Shaper: Nigel Champan

Show aired on 14th February 2015

Transcript

Elliot Moss
A racy start to Jazz Shapers today, that was Milestones from Mark Murphy, a Miles Davis original of course. Good morning, it’s me, Elliot Moss, here on Jazz FM’s Jazz Shapers. Thank you very much for joining me. Jazz Shapers the place where you can hear the very best of the people who are shaping the world of jazz, soul and blues alongside their equivalents in the world of business; a Business Shaper. My Business Shaper today is Nigel Chapman; he is the founder of the beautiful group of hotels called the Luxury Family Hotels Group and they include Woolley Grange, Ickworth and Moonfleet Manor. I have been to one of those at least and I promise they are brilliant and you will be hearing lots from him about just how brilliant they are and how he made them so. In addition to hearing from Nigel, you will be hearing from our programme partners at Mischon De Reya some words of advice for your business and on top of all of that if you can take it, some fantastic music from the shapers of jazz, soul and blues, including Takuya Kuroda, Bill Withers and this classic from Ella Fitzgerald – it’s Manhattan.

The mellifluous Manhattan from none other than Ella Fitzgerald. This is Jazz Shapers, I am Elliot Moss and my Business Shaper today as I billed earlier is Nigel Chapman, he is the founder of the Luxury Family Hotels Group and I mentioned some fantastic names – Woolley Grange, Ickworth, Moonfleet Manor – he is also an investor and set-up the beautiful Martinhal Resort over in Portugal. I should know because I have been there too. I sound like I am always travelling but I am not I promise. Nigel thank you very much for joining me. Tell me, what gave you the bug to set up your own business in the wonderful world of hotels – where did the idea come from? 1988/89 was the first hotel wasn’t it?

Nigel Chapman
Well my background is that I am an accountant and my first office was about a hundred metres from where we are sitting now and like most accountants I had a dream and in this particular case the dream was to open a hotel. And the idea actually came from a stay that I had in an Irish Hotel called Ballymaloe House, County Cork and I first went there in 1977 and I went back year after year, gradually getting more and more entranced by the place and eventually announced to my wife one day that I had made an offer on a manor house in Wiltshire and we were selling our house and moving in.

Elliott Moss
This is quite radical stuff. I mean I know accountants have dreams. I hear they do, I know somewhere in those incredibly clever logical left brain minds there is also dreams and right brain thoughts but to jump from the dream and the place of safety and security to your own business and the hotel business. An incredible leap. What made you think that you would be able to pull it off?

Nigel Chapman
Yeah that’s a good question actually. I suppose accountants are practical people but they also do have this mad streak many of them and I guess the mad streak led me into the world of hotels. What’s really nice about the hotel industry is that you are looking after people 24/7 and you have the opportunity to kind of influence their lives for a much longer period of time and if you think about what you are doing as an accountant, which is a great job of course, this is much more creative and interesting and to be absolutely honest at the time it was an investment idea as well. We might talk a bit about timing later on because we opened the first hotel in 1989 which could have been a worst time and having moved the wife and kids into the hotel on day one and having sold the family house, with interest rates started to climb and climb, some of it was nineteen percent by the time we got there. We kind of had the water up to our noses and maybe even slightly beyond our noses at the time. So yeah it was probably was a mad jump but no regrets.

Elliot Moss
Now we are going to talk about timing in a bit. I just want to quickly ask you though now, how many hotels are in the stable?

Nigel Chapman
We’ve got eight.

Elliot Moss
Eight hotels. And there has been a journey which we are going to also cover in terms of you had eight and then you had none and then you’ve got eight and so on and so forth.

Nigel Chapman
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for some fascinating stuff from my Business Shaper, Nigel Chapman who decided one day to not just follow the dream but to actually really make it happen and boy has he done that. Time for some music, this is the fantastic Takuya Kuroda with Green and Gold.

That was the distinctive sound of Takuya Kuroda, the trumpeter with Green and Gold. Nigel Chapman is my Business Shaper today, he is the founder of the Luxury Family Hotels Group, lots of them, eight now. The accountant with a dream and I feel like I am in some sort of accountants anonymous group and you have just come clean on the fact that accountants do have dreams which is good to know. When you moved the family and as you said, lock, stock and barrel. You had sold the house. You had obviously done the numbers and I often ask this question – how had you worked out that you could survive for a period of time without income to the level that you might want it – you alluded to the nineteen percent interest rates which there were around the late 80s, I remember those as a sort of teenager and my family going you know, like many families going through some difficult times – you didn’t just do that you set up a business. What were those first few months and years like?

Nigel Chapman
Yeah I mean step one was to take a derelict manor house and turned it into a hotel.

Elliot Moss
Which is a project in itself?

Nigel Chapman
That was a project and I rather conceitedly thought that we could do it in six months during which time I think we nearly drove ourselves mad and also probably nearly went bust. So actually step one was trying to bring the development of the house into a hotel within any sort of manageable budget and of course it went over budget as it did. So when you say, how did we work out how we were going to survive while we built the business up – well the answer was – probably not quite well enough at the time. Obviously twenty five years later it’s a bit different but then I guess the optimism was the triumph of practicality.

Elliot Moss
And did you… I mean and optimism is fine and you’ve done it and you can look back and say it worked but at that point were you just borrowing money left, right and centre? Is it as simple as that or did you have other investors?

Nigel Chapman
You have to have faith when you are doing something like this. You have to have faith and I had a burning passion to make it work and if you haven’t got that then you are never going to be able to survive and you are never going to be able to find the money to carry on so somehow or other you scrape everything together and you keep going and as I say, we were in it up to our noses and living there. Three, actually four, soon four young children all under eight, all living there thinking it was wonderful. So we had to kind of make a go of it – we didn’t really have an option and that’s not a bad place to be when you are in business actually as, you have your back against the wall and actually that sorts out the sheep from the goats.

Elliot Moss
And when did you realise that you were indeed going to be a successful sheep? At what point did the business start to turn a profit and you went ‘you know what, this is the best thing I have ever done’. How long did that take?

Nigel Chapman
I think those are two separate questions actually. We actually opened the doors in May 1989. It couldn’t have been a worst time really. Everything was just falling off, off the cliff and the first couple of years was incredibly tough, incredibly difficult but very exciting. Opening a hotel business from scratch, first time you have ever done anything like that, people come as they say and suddenly we found that the concept that we’d thought about putting together which I have to say was radical because in those days country house hotels were places where well-off couples went and spent a weekend pretending to be visitors or sorry, guests in a country house whereas we were actually inviting families and that was considered to be venturing into very deep waters as far as the establishment was concerned. So we were, we were actually definitely going against established wisdom at the time. So actually it took a couple of years before we began to make any headway and probably the first of my grey hairs of which I now have a few and fortunately that’s when the fourth child arrived so I guess it had some benefits.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me or much more from my Business Shaper, Nigel Chapman and hear about how optimism has indeed prevailed and it has done rather well too. Latest travel in a couple of minutes and before that some words of wisdom for your burgeoning business idea, you need to believe in it from what Nigel said, from our program partners at Mishcon De Reya.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss every Saturday morning I get to meet and talk to an entrepreneur, someone who has made it in the world of business, someone who, as Nigel Chapman my Business Shaper today was talking about, has ensured that optimism has indeed prevailed in spite of all the odds it sounds like. If you have missed any of the previous programmes then iTunes is your destination, there is lots in there and if you are on a British Airways flight you can also catch a few of my favourites on there to. Nigel we were talking about those first few years, we were talking about the fact that the budget went over, of course it did and boy did you know how to keep the budget because you are an accountant by trade, we haven’t yet talked about the nub of the idea which was essentially a brilliant place for families to stay. You have, you had then a young family and now it is obviously an older family, what was it that made you think it could work in spite of the fact it was the second worse recession at that point of the century? Where did that idea come from that families deserved a really fantastic and high end break as well?

Nigel Chapman
Well I think the first thing to say is that I didn’t know we were headed into a recession at the time, as my wife reminds me now and again. What happened is that most of these hotels that were opened up in the 70s and 80s, particularly in the 80s, they tended to turn their stable blocks and those kind of ancillary accommodation into conference centres and we looked at our coach house and went ‘no, we’re going to turn this into a crèche’. We are going to specialise in children, we’ve got our own young children to look after so why don’t we just expand the facility and allow our guests to use it so that when they come and stay they can leave their kids in the den, as it was called, for a while and have a bit of grown up time together and the kids can enjoy themselves with other children which is actually the other main factor is, the moment people walk in the door of the hotel and they realise that there is families with other kids running around chilling out, that’s actually the magic. But the key at the time was having a crèche where people could leave their children for a bit and go off and read a newspaper or fall asleep in front of the fire or something else.

Elliot Moss
Now the places are beautiful, I have been as I said to a couple and one in the UK. You can’t buy taste. You obviously have and I don’t know many accountants that would profess to do this, you either have a great team around you or you have taste yourself. Where has it come from? What would you say is the secret to delivering a lovely suite of hotels with nice art, with the right kind of brickwork, with attention to detail that I and many other people would notice?

Nigel Chapman
Yes well that’s a good question and I’ve got to thank my wife for that, Heather, because she was the one who drew the lines around my fantasy and turned it into reality. At the time that we were doing the first hotel and actually if you go back to Woolley today you will find it looks and feels very similar to how it did when we first opened it twenty five years ago. Obviously it has moved on a bit but I think if you walked through the door there is still the same pictures on the walls, still the same feel, still the same fire burning in the grate and in fact the same black leather sofas that we opened with twenty five years ago. Although I have to say, it’s a replacement set of the same thing that were donated to us by a guest but no I think you know, we try to create a kind of a home from home which is more than home obviously but it is still a home from home and that look and feel as we would call it is, is something that comes from the heart.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for more from my Business Shaper, Nigel Chapman. Time for some more music, this is one of my favourites, it is Mr Bill Withers with Lovely Day.

That was Lovely Day and Bill Withers, uplifting I think. Nigel Chapman is my Business Shaper and Nigel we have been talking about taste and we’ve been talking about your wife and it sounds like you obviously made a good team over the years. You mentioned something earlier which intrigues me and not everyone would want to do this, you said the idea of serving people, the idea of having guests there 24/7 appealed to you. Most people that aren’t in the hotel business would say I don’t want to be in a business because I know I am going to have to look after them. What is it that makes you feel good about looking after people and all the different idiosyncrasies that come with that and the demands and so on. Doesn’t it stress you out?

Nigel Chapman
That’s what distinguishes people who work in the business and people who don’t or people who are successful in the business. They do get a buzz from giving other people a good time and I think over the years and I have to say, I am not as hands on as I used to be but I certainly spent the first seven or eight years being very hands on, it’s that human spirit of looking after other people. What I suppose you could call hospitality and it either turns you on or it doesn’t and if it doesn’t you shouldn’t be in the industry.

Elliot Moss
Has that come from anywhere? Is there somewhere in your past that you have seen that, apart from the experience you had as an adult, is that a childhood thing where you just – you knew what it was from a young age or have you learnt on the job as it were or learnt just prior to the job? Was it the excitement of going to the hotel every year that you’ve described before?

Nigel Chapman
We always used to give good parties, even when I was an accountant, my accountancy firm used to give extremely good parties and I thoroughly enjoyed it and I guess in a way, you wouldn’t say it grew out of the parties that we gave but it certainly grew out of the buzz that you get from people enjoying themselves. So yeah, I guess it kind of grew progressively over a period of time and the ultimate expression was selling the family home and opening a hotel in a format that was considered at the time to be pretty risky.

Elliot Moss
Now on top of the softer side and the softer side is the key to the delivery obviously in your business – you are a steely businessman, you have sold your business once for a very significant amount. That business, the people that bought the business didn’t do so well and in fact you bought your business back and you’ve grown again. That’s unusual in an entrepreneur’s journey – often they start one thing, they sell one thing, they start another – what’s it been like, what was it like getting back your babies? As I think, as you have described it I think?

Nigel Chapman
Yes I have described it like that and other people have described it like that as well. I think that the first thing to say is that we went from Woolley Grange which was the first hotel to build up a group of four hotels. And I did it with actually a proper hotelier, a chap called Nicholas Dickinson who became my business partner and he and I shared a vision and we built up the original Luxury Family Hotels one at a time, very very carefully trying to find with each hotel something new to offer to the market, maybe older children, more activities, seaside venue, that kind of thing and then the last one we opened was Ickworth which was a beautiful grand Grade 1 listed building which we did in partnership with the National Trust so it was a very considered path and I have to say it wasn’t necessarily my ambition to sell but one day a fairly well-known character landed on the lawn of one of our hotels in a helicopter with a big cheque book, which he did to quite a lot of people at the time and we talked about it and felt that it was in the interests of our interests and also of course we had outside shareholders by then and between us we decided it was the best thing to do. So actually somewhat reluctantly I have to say personally, we sold and that was, yeah you are absolutely right, that was a brilliant time.

Elliot Moss
We are going to come back in a bit and talk about what happened when they sold because it isn’t as you can tell, the end of the particular story. That’s coming up in a moment but you will also be hearing the blues harmonica of Rob Paparozzi. That’s after the latest traffic and travel here on Jazz FM.

That was Work Song from Rob Paparozzi, the harmonica player and The Ed Palermo Big Band in the background as well and in the foreground quite a lot too. Nigel Chapman is my Business Shaper and we have been talking about all sorts of things. We got to the point where you sold your business because you thought that was the right thing to do for you and your shareholders. You then ended up buying it back again which is an unusual situation I imagine. When you realised this was back on the cards, was there a frisson, was there a sense of excitement or was there a sense of ‘I always knew this would happen’? I knew they would come back to me.

Nigel Chapman
Having spent so many years building up a small but very carefully chosen group of hotels for a particular market which we were immensely proud of, it was you know, it was a sad thing to do to part company because I felt that we still had unfinished business there so clearly we kept our eye on the company that bought us out and as you know, some years later well actually a few years later now, they got themselves into some difficulties and all the hotels that they accumulated came back to the market. So we had the opportunity to yeah go in and pick them back up again and carry on with what was to me unfinished business and that is what we are working through now.

Elliot Moss
So the radical idea that was back in the late 80s that became a reality. You still feel like you are at the forefront of that? Are you still looking to innovate? Are you still looking to say ‘yes the core of the idea is right, it’s about families, it’s about luxury but I am going to be doing different and more stuff’? Is that what’s going on for you right now?

Nigel Chapman
Yeah that’s a really good point actually because of course over the twenty five years there has been at least one generation and people have changed and if you ask me what those changes are I would give you an example which, which is yeah, interesting. Families used to arrive on a Friday and maybe they arrive in the dark, it’s raining, they give the kids their tea, they give them a bath, put them to bed, get some nice clothes on, come down and have dinner together and you know, get up the next morning and have breakfast but the point about it is that mum and dad would have had some grown up time together and the kids would have been in packed off to bed. Nowadays that family may well sit and eat together and have what we call family dining and they will dine as a family because the quality time that parents want with their children is actually in some ways possibly rarer than it used to be – I don’t, I am not fully sure why it’s changed but it has definitely changed to the extent that people want to spend more time with their children and do more with their children than they used to so in terms of where we are going, yeah we are headed in the direction of parents doing more with their children, not just eating obviously but also activities and yeah, spending time with the family.

Elliot Moss
Now you seem a very calm person who is running a very busy business and I am imagining you have always been pretty calm. When things haven’t been so calm, where have you gone for advice?

Nigel Chapman
That’s a very good question. The first port of call is always the wife. We always shared our business ups and downs together so we yeah, we chew everything over.

Elliot Moss
And you still have quality time with your wife as well in spite of always discussing or many often discussing work?

Nigel Chapman
Well that’s an interesting philosophical point. Do you talk about work at all or none and I guess it is one or the other and in our case we always shared everything so that’s how we do it.

Elliot Moss
The business right now and just before I am going to ask you about your song choice, the business right now and your view of the hotel business – is this a good time for hoteliers? Is this a ripe time? Is it any different from the way it was twenty five years ago? Will the winners still be the optimists?

Nigel Chapman
Well hopefully you’ve got to be an optimist to make a success of any business otherwise how and earth can you pull everyone behind you. These days we have seven or eight hundred people working with us and hundreds and thousands of guests so obviously it is a slightly different business than it used to be when we first started out all those years ago. But you still need that sense of optimism but no I think it is a very interesting time. It’s a time of change. There is nothing like a long period of I suppose not exactly hardship but pressure to make everybody respond to changes and yeah I am looking forward to it.

Elliot Moss
And as long as people want to serve 24/7 as you said their guests then this is a business for them and if they don’t, don’t do it.

Nigel Chapman
Absolutely I completely agree with that and it’s you know, it’s – the hotel business has been described as a drug and I don’t mean that in the derogatory sense but once you are hooked, you’re hooked.

Elliot Moss
Well listen Nigel thank you so much for spending some time with me. It sounds like you are indeed hooked and doing rather well being hooked so congratulations. Just before I let you go – what is your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Nigel Chapman
Well I first saw this lady at Live Aid and she managed to captivate the whole of Wembley Stadium and I suddenly thought ‘gosh this is amazing’ and I listened to her sing this song and I kind of followed her career ever since. It’s quite a difficult thing to do as she is pretty shy but I caught up with her at the O2 a couple of years ago and she blew me away so the song choice is Smooth Operator by Sade.

Elliot Moss
Well here it is and thank you very much again.

That was Smooth Operator from Sade, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Nigel Chapman; an opportunity spotter, someone who saw that there was a place for a luxury family hotel offering, the accountant with the dream, the man who took the numbers and made it into some kind of beautiful reality and someone most importantly in the hotel business that believed and cared and loved to care for his guests 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Fantastic stuff. Do join me again next Saturday morning for another edition of Jazz Shapers here on Jazz FM. In the meantime though stay with us because coming up next, it’s Nigel Williams.

Nigel Chapman

Nigel Champan is the founder of Luxury Family Hotels. He was inspired by his experience staying at Ballymaloe House in Ireland and what he describes as a ‘continental’ approach to families, so the former accountant sold his house in London and moved to Woolley Grange – a Jacobean manor house on the edge of Bradford-on-Avon with his wife and three young children. Nigel launched Woolley Grange in 1989 which became his entry point into the hotel business.

With his partner, Nicholas Dickson, formerly of Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons and Chewton Glen, Nigel went on to build Luxury Family Hotels  – a successful group of historic properties with a child-friendly approach. comprising four hotels including Fowey Hall in Cornwall and Moonfleet Manor in Dorset.

In 2005, the group was sold to Andrew Davis, the founder of von Essen hotels, who made an offer of £30m for Luxury Family Hotels. Nigel and Nicholas took the family-friendly luxury blueprint to Europe and launched Martinhal Beach Resort & Hotel in 2010 with partners Chitra and Roman Stern.  Following that, Nigel then returned to Cornwall where he had set up a family home and created a new company, Halcyon Hotels and Resorts. His first acquisition was the Polurrian Bay Hotel – a well-established seaside hotel dating back to 1890, set amongst 12 acres of landscaped gardens on the Cornish coast.

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

One day, I announced to my wife that I had made an offer on a manor house in Wiltshire and we were selling our house and moving in.

You have to have faith and a burning passion to make it work. If you haven’t got that then you are never going to be able to survive and you are never going to be able to find the money to carry on.

We had to make a go of it, we didn’t really have an option and that’s not a bad place to be when you are in business. Having your back against the wall sorts out the sheep from the goats.

The moment people walk in the door of the hotel and they realise that there are families chilling out with other kids running around, that’s the magic.

My wife was the one who drew the lines around my fantasy and turned it into reality. We try to create a home from home and that look and feel is something that comes from the heart.

Hospitality either turns you on or it doesn’t and if it doesn’t you shouldn’t be in the industry.

Having spent so many years building up a carefully chosen group of hotels which we were immensely proud of, it was a sad thing to part company because I felt that we had unfinished business.

We kept our eye on the company that bought us out and they got into difficulties and the hotels that they accumulated came back on to the market. We picked them back up again and are now working on our unfinished business.

People want to spend more time with their children than they used to.

You’ve got to be an optimist to make a success of any business otherwise how on earth can you pull everyone behind you?