When he touched down at Changi Airport in Singapore, with a mission to gain investors for his hotel in the Liverpool home of the Titanic, Lawrence Kenwright could hardly have received a more ominous welcome.
“I got off the plane and there was a newspaper headline ‘Singapore investors taken for a ride by British developers’,” he laughs. “So that was a great start…”
Undeterred, he got on stage in front of 400 people and, for an hour and a half, sold them the concept of Signature Living and how he planned to bring the historic former HQ of the White Star shipping line back to life.
“At the end, the guy organising it said ‘anyone interested, please stay around and ask questions’. About 300 stayed, so after another hour and a half he then said ‘if you want to buy, raise your hands’. They nearly all did. I only had 65 units. So he said ‘all write your names on a piece of paper, throw them into a hat’.
“I couldn’t believe it. They were picking these names out and these guys were running up like they’d won the Lottery! Then they were queuing to part with £100,000 to me. Within three hours I’d raised £6m - enough to buy and renovate James Street.”
The landmark hotel in Liverpool city centre is now the showpiece in a portfolio of hotels and serviced apartments which, at last count, showed a turnover of £200m.
“For the year just gone by we’ve got profits of around £10m, and this year we’re aiming for £40m profit,” he adds proudly.
Lawrence’s story is, in his own words, “rags, riches, below rags, and then back up again.”
Born in Walton, the docker’s son left school at 15, before his O’levels, to start work at Barker & Dobson’s sweet factory. Six months later, it closed and he found himself shovelling Fuller’s earth, eight tons a day, for six months. “The smell was horrendous,” he recalls, “but then I got a job working for Ethel Austin on a three-month contract as a van lad. I moved up to be an assistant warehouse lad, a warehouse lad, a manager, then on the accounts and a buyer.”
When he left it was to open his own retail stores. By the time he was 29 he had 32, turning over £11m a year. “But it was the worst time of my life, I was getting up and going to bed at stupid o’clock, going away for a month at a time when I had a young family, so I decided to sell the stores and put it all into property development because I thought I could just do that and double my money.”
With hindsight, Lawrence admits his lack of relevant experience cost him dearly. The property crash of 2007 wiped out his business and he was made bankrupt.
“I always remember standing outside Victoria Street apartments, just down the road from the Shankly Hotel we have now, and I knew I was in trouble. I got to the door one Saturday morning and I was trying to get the key in and my brain was saying ‘you’re locked out because you’ve gone into liquidation’ but my body kept saying ‘no, no, no’. I was there for 10 minutes, trying, but I couldn’t get in. The liquidators had changed the locks.”
Shattered by the realisation he’d lost everything, Lawrence confesses he “went to bed for three months.” It took a desperate phone call from his daughter to drag him from rock bottom.
“She was in the headmistress’s office in Merchant Taylors’ School because I hadn’t paid the fees, I just didn’t have the money. She was screaming ‘dad, you promised me, you lied to me, they’re throwing me out of school’.
“I bolted upright, got out of bed, phoned a friend who lent me some money to pay off the fees, and that’s when I got the impetus back. I didn’t want to be the guy who’d lost everything, I didn’t want my kids to think I was the guy who’d lost everything, I just didn’t want to let them down.”
When he bounced back it was, he says, with a vigour he’d never had before.
“I was fuelled with this drive and desire,” he says. “I taught myself how to build websites, do SEO strategies, social media content writing.
“There was a 2000 sq ft apartment on the top floor in Victoria Street and we bought it back in 2009 but I was clueless about how I was going to fill it. It wasn’t efficient, you couldn’t just have two people in this huge apartment.
“But at the time I was really into Facebook, understanding algorithms, and I noticed that groups of people were far more prevalent and there were far more of them because of social media.
“If you went to university 20 years ago you might have kept hold of maybe one or two friends from then, but if you go now the likelihood is you’ll hang on to a hell of a lot more because it’s so much easier to keep in contact. So when you have parties, like stags and hens, those groups are much larger. The average is 20 people, and I directly attribute that to Facebook and the connectivity it’s brought.
“I threw the dice based upon that.
“We decided to put 15 beds in this apartment, we put it out on social media because the online websites didn’t have a format to accommodate 15 beds, and within 2-3 months it was sold out for 6-9 months in advance.”
He replicated the idea in Mathew Street and Bold Street, gambling heavily on the influx of stag and hen parties into the city. “Our main competitor at the time, and still, was Travelodge – but if you get 30 people there, you end up with 15 groups of two, scattered all round the hotel and then how do you get them to all come together to go out? Someone’s doing their hair, someone’s doing their make-up, it’s a nightmare.
“I’m not a fan of Big Brother – I can’t think of anything worse, I’m 50 years of age – but when you’re 20-25 you’re not coming to Liverpool to sleep that much, you’re coming to have a great time and that’s about being with your friends.
“We understood that and we were on a rich vein that no-one else was on.”
Signature Living’s first hotel was an 11-bed in Mathew Street, followed by 30 James Street, then The Shankly, dedicated to Liverpool FC’s legendary former boss and created in collaboration with the Shankly family.
Lawrence intends to take his bed count in Liverpool up to 2,000, and there are developments ongoing in Cardiff, Belfast, Preston and Marbella. He wants to add office space to his portfolio, bringing more businesses into the city, and he has ambitious plans for a homeless centre. “It’s really important that we put back in,” he explains. “Building hotels is cool but that is more exciting.”
The 50-year-old has attracted his share of criticism, mostly for buying and developing listed buildings, and he accepts there’s “still a bit of work to do” in persuading some people he’s not the villain of the piece. “If anyone is critical of Signature, it’s probably because they don’t know the true story and maybe they’re a tad jealous of us seizing the day and getting it done.
“We’re actually saving old listed buildings that no-one else could make work or make viable.
“James Street is an amazing building with its own DNA, and artefacts, and when we took it on it was very much about saying ‘this is your building, your city, did you know?’ It’s a building with a huge history and we’ve come along and made it public again. For the first time in its history, it’s a public building and we wanted to engage with people about it, in a feelgood way.”
But is a hotel really openly accessible to the public, even if they’re not guests? Lawrence insists his, especially those with a significant heritage, are. “You can walk into James Street, go up the stairs, go onto the roof, and we love that. We’re open to everyone, it genuinely is public. We had 2,000 - 3,000 people queuing round the block when it first opened and the amount of people who kissed and hugged me and thanked me for bringing that building back into use actually made me feel scared because then you realise you’re not the owner, you’re the custodian. That’s the mindset you’ve got to get in: I’m just the custodian of buildings but I want to make them as interesting and intriguing as I can so people feel a desire to come in and see them.
“That’s what people in the accommodation industry don’t seem to understand, and I’m thankful that they don’t,” he smiles.
With five children, including twin babies with wife Katie, Lawrence says life now is amazing, but having made it and lost it all before, isn’t there a danger he could expand too rapidly and repeat history? “The thing about losing everything is you never get too big for your boots, I’ll carry bags and brush floors and do whatever needs doing in this business. I’ve lost any arrogance. I don’t wear a watch, I don’t have a big car or a big house, I don’t spend money. So I am aggressively going forward but based on an algorithm which I know works so whether the economy overboils or falls apart, I’m safe.
“When you come back from where I was you’re always anchored by it: by my daughter crying, not being able to get that key in the door, by the sheer embarrassment of having everyone know,” he reflects. “I’m safe because I’m always thinking, what happens if?”