Acting up: Hotel tycoon Sir Rocco Forte
I nearly became an actor, you know,’ Sir Rocco Forte confides as he sinks back into a pillowy sofa in the Kipling suite in Brown’s in Mayfair, one of his collection of luxury hotels.
‘I was in a television play when I was 13. Michael Caine was in it too, before he was discovered, of course. I met him years later and he remembered me – he said I was a polite boy.’
The youthful Rocco got the part through the late showbusiness mogul Lord Delfont, a friend of his father. But the magnetic pull of the family hospitality business proved stronger than the attractions of greasepaint.
‘I was paid £600 in 1958 for that appearance, which was a lot of money. I was offered lots more parts too, but I decided to concentrate on my exams. I am better as a hotelier than an actor, and it’s too late now – I’m a bit old for James Bond.’
Perhaps, but at a still-suave and immaculately groomed 73 years of age, he could plausibly pass for a retired 007. The chances of him opting out of the family business were always remote, though. His father, the legendary Charles Forte, single-handedly built up Forte plc over five decades in to a multi-million pound hotel and restaurant company.
Having started the business at the age of just 26, he had groomed Rocco, the only son of six children, from infancy to take it over. Even so, the transition from father to son set the air crackling with Oedipal tension.
‘No father in business ever wants to hand over. We had a difficult time, a lot of rows. He sacked me three times and I resigned four times,’ Rocco says.
Lord Forte finally relinquished the reins of the company he had founded back in the 1930s with a single milk bar on London’s Regent Street in 1992, aged 83. He died at the grand old age of 98, 15 years later.
‘My father wanted me to succeed him but he was always afraid of giving me responsibility in case I made a mistake. Of course, that is how you learn, by making mistakes – so by the time I was able to make mistakes they were big ones,’ he says.
Rocco did not have long to stamp his mark on the firm his father created. In 1995, the City was appalled and riveted in equal measure when TV and leisure company Granada won a £3.8 billion hostile takeover battle for the company.
The bid – a British version of Barbarians at the Gate about the fall of Nabisco in the US – pitted the long-term Forte family approach against the cold-eyed, cost-cutting accountants at Granada, setting the scene for the debate on takeover bids that still rages today.
Rocco, still at that time only in his early-50s, was left to contemplate the destruction of the business to which his father had devoted his entire life. At the time, many people expected him to retreat into a gilded private existence and lick his wounds. Rocco, however, was made of sterner stuff than many had thought.
He bounced back, starting a hotel chain of his own with his sister Olga Polizzi. Mere months after the takeover in 1996, the siblings set up a new luxury group. Their first property was the Balmoral in Edinburgh, which they bought back from Granada. It was followed by the Savoy in Florence and the Astoria in St Petersburg.
Forte bought Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair in 2003. It’s London’s oldest and a haunt of Rudyard Kipling – hence the name of the suite, which has a plaster monkey swinging over the door in honour of The Jungle Book. Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde were habitués of the hotel, which was also the site for the first-ever telephone call, placed by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876.
Nowadays, it boasts a new restaurant, Beck at Brown’s, with Michelin-starred chef Heinz Beck, designed by sister Olga. The Donovan Bar – named in honour of the celebrated 1960s photographer Terence Donovan and boasting a huge picture of model Twiggy in her heyday – relaunched in the spring.
In hindsight, now that he has re-established himself, is there any sense in which he sees the Granada bid as a blessing in disguise?
‘No. It was a bad thing. Trusthouse Forte was a great company – it was an institution. Granada broke it up and sold it off for less than they paid for it, so it was a complete waste of time from that point of view. It was an exercise to keep the Granada share price up. It was a complete disaster,’ he says.
Did he feel the need to vindicate himself? ‘I was irritated and upset by the whole thing. I had a need to do something. I have just got on with my life. I have created something special and something I am proud of. My role would have been different at Forte, I wouldn’t have been able to be hands-on in the same way.’
In its latest accounts for 2017, the hotel group rang up sales of £194 million and a pre-tax profit of £7.6 million.
Luxury: Brown’s in Mayfair is part of Sir Rocco Forte’s upmarket group which is now expanding into China and the Middle East
Later this year, it is scheduled to reopen its second hotel in Rome, the Hotel de Ville at the top of the Spanish Steps. Its other property in the Eternal City is the Hotel de Russie bought 18 years ago. ‘The building had been empty for eight years. It had been a hotel and had been popular in the 1930s with the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev and Picasso. I recreated that. I paid back the money I borrowed in three years,’ Rocco says.
His favourite hotel is the Beverly Hills in LA, owned by the Sultan of Brunei, along with the Plaza Athenee in Paris. Is there a hotel he would like to stay in but hasn’t? ‘Maybe that ice hotel,’ he says.
‘I like to be comfortable. I did enough slumming it in my student days staying in flea pits,’ he says. While at Oxford, he was a fencing blue and went with the team to Paris, where they were put in a hotel so grotty that the sheets hadn’t been changed.
‘A couple came out of my room just before I went in, and they left the bed all rumpled. I thought someone would come and change it but they didn’t, not even when I asked. I had to turn the mattress over. That was the worst hotel I have ever stayed in.’
He opened a hotel in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia in 2016 and a new one in Shanghai this year. ‘I would like to be in Milan, in Venice and in New York,’ he says. ‘I’d like a calling card in New York.’
Forte’s fresh start in business was accompanied by a personal make-over when he took up hardcore training at the age of 54, and didn’t stop until he was 65, running a string of marathons and representing Britain several times at the World Triathlon Championships.
‘I was really training hard at an age when most men let themselves go,’ he says. It sounds like a man who feels he has something to prove. Was he having a mid-life crisis? ‘No, I had that when I stopped! I still train but I don’t compete, I’m focusing on my golf.’
He says he doesn’t want to talk about politics but vouchsafes that he thinks we have ‘a weak Government and a ghastly opposition’.
His own children are all in the business and his wife, Lady Aliai, is on his board.
Lydia, 31, is food and beverage development director; Irene, 30, created a ‘spa philosophy’ and the Forte Organics range of beauty products; while Charles, 26, works in global development.
‘I give them responsibility, which my father found hard to give to me,’ he says.
So has he planned what will happen when he eventually steps down? ‘I don’t know yet,’ he says. ‘But they all get on, and the great thing about a family business is the long-term view.’