Sir Rocco Forte is a natural performer. You only have to watch him having his picture taken to see it. The whole time the photographer is cajoling, directing and bullying him to look this way or walk that way, to put this hand here or there, Forte is working the room, playing to the small crowd. He seems to relish the attention of the lens, and as the photographer suggests he has "done this before", Forte entertains us with a story of an encounter with Sir David Bailey.

There’s nothing particularly revealing in the amusing tale itself, which involves Bailey, digital photography and rival Sir Patrick Litchfield; what’s interesting is that you get the feeling this well-rehearsed story is the one Forte tells when he’s having his picture taken. The words "you’ve done this before" take on new meaning.

In all honesty, there aren’t many feats that the British hotelier has not performed in what has been one of the most storied careers in the hotel game. Upon receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at Hotel Management International’s European Hospitality Awards in November, he mused on the inevitability of his working in the sector, of having travelled on "a fast escalator" to the summit. This, again, is a practised line in humility, however. Our judges were less bashful: "Most hoteliers are content with developing one international hotel group in a lifetime," they surmised. "Sir Rocco has performed this rarest of tricks twice."

"When you start sharpening the pencil too much, then the deal isn’t worth doing," he says. "In this business, you can put anything you like on paper, but then you’ve got to make it happen."

Winds of change
Born in Bournemouth in 1945, Sir Rocco Forte is the son of the late Lord Charles Forte, the legendary entrepreneur and hotelier born in Italy – he was originally Carmine Forte – but who emigrated to Scotland aged just four. Forte has maintained strong links with Italy, and his press assistant later tells me he plays on this dual heritage, with Italian hotels, in Rome and Sicily, thriving because people think they are run by an Italian, while in the UK he is as British as Browns.

After Oxford, Forte was destined to join the family business, but first he took the time to study and qualify as a chartered accountant.

"I could have gone to business school, but I thought this was a better way of getting a grounding in business and finance, and it has been invaluable to me," he says, settled comfortably into the corner of a huge sofa in one of the top suites at his London hotel, Browns. It means I’m not bamboozled by accountants; I’m numerate, and that’s invaluable in business. But being an articled clerk was not much fun. You come out of Oxford thinking you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread, and you find yourself adding up numbers on someone’s tax return. It brings you down to earth quite sharply."

"You don’t want staff asking the usual questions. I hate it when you go into a hotel and you’re asked five times how your flight was. You start wondering whether they know something you don’t."

For all his training and numeracy, he is not a fan of complex financial deals, famously saying that he doesn’t trust deals that can’t be written on the back of an envelope. "When you start sharpening the pencil too much, then the deal isn’t worth doing," he says. "In this business, you can put anything you like on paper, but then you’ve got to make it happen."

Forte will forever be remembered not for what he has made happen but for what he didn’t do in the hostile takeover deal that cost his family the business his father had spent his life creating. Almost 20 years later, the move that saw Gerry Robinson’s Granada get control of TrustHouseForte (THF), only a few years after Forte had been handed control by his father, still pains him. It’s tempting to wonder whether, with £350 million netted for the family, and a new and growing collection of luxury hotels to their name, things haven’t worked out for the best.

But Forte is still upset. "The pain I have [about the takeover] is that it was such a waste. It was such a good business, and the people who bought it didn’t know anything about it. They were riding a wave on the stock market and needed another acquisition to keep them going. They ended up buying us, then breaking it up for less than they paid for it. It was a complete waste. What was a good business that needed modernising and improving, which I had started doing, was thrown out of the window."

For Forte, this was the first serious setback in what had, until then, been a somewhat charmed life. "You know, in a different way, I am glad it happened, because I’d always had things relatively easy. I was protected by my father. I was put on a fast escalator, and although I worked my way through the business and it wasn’t as if I did nothing, I’ve never struggled like a lot of people have to struggle."


Holding the Forte
Since losing that battle, he seems to have got the hang of fighting. "Starting any new business, even when you’ve got a bit of cash behind you, is a struggle," he says. But the most dramatic struggle in recent years was the financial crisis. Forte describes, with characteristic understatement, being "left with quite a degree of indigestion" after the financial crash.

"Two months after Lehmann, our sales dropped by 40% year on year. It was quite dramatic in terms of the business operation but also financially. It created difficulties for us. Trading settled down at 20% below where it had been, which is still dramatic. Since then, it’s improved, and we’re now ahead of where we were before the collapse."

But the real issue was the amount of debt the business had. "I was in a position where I had too much debt. I had to sell a hotel in Geneva, and, gradually, finance improved and things got better. I went through things I’d never imagined I’d ever have to go through. That’s been very salutary and it’s been interesting in a perverse sort of way."

There is, he admits, an element of the business having been toughened in the fire,"but one could do without that," he says. "In terms of the business, you take stock. We’ve taken more difficult decisions than we would otherwise. We’ve improved processes, our financial reporting and our ability to control the business. So it’s been good from that point of view."

Initially set up as RF Hotels, it became the Rocco Forte Collection in 2001 – the name was handed back to ease "lingering hostility" – and is now more commonly referred to as a group (customers in the Middle East apparently struggle with this use of collection). But whether a collection, chain or group, the business has expanded and retrenched over the 20 years since Forte purchased the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh and Browns in London. Hotels have come and gone, either under management arrangements or full ownership. Some sales have been strategic – he says he sold the Lowry in Manchester because it "didn’t fit with the strategy to be based in major global cities" – while others have been conducted to help fund the business.

Forte now gives the impression that things are on an even keel, and he says he’s sorted out more internal systems and group-level operations, although he says the hotels will maintain their unique identities. And he is on the verge of getting a new minority investor on board who will bring more balance to the group’s finances.

"We’ve just had a rebranding and have adjusted brand values. This led to a change of operating standards. We’ve changed our training, made it more uniform across the group and worked on improving interaction of staff with customers, making it more natural.

"You don’t want staff asking the usual questions. I hate it when you go into a hotel and you’re asked five times how your flight was. You start wondering whether they know something you don’t."


Children’s stories
Forte is able to draw on that big company experience, although he admits THF was so big and diverse that being CEO there was different to his current job. "That was a big international company that employed 100,000 people. The role I had was more strategic. It was difficult to get involved in the detail of hotel keeping, but having run a big company, I understand the disciplines that come with that.

"I’m aware of the importance of line responsibility and so on, but I don’t want the bureaucracy that can develop in big groups. We’re relatively small and we can cut out politics."

Wherever you look in Forte’s business, there is no escaping family. From the time his father founded his first milk bar in Regent’s Street, the family has been all about hospitality. His sister, Olga Polizzi, helps run the business and is responsible for all design, while his two daughters also work for him; one was responsible for the recent centralisation, and training and standards project, while the other is working to update restaurants and bars to focus on local communities as much as hotel guests. Both, he says with shameless paternal pride, are "very bright and energetic". More importantly, they are "very qualified" for their jobs.

"The fact that they’re family enables them to get things done where it would be more difficult for an executive at their level. It’s fantastic for me because they are an extension of me; they think in the same way, but are younger and have all the energy and open-mindedness. When you get to my age, you get cynical, you’ve been round the tracks a few times.

"It’s important they make decisions and take responsibility for them. That was one of the things my father never did, because he was terrified I would make a mistake. He never wanted me to have responsibility. Eventually, when I did have responsibility for mistakes I might make, they were great big ones."

So is he building a dynasty for his children? "Eventually I’d like them to succeed me," he agrees. "But I got married very late, so they’re very young relative to my age. My son is still at university, so I hope he will come in, too. The trick is to try to organise it so they can work effectively together and complement each other. But let’s wait for five or six years and we’ll see. I don’t want to force them, but they enjoy what they do and are passionate about it."

As our conversation comes to an end, we turn to his love of sport, and he gives the clearest possible indication that the real odds of him stepping down soon, despite being 70 next year, are slim.

He says he’s stopped doing triathalons and Ironman challenges – the training was taking up too much time – and is working on his golf swing. Playing off a 12 handicap, he says he keeps tinkering with his swing. And the reason for that? "It annoys me that I don’t hit the ball as far as Rory McIlroy. I know I’m probably three times his age, but I still push big weights and don’t see why I can’t hit the ball far."

A version of this article originally appeared in ICAEW’s Economia –