Hospitality with a philanthropic twist

Hospitality with a philanthropic twist

There aren’t many hotels built with support for charity a main objective, and the retreat that millionaire philanthropist Brian Burnie is completing is a fine example.

“IT’S awful when you’re a millionaire and have to do the bacon sandwiches,” laughs Brian Burnie, laying out tasty butties for his visitors.

The BQ team admits such a high standard of service is new to them too, and much appreciated – especially as Brian’s 13-hour day also includes cutting the grass, which is tantamount to tending the pitch at St James’s Park, the Stadium of Light or the Riverside; maybe all three together.

Deadline is nearing for the opening of the North East’s newest attraction in rustic hospitality - Doxford Hall Country House Hotel at Chat hill, near Alnico.

“It’s going to be world class… It will happen,” says Brian, as if we doubted.

In the quiet comfort of the Burnies’ spacious lounge in an early 19th Century John Dobson mansion, it is easy to forget that in the hotel being built in a tasteful extension yards away, masons are chiselling and carpenters sawing industriously at every tick of the grandfather clock while expensive tea sets and lampshades mount in the entrance hall.

The master craftsmen, like Brian, are conscious of the seconds passing, though he is masterly at concealing any anxiety.

For 14 years now, the Burnies have worked to realise this ambition – planning consent came in 2000 - and at the time of writing £1 million worth of work remained to be done out of £14 million worth in total.

The opening is due in August; will it be on time? “It has to be,” says Brian.

“We have two weddings booked for the end of that month.” His wife Shirley, who knew we were coming and has baked a cake, brings it in and briefly joins us for a jest or two before retreating, smiling, before we can praise its delicacy – though not before she verifies, again with a laugh, her suggestion at the outset that Brian Burnie running a luxury hotel might look a bit like John Cleese in Fawlty Towers.

However, with his ducal appearance of being to the manor born, Brian looks nothing like Fawlty.

Anyway, his voice in one joke after another sounds more like Little Bobby Thompson.

Also, with his business background, his switch to hotelier should ensure early break-even at Doxford Park.

It has to, since his ultimate ambition in charity work also rests on it.

He cannot say how many millions he has raised for good causes during his 64 years, but we can assume that of all the region’s new hotels opening in a burgeoning tourist industry, this will probably be the only one guaranteeing a canny few pence to charities for every pound of profit.

So what motivates this ex-errand boy? Belief that you only get out of life what you put into it, and that you are what your parents are.

“My mam told me – and Jim Harper the trade union leader said the same thing – ‘never forget your roots’.

Provided you’ve got an inside toilet and central heating, what more do you want in life? I came from that background – outside toilet.” Through the new hotel he hopes that, long after his lifetime, his charitable trust will ensure philanthropy is perpetuated.

The business is covenanted to give money to a trust.

Not bad for a war baby born in a bedsit in Heaton, Newcastle.

Giving, for him, began with a dish of brown Windsor soup.

He recalls: “I was a lad when my mother told me to carry the soup into a neighbour, an elderly lady in an old person’s flat who was poorly.

In those days, a meal for four easily became a meal for five, even if only mashed potatoes.

“That attitude rubs off. I asked why she did it.

She said it was the least anyone could do, and if she didn’t do it, someone else would.” Then there was his father, who had served with the RAF during the war and who, like his wife, was a devout and active socialist.

“He often said that socialism was Christianity in practice.” No surprise then, that when Brian and Shirley married, guests were asked to give donations to charity rather than presents.

Over many years, their welcome door has been ever open; teenage children from Chernobyl among their countless guests.

When Brian was young, he and his parents moved over the railway line from that First Avenue bedsit to Brough Street, and his education began at North View Infants School (now no more).

Home later was a house in Shiremoor built by Sir William Leech - the Tyneside window cleaner who became one of the nation’s most successful house builders by combining practical building with cheap loans for modestly waged post-war families.

Later, Brian lived in Reid Park Road in Jesmond, Newcastle, and over the years he and William Leech became close friends.

The Leech Trust is now in its 53rd year and Sir William’s lifetime of philanthropy still inspires Brian.

“My ambition is to die penniless,” he says.

“I wouldn’t give for something in return and I laugh at millionaires who just take all in life.

They can’t take their fortunes with them.” He recognises the importance of having top grade staff for his venture.

His forte has been recruitment, after all.

After running messages at 15, then being apprenticed to John Laing the builder and qualifying as an engineer en route to management in construction and petrochemicals, Brian and a partner started Kelburn Holdings in the late 1970s to recruit engineers and surveyors.

Later, he broadened the Newcastle firm into general consultancy.

Today he has four “cracking” senior staff recruited on recommendation, and he expects there will be up to 70 hotel employees in all.

Departmental heads, he says, will have to be among the world’s best.

One local worker, he heard, recently went to work at the Sultan of Brunei’s new hotel, signalling how global the labour market is now.

“I am under no illusion about the extent of competition when standards have to be upheld,” he says.

Despite the Fawlty family joke, he says he is a good manager of people and training will contribute greatly to the hotel’s success.

“Staff will be at NVQ3 level, just as when Nissan came to Washington.

They said you didn’t have to be able to make motor cars, all you had to do was want to make motor cars.

We’ll train them here to a standard fit for a job anywhere in the world.” He is determined too that most staff, like the craftsmen now completing the hotel, will be from north Northumberland and the Borders.

So proud is he of the work there now that the public rooms will be named after the craftsmen who have worked there.

The hotel’s 25 bedrooms will be named after local castles and the hotel maxim will be: “The customer is always right...

until they don’t pay their bill!” It is already developing a reputation.

Besides a sunken Italian garden on its 10 acres, there is a yew maze which local schoolchildren helped in the building of and which isbigger than Hampton Court, Hever or Chatsworth.

Doxford Hall has already hosted a fish and chip supper for 4,000 guests (exservicemen) and both achievements are now endorsed by Guinness as world records.

The Burnies, who have three grown-up children, bought Doxford after 25 years in the Allen Valley in west Northumberland.

It had previously been an old people’s home and the couple needed a business interest to preserve the hall and grounds and to continue their charitable work.

“While I had Kelburn I regularly gave to charity.

When I sold that firm I wanted to go on giving,” says Brian of the Doxford Hall Charitable Trust.

Now Brian, a true Northumbriaphile, swears: “I never want to go abroad again! All you could want is in this county.

Now I want this hotel to be a major stand-alone employer in north Northumberland.

And while it will covenant to charity, I don’t want people staying here out of a sense of charity.

I want them here because we are one of the best hotels of our kind in the world.”