Endurance in Sport and Business: Sir Rocco Forte
Published: May 30, 2012 (Issue # 1710)
ROCCO FORTE HOTELS
Sir Rocco Forte, owner of the city’s Hotel Astoria, now has his sights set on Moscow, Milan, Venice and Paris.
As the city’s Hotel Astoria celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, its owner, Sir Rocco Forte, talks to The St. Petersburg Times about combating Sicilian bureaucracy, learning from wasted opportunities, storming out of a fencing competition and his plans to conquer Moscow and New York.
Forte excels in activities that require endurance, and this is illustrated by both his phoenix-like career in the hospitality industry, and by his passion for marathons, cycling and triathlon.
Forte, 67, is executive chairman and principal shareholder of Rocco Forte Hotels, the luxury hotel group he founded in 1996 that currently includes Hotel de Russie in Rome, Brown’s Hotel in London, The Balmoral in Edinburgh and Hotel Savoy in Florence, as well as St. Petersburg’s own Hotel Astoria.
The Rocco Forte name has become synonymous with the elegance that characterizes every property in the collection.
Hotel Astoria’s list of high-profile guests is impressive and includes former French President Jacques Chirac, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, former U.S. President George W. Bush, designer Paco Rabanne, baritone Placido Domingo, tenor Luciano Pavarotti, and actors Alain Delon, Jack Nicholson and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Forte was formerly chairman and chief executive of Forte Group, a company founded by his father, Lord Charles Forte, back in 1934. During that time he was responsible for more than 800 hotels, 1,000 restaurants and almost 100,000 employees in 50 countries. In 1996 the Forte business was acquired in a hostile takeover bid by Granada, and since then has been broken up.
Forte looks back on old times with calm and confidence.
“What I regret is that it was a very fine company, with potential to become an even better company, one of the world’s dominant hotel chains,” he said. “But it disappeared from the scene because the people who bought it broke it up and sold it for less money than they paid for it. So it was a completely wasted opportunity.”
Is there anything he would do differently?
“I really wish I had started ten years earlier, because the market situation was so much more favorable,” he says, giving the only sigh that escapes for the duration of the conversation. The hotelier knows that a loss does not necessarily mean the end.
“What I most respect myself for is that I never really gave up,” Forte said.
A late start has its advantages, one of them being experience, and Forte has made the most of the frustrations of the past. Middle East hotels are now lining up for the hotel management services of Rocco Forte Hotels. This year saw the opening of a hotel in Abu Dhabi, while in the next three years, the company is set to manage two hotels in Egypt (in Cairo and Luxor) and one in Jeddah. Forte is also looking to expand the hotel group and add addresses in Europe to the 13 existing properties.
“The concept is to cover the major cities in Europe, although I am also seriously looking at New York,” Forte said. “My attention now is on Moscow, Milan, Venice and Paris. Obviously, I have to take opportunities as they come along, and sometimes I need to wait for them. For instance, I waited six years to get a hotel in London, and London is one of the most important cities for me.”
ROCCO FORTE HOTELS
Forte described his foray into Sicily as a nightmare that cost 130 million pounds.
Creating Rocco Forte Hotels and starting from scratch was something that several observers were rather doubtful about, yet Forte had the confidence to start anew, the wisdom to ignore the skeptics, and the right hunch to start with The Balmoral, which formerly belonged to his father’s empire.
Serious international recognition followed a few years later, with the purchase in 2000 of the Hotel de Russie in Rome, the group’s most luxurious property.
One successful test of endurance in which Forte triumphed was a stand-off with Sicilian bureaucracy over the building of a golf resort in Verdura, which the hotelier has described as a nightmare that came at a price of 130 million pounds ($204 million).
“Sicily is a different world,” Forte said of the experience. “It is almost as if in Sicily they do not want things to change.” This may sound at first uncannily like conservative St. Petersburg bureaucracy, which many locals feel is impossible to surpass, but Forte’s experience suggests otherwise.
“They have ten times more civil servants in Sicily than they have in Lombardy, and it is continuous,” he explains. “I found a piece of land along the coastline; part of it was listed as a protected area from an environmental point of view. So I had to deal with the local government, the regional government and the local Green party, which was quite justly described as something of a Taliban by the head of an environmental party in Rome, and all of them had something they objected to.”
Forte held more than 70 rounds of negotiations with the landowners, and nearly gave up. But the golf resort that he built on a stunning stretch of coastline — which features two identical 18-hole championship courses designed by Kyle Phillips — is unique in Italy, and the hotelier has essentially turned a desert into an oasis.
With an impressive background in fencing and triathlon, Forte takes his sports almost as seriously as he approaches his business, and his achievements in this sphere have earned him well-deserved respect.
Forte’s aquaintance with triathlon happened by sheer chance. Back in the 1980s, he enjoyed competing in marathons — he is a regular at the London Marathon — and has always been a running enthusiast.
Then, while holidaying in Scotland, where he was grouse shooting with his friends, Forte damaged his Achilles tendon, which made running out of the question. Forte did not succumb to gastronomic indulgence, however, but got himself a bike. It was on one of his cycling trips that he stopped at his Balmoral hotel, where the deputy manager suggested that Forte join him at the forthcoming London triathlon competition.
Admittedly, the competitive businessman took part in the contest just because he wanted to complete it in a faster time than the Balmoral manager — which he succeeded in doing — but he loved the challenge of endurance events, and has been a triathlon enthusiast since.
In his twenties, Forte was a fencing champion at Oxford University, with a high chance of joining Britain’s Olympic team. He gave up suddenly in a fit of rage when he felt that the judging in one of the qualifying heats was unfair.
“What happened was that back then, the judges relied solely on their eyes to count the hits, whereas now this problem doesn’t exist: Everyone uses electric sabers, which means that all hits are automatically registered,” he said. “The judges missed some of my hits, and I was beside myself.
“Of course I was stupid to leave; I didn’t realise that the same system would give me an advantage when I competed on the other side,” Forte admits.
The chance to join the Olympic team may have been lost forever, but as the Rocco Forte Hotels story shows, dealing with prejudices and converting passion from a destructive force into a fuel that drives a business has become something of an art in which Forte excels.