THE HUMAN FACTOR

THE HUMAN FACTOR - For Rocco Forte, putting his name over the door of his new enterprise gave a clear indication that this was a matter of pride rather than just money.

by Patience Wheatcroft, business and City editor of The Times
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

For Rocco Forte, putting his name over the door of his new enterprise gave a clear indication that this was a matter of pride rather than just money.

It was with the air of an exiled ruler reclaiming his territory that Sir Rocco Forte marched back into Mayfair this summer. In buying Brown's Hotel, he had not merely brought his new firm into London; he'd acquired a property that was once almost his birthright.

Since Forte lost his historic battle with Sir Gerry Robinson and Forte plc was taken over by Granada in 1996, he has seemed determined to prove he was misjudged. The City voted against him, handing control of the empire he'd inherited to Robinson.

Now one can almost hear the triumphant note in his voice as he retrieves control of one of the more prestigious properties in the group.

The wish to prove one's critics wrong can be a strong motivation. Every time Philip Green is lauded as a retail hero, one can imagine him rejoicing in the message this sends to those who unseated him as boss of public company Amber Day.

Some people take rejection as the signal to retire from the fray, but others will see it as a challenge to prove their critics wrong. Forte put himself in the latter camp. Once THF had been delivered to Granada, with the help of major shareholder Mercury Asset Management, he dusted down his velvet-collared coat and started to build a new business.

Putting his name over the door of the new enterprise was a clear indication that this was a matter of pride and reputation rather than money. Rocco Forte Hotels is not a reincarnation of the group of which he has been CEO - the business his indomitable father had built up from a single coffee bar into one of the world's biggest hotel firms. Instead, RFH is concentrating on the luxury end of the market.

Forte had tried to persuade Robinson to sell him back the Meridien division of Forte group and raised pounds 970 million to fund the deal. But Robinson dismissed the price as too low. Forte has set about assembling his chain piecemeal, picking up properties around Europe - Brown's brings the total to eight.

Difficult conditions have hit the hotel industry, terrorism and Sars combining to persuade Americans in particular that it is safer to stay at home. But occupancy at the hand-picked RFH collection has held up well, and now Forte regards the depression in hotel prices as a buying opportunity.

Backed by Bank of Scotland, he aims to speed up his acquisitions and take the total to 20 fairly rapidly.

His role now is very different from that of the CEO of a major FTSE-100 company, in which role he never seemed comfortable. He can become far more involved with the individual properties, which seemed to be where his real interests lay, rather than dealing with shareholders.

His sister, Olga Polizzi, who was vitriolic in her condemnation of the investors who, she felt, had betrayed the Forte family in selling to Granada, is working on the design side of the business, as she did at Forte. In the absence of City shareholders, such family loyalties no longer attract mutterings about nepotism. Like Philip Green, Forte is likely to decide that business life is better without the demands of running a public company.

Trying to rebuild a reputation in the full glare of the quoted sector is a difficult move, but the rumbustious Gerald Corbett is doing just that. He left the chief executive's role at Railtrack after a succession of bruisings that would have driven most people to retire to the country.

Instead, he took on the task of heading up Woolworth as it was demerged from Kingfisher.

It was not a particularly smooth process and did little to restore City enthusiasm for Corbett, which had been high before he stepped up from the role of finance director at Grand Metropolitan to join Railtrack.

Now, having recruited a CEO for Woolies, he has taken the chairman's seat, but he has not yet thrown off the opprobrium he collected as head of Railtrack when it came off the rails.

Meanwhile, the man who appointed him to Woolworths is still pondering a route by which he might regain the star status he once enjoyed. Sir Geoffrey Mulcahy spent 20 years creating Kingfisher, but his departure from the group, hurriedly ushered out by new chairman Francis McKay, was not on a high note. Although he could afford to retire and enjoy his yacht, it seems that, if the right vehicle could be found, he would devote another few years to reminding people of the talent that built Kingfisher into a retailing giant.

Pride is a powerful driver. Sir Rocco's father, Lord (Charles) Forte, suffered a mighty dent to his when he was rebuffed in his attempts to buy the Savoy Hotel and dismissed as 'an upstart caterer'. The ultimate delight for his son might be if the Blackstone group, which owns the Savoy group, decided to sell. His purchase of it would make it the ultimate trophy hotel.

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