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Robert Cook, CEO, Malmaison

Business Life meets Robert Cook, CEO Malmaison
blmH0909-Robert Cook
Robert Cook, CEO Malmaison
Daniel Swallow

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Robert Cook, 42, CEO of the Malmaison and Hotel du Vin hotel group, was born into the hospitality trade, spending the first 18 years of his life living in The Swallow Hotel in Peterhead, Scotland. Following his father into hotel management, he trained at the Holiday Inn, London, before a series of positions in other groups led to him being installed as general manager of the Malmaison in Newcastle in 1996. After leaving Malmaison in 2000 he returned to the company four years later as CEO, where one of his first acts was to oversee the purchase of Hotel du Vin. Since then, the group has grown to 26 hotels in the UK, and expansion, within the UK and beyond, is top of his to do list.

How’s business?

Business is unpredictable. But in general we’re holding up pretty well. We’ve had to talk to new audiences, no question. Our new hotels have opened well. And food and beverage is stronger than last year. I think the consumer’s still got money on the high street. I think we’re probably working five times as hard to stand still.  

Any specific plans for the year ahead?

The group can’t stand still, it has to grow. We’ve got to the juncture where Malmaison will have to go one way and Hotel du Vin will go the other. We are in the process of putting a fund together to grow Hotel du Vin, to try and double or treble its size in the UK over the next five to ten years. Malmaison, on the other hand, I wouldn’t say it’s done its time in the UK, but other than another London property, it really should be outside this country by now.

What is it about the brand that will make it work internationally?

I think it’s of a size, the bedroom count, that will fit into a lot of developers’ aspirations, particularly in multiple use developments, where there are apartments, condos and retail, etc. But, also, it’s got a sense of humour and a cheekiness to it that is quite exciting. And it’s very different to what else is out there. So there’s always been a hankering to go to the States, and although the States is in as sorry a state economically as we are at the moment, this has to be the time to grab an opportunity.
 
So is now the time to be entrepreneurial?

Absolutely. Our board sat recently and said “it’s time to grow, let’s start looking for more opportunities.”

How do you maintain standards during a time of rapid growth?

I think that the lesson of the last year is that with 26 hotels I can’t oversee every single development. I mean, last year we did four hotels in three months! I can’t choose the wallpaper for every single room. But that’s how it was. I was anal. I have to be prepared to let go.

Does the industry train good people now?

I think standards are poor. Training in some parts of this market is put on the back page and that’s a bad idea. When I go to hotel schools to choose the next 12 graduates, the thing that sways them to us is that I tell them if they do well with me they’ll be a general manager by the time they’re 30. I know every single graduate by name, know where they are in the programme, and spend time with them. We’re old fashioned in a way, getting stuck into the day-to-day problems of running a hotel, and that’s how you learn.

You learned by being brought up in one…

Not everybody was born and brought up in a hotel like me, it’s true. I became CEO of this business when I was 37 and no way could I have done that if I hadn’t spent my whole childhood watching my mum and dad run a hotel. But I love to learn from other people. I’ve been networking my whole life. I have dinner with different people four nights a week. And when I meet them, maybe there’s something I can do for them and maybe there’s something they can do for me. It all works.

Do you have an office?


Yes, but it’s the most bare office there is. My office really is a laptop and a phone. I’m on the move all the time. We’ve had to make some tough decisions recently and I’d rather be with the general manager explaining them to staff.

Do you find it possible to go on holiday without analysing everything?

I stay in a lot of villas! I’m not as analytical as people would expect me to be. I stayed in Madeira two years ago and loved the hotel. Majorca last year was great. But if things aren’t going right I don’t say anything. We get it wrong sometimes, too. Of course I visit lots of hotels and restaurants as well. I like to see new stuff and I’ll grab an idea and take it into our formula if it works. And I’m always looking at buildings thinking what they would be like as hotels. I think every building in the world should be converted into a hotel! Wouldn’t Buckingham Palace make a great hotel?

You once said you’d like to run Newcastle United. What would you do there?

I moved to Newcastle to open the Mal in 1996 and my first client was Ruud Gullit, room 709. He stayed with us for a year and I got to know Freddy Shepherd, the then [Newcastle United] owner. I call myself a born-again Geordie. I think you make a business work through team spirit and motivation and there doesn’t appear to be any at the moment.

Is there anything you can do to get people moving again?

I think the government can do more and I’d like ten minutes with Gordon Brown to ask him some questions. Saving jobs is more important than telling people they can only work 40 hours a week. People would work for 60 hours a week as long as they had a job. And some of the health and safety stuff. As part of a new directive, we will have to put little caps on every plug socket — that’s £58,000 for our company! Now, I can afford it but many can’t. I think next year will be more of the same and a bit of growth in 2011 but it will never be like it was.

Derek Harbinson

Tags

hotels, city, hospitality
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