead of ourselves, and just before lockdown we were quietly confident going into the new year. We only do about a dozen weddings a year and we had just put our prices up and the bookings were healthy.

Then came the pandemic, and they had to cancel and asked for their deposits back. We had to issue more than £100K of refunds. That’s what killed our cash flow. We had no money coming in, and although our bank was supportive we used up all our funds and it wiped out our war chest. Then Sunak stepped in, and although I was at first reluctant, I took a bounce back loan.”

But this didn’t give Tom the incentive to splash the cash, it was the opposite. “People kept saying are you going to do some development, but I am naturally cautious. I wanted to wait until we could be assured that we were going to open.

So, we ended up doing 14 bathrooms and two accommodation units in 5 weeks. But we couldn’t do what we really wanted to do because we could only use what was in stock. For instance, we had to change all our bedroom handles because we couldn’t get parts.

But I want to get one good year of trading under our belt before deciding what to do next.”

He is also relieved and grateful that the business didn’t have to pay rates for two years. He says, “I can’t complain, and the VAT difference was huge. We have been asking for VAT for hospitality to be reduced for a long time, but maybe now that the government did try it, we could prove it did work. We all know that business viability greatly improved because of it.”

The last two years have certainly been challenging but Tom credits his wife Lisa May for keeping him sane. But admits it was a difficult journey. He says, “We couldn’t control what was going on, and I have realised that we are all quite controlling! And who knew zoom – it has been unbelievable – we couldn’t have done our job without it.

“I have been in touch with people I haven’t seen for years during lockdown. I sought their advice and trusted their advice, sometimes they made me laugh and sometimes they made me cry. That hasn’t been happening for years. We have all been so self-obsessed in running our businesses. This was a reality check.

In the beginning, I got quite depressed, and I have never been depressed in my life. But I think I had too much time to think, and I wanted to fix everything, and I couldn’t. I’ve learned that you do need time to think, but not too much time to ponder!”

Since the hotel re-opened the Lewis family have put together a brand new team, which is another change for the business. He says, “In the past we always had succession but now it is a new team of people. It has taken us a few months to get it right, but none of them knew who we were, and they didn’t know how things used to be done, which can be a problem. But on the other hand, I don’t believe in doing things the way they always have been done just because we have always done it that way. Change is a good thing and I do think we have the right team now. But getting staff has been brutal. We usually have 90 but we only have 67 at the moment.”

As a result, they have sold Mhor Fish, the Mhor Bread Tea room has been turned into a retail unit, and they are not serving lunches at Monachyle Mhor – just a simple bar menu and freshly baked scones Monday – Friday.

However, Tom believes the business is now in a better place, but he is very conscious of the steep rise in costs the business is incurring, and for the first time he has had to pass them on to customers. He explains, “Hospitality has always been slow about passing costs on to customers and we have certainly tried not to, but now we have no option.

One of the positives over the last two years is that we have only had UK customers (who knew that was a thing), they know the prices here and they were happy to pay it.” He added, “it has also helped that hotels like The Fife Arms have opened. It has made Georgian mahogany cool and has reset the price of boutique hotel rooms.

“Another important part of our hospitality industry is the likes of Gleneagles and Cameron House – their guests very often extend their stays and visit other parts of Scotland. We should celebrate our big hotels more. They are an important feeding ground for many other smaller hospitality businesses in Scotland.”

Although he believes that there has been a slight change in behaviour since Ukraine, the rise in fuel costs and NI raise. “Customers are now phoning and not just going online. They want to make sure they make the right decision and that we have the facilities they want before booking.”

But he returns to the issue of staff and recruitment which he believes is the single biggest issue facing the industry.

“We have to try and inspire young people, and encourage people with great skills to come back in. Lots of businesses do offer a better work/life balance, but we are just not good at telling people about it. Four day weeks are not uncommon now. We have to inspire cooks to come into the world, we need more good cooks. After all most people’s favourite meal is the one cooked by your mother.”

He has also got strong views on internet recipes. He laughs, “Chefs now get recipes off the internet instead of out of a book, but the beauty of a book is that it gives you the background to the recipe. And I am old fashioned and prefer that books tell you why a recipe works – and that knowledge can get you out of jail. You can tell a good chef by their ability to get you out of the shit!

He also has an idea up his sleeve to get chefs/proprietors together. He says, “I’ve called it ‘Chefs eat Mhor’. I’d like to see folk in the industry meeting regularly. A lot of owner-operated businesses because they are short-staffed are on the front line. When we do get in a room together early on, we share lots, and then it becomes a boozy night! If we meet more regularly, at each other’s venues, and here – I will bring chefs in to cook, I think we could all be a support to each other. I’m still fleshing out the idea but I think it could be great not just for us but for local suppliers too.”

And talking of suppliers Tom is very grateful for the support he got from his suppliers when the pandemic kicked off. “I have worked with some of my suppliers for 20 years. We have grown up together and it was these people who when I needed it gave me credit. Those are the kind of people you want to deal with, there are a lot of companies in Scotland like that – we are a small village – all those people who in the first couple of weeks gave me credit know that I will deal with them for the rest of my life. It was just as bad for them. Suppliers are important, without them we are nothing.”

However, he is hoping that going forward he can persuade them to start taking back their packaging. Although Tom and Lisa May don’t shout about their green ethos, they do embrace a more sustainable way of operating.

Says Tom, “Some of it is a necessity. The reality is we do a lot because our margins are so tight. We recycle, we use LED bulbs, we have our bees and Lisa May has the garden which supplies vegetables, herbs, edible flowers, and fruit to the hotel. We turn the heating down too, however, for guests, one of the privileges of staying in a hotel is that you can open a window and have the heating on.

He adds, “I do think that suppliers should take back their packaging. It can be done. I also think that it should not be up to the Council to uplift bins. Hospitality pays for the uplift of waste and I think everyone should too. If we want to make environmental changes it has to start at home. As consumers we are responsible for taking care of our rubbish, it should not be the responsibility of the local council, that is not their area of expertise.”

When we spoke Tom was just getting ready for a special Champagne and Oyster Extravaganza. I asked him what else he has planned.

He laughs. “It is difficult planning. I am re-structuring my debt at the moment and the bank asked for a business plan based on the last two years … how can anyone do that?”

He laughs again, “You know I always had planned to be debt-free by my mid-50s. That is not going to happen – and now I think why did I think that would be a good thing? I was brought up in a family that had the mantra when you could afford something buy it. That’s a myth. So I am now restructuring my debt which will take some pressure off.

“I can’t really plan for summer because I don’t know what the market will do – if we get enough people we still have plans to extend, but we have to make some money first. But I do feel more confident going forward now, got my ducks in a row, maybe I am older and wiser. I can certainly see the opportunities – particularly when we start to see international guests gain.

“Lisa May and I are lucky we like our jobs but I would like to have more choices over the next couple of years. I have also realised by going through the information for the bank that we also have a really good business, and I don’t think I have ever really realised that.

“I would never have thought about selling if it hadn’t been for the last two years, but now I would, but obviously it would have to be the right deal. I used to be romantic and wanted to create something I could hand on. But we don’t have kids, and we are all living longer and healthier and I have to be more realistic. Lisa May and I are happy, although she would like to work in the garden full-time.”

But that is a plan for the future, right now Tom and his team are hoping for a busy season. He has put in more than a dozen caravans to accommodate staff, and there are plans afoot to landscape the front of Mhor84, and also get a new educational space up and running.

Explains Tom, “I always had a problem with regular education and when I started many people in hospitality were very good to me, from Stuart Spence who founded the Marcliffe in Aberdeen to Robin Buchanan-Smith at Eriska, so now I want to put something back and I can do that with a new classroom we have built. It is a nice environment for people to learn here. It will be all-inclusive – education for everyone.”

One person Tom has learned from is hotelier Gordon Campbell Gray. His hospitality crush.He laughs again, “I met him when we were both speaking at an event – he was the pre-speaker and I was the after-dinner speaker. He is a world-class operator and to have him in Scotland is amazing. He is so knowledgeable and he didn’t miss when he was doing his talk, he was quite hard on them. I thought ‘I love him’.’ He made it easy for me because all I had to do was make them laugh. He did One Aldwych in London, and it was London’s first ‘all white decorated hotel that I ever saw. It felt so Parisian.”

Tom tells me that he doesn’t know what his job title is now and that he spends more time than ever in the office, but he is determined to keep the business evolving. I have put some of my team on some of the amazing HIT courses, and I am determined to work on our training – hospitality is all about good service. You may have the best meal of your life but if the service is lousy that’s what you remember.

“I find it quite interesting looking at the young people coming through. All the stuff my age group was caught up in, matters not a jot to them. We became lifestyle hoteliers, our friends would come and stay and we thought we would make a fortune and some, when they didn’t, became a bit bitter. Today’s young hoteliers have no qualms about opening, for instance, only four days a week, they have half the staff and do more themselves and best of all they make money.

Tom says he aims to keep pushing himself and to be open-minded. I asked him what was there anything he would take away from the pandemic? He concluded, “Keep a little bit of myself for myself. I didn’t put a value on anything I did. I thought because I could do it everyone could do it. But I am beginning to realise the value of what we do and I have come back invigorated. But best of all I have Lisa May by my side.”

It is a good life!  

Category: Editors' Picks, Interviews
Tags: Balquhidder, hotels, Monachyle Mhor, SCOTLAND, Tom Lewis