Lunch with a legend

Lunch with a legend

In the early 1960s, a young waiter landed a plum job in one of Paris’s most prestigious gastronomic establishments. Maurice Taylor tells BQ what happened next.

There is a new Hall of Fame for distinguished entrepreneurs with a connection with Strathclyde University.

It was created at the place of learning in Glasgow last December and among the illustrious inductees are Sir Tom Hunter, John Logie Baird, James ‘Paraffin’ Young, Ivor Tiefenbrun, Jim McColl and Brian Souter.

Maurice Taylor, one of Scotland’s most successful hospitality business figures, also takes pride of place.

“Would you believe, wee Maurice Taylor fae Barrheid is in the Hall of Fame too,” he says, exaggerating his West of Scotland accent.

“And in 2004 I was given an honorary doctorate from the university which I accepted on behalf of my father, who died in 1982.”

It’s a bustling lunch-time in La Bonne Auberge, packed with a mix of elderly dinners enjoying their mushroom crusted fillet of Scotch beef with tarragon and shallots and bottles of Cote du Rhone.

Maurice Taylor, now in his early 70s, bound in and introduces himself, before sitting at the table with its neatly laundered white tablecloth.

He hands three business cards, one as Chief Executive of Chardon Management Group, which looks after a raft of hotels, health clubs and restaurants, another as a visiting professor at University of Strathclyde Business School, and the last as Commander Dr Maurice V Taylor, KCSJ, FBIM, FHCIMA, of The Sovereign Order of St John of Jerusalem, Knights Hospitaller, an ancient order set up during the Crusades and now devoted to good causes.

His own crusade to bring service and value to the hospitality trade is well worth recounting.

Maurice Taylor was indeed born in Barrhead. He says he was the 'runt of the litter' from an academic family with his father, James, a Glasgow University graduate, the school headmaster and dominie, and provost of the local burgh, which had its own council until 1975.

Asked why he started a career in hospitality, Maurice jokes that he is ‘a failed engineer’. He was sent to St Aloysius’ College in Glasgow and then to a boarding school at St Benedict’s Abbey in Fort Augustus, beside Loch Ness.

“I was never a great academic as such but, surprisingly, I won a few prizes for languages, including French.” His adolescent interest was in building things.

“I started a workshop up at the Abbey and built canoes and repaired outboard engines. I build my first motorbike when I was 13. Anything mechanical fascinated me, and still does. When I left boarding school, much to the chagrin of my parents, I didn’t want to go to university and couldn't get out of school quickly enough.”

Much to his father's dismay, he landed an apprenticeship at Weir's of Cathcart in 1957.

He recalls his final job was as a junior engineer testing pumps for the reactors of Britain's first nuclear submarine, HMS Dreadnought.

He went to night school, gained his national certificates in basic engineering, and was accepted to the Royal Technical College, just emerging as the University of Strathclyde, where he began an engineering degree.

“I used to race motor bikes and cars. We started doing insurance write-off because we didn't have any money.

“We did them as 'homers' in Weirs. A friend of mine was doing up this Triumph Tiger Cub, the smallest one they built.

“I crashed it badly, hitting a wall at 90mph, with no crash helmet on.“

He ended up in the Southern General with severe injuries and the last rites given to him, yet he miraculously pulled through, spending three months in hospital.

“When I came out I had missed my exams at Strathclyde University and took a job as a junior night porter at Turnberry hotel.”

This was then owned by British Transport Hotels, an arm of the nationalised British Rail, and regarded as the best hotel training ground in Scotland at the time. He was spotted and asked if he would like to join the management trainee scheme.

“I was completely fascinated by the theatre of Turnberry, particularly when the major championships were going on.

“All the big names from the world of golf were staying there.” It was sheer fluke for him, because no-one in his family had been in hotels, indeed his dominie father rather frowned on ‘hospitality’ as a proper career.

The legendary Monsieur Pierre Vacher was then group managing director running British Transport Hotels adapting a French-style of hotel-keeping across the portfolio, which included Gleneagles, and the Balmoral and Caledonian, in Edinburgh, where Maurice later met his wife, Una.

She has been at Scottish Hotel School and her first job was as a house-keeper in the five-star hotel.

He worked in several Scottish hotels but was keen to get, travelling to Spain and Switzerland to sample top hotel life but it was his arrival in Paris that changed his outlook on the hospitality business for ever.

“I wasn’t particularly special but I had an aptitude for languages and that helped me when I went to work abroad.

“I think this came from my mother’s encouragement at an early age, teaching me about language, vocabulary and the derivation of words.

She was a teacher, so languages fitted comfortably with me.” Maurice still speaks pretty fluent French – and is very comfortable in France.

As a young man, he landed a job at the Tour D’Argent in Paris, then one of the greatest restaurants on the planet.

This is an establishment on the banks of the Seine without parallel and a legend of French cuisine and service, run and owned by Claude Terrail.

Terrail was a French gastronomic icon who took over from his father in 1947 and his maxim was, ‘There is nothing more serious than pleasure’.

The international jet set would gather at the Tour D’Argent: Marlene Dietrich, Sammy Davis Junior, Jacques Charrier and Brigitte Bardot, were all regulars and Maurice was a waiter there the night that President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.

“I was the only Scotsman, as far as I know, that has ever worked there. I’ve been back as a guest and still have a great fondness for it. It’s only a few years since Claude died at the age of 92.”

Fast forward 40 years, Maurice Taylor’s own Glasgow restaurant, La Bonne Auberge won ‘Restaurant of the Year’ for Europe, Middle East and Africa for Holiday Inn, with the presentations in the Paris Intercontinental Hotel, next to the Opera House.

“I talk to our staff and hotel management school about my time at the Tour d’Argent and the standards that were expected. The great thing is that it gave me a set of standards to work to because its professionalism was world class.

“When we won the award I took the chef and the hotel manager to Tour d’Argent for dinner the night before and it was every bit as wonderful as I remember.”

Around midnight, after chatting to the waiter and telling him that he was a former employee, the charming M.

Terrail, then aged 90, appeared, kissing the hand of Maurice’s female general manager, while Maurice took the opportunity of thanking him for instilling standards that remained with him for the rest of his professional life.

Maurice Taylor returned to Scotland and worked at Gleneagles as assistant general manager in 1965, and then got married to Una. But he could see the career path within British Transport Hotels was a case of ‘dead-men’s shoes’.

“It was difficult and if you had any ambition at all you thought you were never going to get anywhere,” he says.

The newly-weds existed in a caravan in Auchterarder because they had little money, so he knew he had to find a job that paid more.

In the meantime, he met Gavin Reid, a scion of leading brewers, Scottish & Newcastle, who were starting Thistle Hotels. There were opening a new hotel in Dundee called the Angus and Maurice landed the job as banqueting manager.

“This was my break away from British Transport and there was rapid promotion for me because 18 months later I was running the Lorne Hotel in Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow. I ran that for over three years.”

He felt he didn’t have London experience on his CV so he joined the Royal Garden at Kensington where, Neville Watson, one of his former Gleneagles bosses, appointed him food and beverage manager.

But living on meagre hotel wages, with a wife and children, David and Nicola, and trying to buy a house in London proved to be too difficult, so when he was offered a managing director’s job by a private company in the Trossachs, he returned north.

He worked for Armand Rosier, a successful builder from Coventry whose wife loved Scotland, and helped him build the group into three hotels.

“I’d been taught extremely well how to run hotels and restaurants but Rosier taught me how to run a business and that was different. I got the cheque book and had to write the cheques and make sure the cash flow was right. I learned how to do management accounts.”

His ambition now was to have his own place. He opened a Royal Bank of Scotland account in October 1972 with plotted a future.

With £5,000 from selling a Glasgow flat in Hyndland, plus a £3,000 loan from his mother-in-law, he rented the Electrical & Plumbers Trades Union offices in Edinburgh’s New Town.

He began the conversion in January 1973, creating his own hotel company, which became Chardon Hotels Limited. The hotel he opened was called the Albany Hotel, still there as a boutique hotel.

“I built that with my bare hands and it is still a nice hotel. I ended up with three hotels in the first year, all leased, including the Marie Stuart Hotel at Lochearnhead, and the Windsor Hotel in Nairn. I grew the company and was able to buy the Beacons Hotel in 7-8 Park Terrace in Glasgow.”

The Glasgow hotel was almost bust and Maurice took over the loan from 3i and raised the cash for the freehold.

He converted the basement to create La Bonne Auberge, which opened on Bastille Day 1975, and soon became one of the trendiest spots in the city.

The Mediterranean Brasserie caught the mood of the time and next door he opened Harvey’s American Bar and Diner, the first major hamburger joint in the city.

The first manager was Ken McCulloch who went on to become a success hotelier in his own right.

“Both of these were immensely successful and it took a business from £90,000 a year turnover to £1.5m. That was the making of La Bonne Auberge brasserie concept,” he says.

He sold the leases elsewhere and scraped enough money to buy the Lorne Hotel in Sauchiehall Street, from Thistle Hotels, adding the Garfield at Stepps, which gave him three substantial freehold hotels. Lorne was expanded with another acquisition next door, increasing the size to over 100 bedrooms.

Maurice’s company was beginning to join the major league. In 1986, he sold the Garfield, to Trevor Paterson, and the Beacons for several million pounds, and the following year he sold the Lorne to Queen’s Moat, a listed plc, for a further £3.5m.

He cashed in his other businesses too. He was a millionaire at 45 and thought about enjoying the good life – but his phenomenal work ethic kicked back in.

He began looking at franchising operations, including Burger King in the UK, which was taken on by Diageo.

Between 1986 and 1994, he used his funds to build high-quality apartments first in Notting Hill, then Swiss Cottage, converting older houses into modern places, using a team of hard-grafting Polish builders.

“I contend a chimpanzee could make money in London at that time. It was the boom time and it petered out in the 1990s.”

He bought Carronhall Engineering, a bust company in Stonehaven, which was revitalised and became accredited with the Ministry of Defence, and created the first ‘toilet-pod’ companies in the UK, which fitted out complete high-spec bathrooms in a box in Scotland and delivered by low-loader and installed them in top London condomiums, hotels and places such as Broadgate shopping centre at Liverpool Street Station.

He also built about 80 houses in Livingston. If that wasn’t enough, Maurice Taylor was hyper active and invented Parklands Country Club in Eastwood, which was a new American leisure concept.

In the first year it made £250,000 in bottom line profit, with 4,500 members paying by direct debit. But in 1994 the hotel business lured him back.

He knew franchising was building a head of steam in the UK and he began talking to Accor, owners of Wagon-Lits, about a deal to buy their seven Ibis concept hotels in the UK. He sensed that budget-hotel franchises were a massive growth area. But he recognised he was very proprietorial and unwilling to share his success.

His idea was to put La Bonne Auberge into Ibis, but his stockbroker at Greig Middleton unwittingly revealed the scheme and Ibis put Cafe Rouge into the chain instead. It still rankles with Taylor but he decided to build his own hotel in Glasgow and was introduced to Holiday Inn, part of the InterContinental Hotels Group, by his architect Mark Lironi, of Cobban & Lironi.

“Holiday Inn had an agreement with a Canadian company called CHIC which had built 14 hotels in the UK. They ran fabulous hotels. One of them was at Anderston Quay in Glasgow. But Chick fell out with Holiday Inn and changed it to the Marriott franchise. They then sold the 14 hotels and the master franchise to Whitbread.”

When the Holiday Inn signs came down, Maurice saw a franchise opportunity and put the sign above his new-build hotel in West Nile Street, opposite the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, and put up in 38 weeks by Balfour Beatty in 1994.

It was a smart move: the lowest occupancy rates was the first night when it was 55% and, since then, it has been 85% since 1996, now with 120 bedrooms while its Bonne Auberge restaurant turns over £1.5 million a year.

“The food you get today is every bit as good as the food we served in Park Terrace when we started off.

"I was a bit apprehensive about going in with Holiday Inn after what I heard happened with CHIC. I was worried about the global player telling the wee Scottish hotelier what to do. I wondered if I could hack it in the big league.”

Kemmons Wilson, the founder of Holiday Inn, had begun franchising in 1952 in Memphis and, by 1979, when he retired there were 1,790 around the world.

Maurice got his jacket off again as the Holiday Inn’s sub brands began to expand in the UK and he became a committee member of the owners’ group for Europe, Middle East and Africa, with 4,500 IHG hotels and nine brands around the world.

“I got into the system and they were growing it. I was one of the first Holiday Inn Express in the country and I became chairman of the food and beverage committee, then chaired both the IT and sales and marketing committees.

I managed to fit in after all.” He admits he was too individualistic to be a corporate man but because he was chairing the committees he was invited to IHG’s Atlanta headquarters and saw how the Americans ran the management group.

He met Kemmons Wilson, who told him, “Scottie, if you get a job you like, you don’t have to work for the rest of your life.” Chardon Hotel Group Ltd began building some more branded hotels and taking on >> the management of other hotels using his experience and know-how.

He now owns four hotels and has aspirations to build another two, but Chardon Management Ltd, the management group and a separate entity, is run by a team with shares in the business.

Maurice is chief executive with Robert Crook, the managing director who joined Maurice 15 years ago, and Cesidio Di Ciacca, a wellknown corporate lawyer in Scotland, is the chairman. David Chapman is finance director, James Ford, operations director, while Maurice’s daughter, Nicola, is marketing director. It now manages 36 hotels with a consultancy agreement for another 20, with brand across Britain, including Holiday Inn Express, Hilton, Marriott, Doubletree, Marks, Quality Hotel, and the new Indigo Hotel in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

“We’ve been running the consultancy for ten years – it’s been an overnight success!” Chardon Management’s brand portfolio includes Maurice’s La Bonne Auberge; Limelight Bar & Grill; Triangle Health and Fitness; Tri Health & Beauty and Hoteldeals.co.uk. The company employs 50 staff directly whilst its portfolio of managed hotels employs over 2,000, with a turnover of its managed hotels portfolio of £163m.

“We are trying to expand the portfolio by 20% a year and we are always looking for further hotel management contracts with developers, investors and administrators,” he says.

Taylor’s engineering background has been impossible to suppress. He once devised an ‘impress’ control system to calculate actual stock of beers and bottles in the hotel bar, which cut down shrinkage, then he created a set of Haynes manual-type folders for his hotels, which he calls the bibles according to Chardon Hotels.

They are at the foundation of each hotel’s standards, including how to make a bed. The Chardon Training Academy goes on the road around the hotels when required to, by the general manager as the captain of his hotel ship.

“When Intercontinental saw our bibles, they wanted to copy them – but they are our family silver. There is a bible for every department in the hotels, right up to crisis management.

There are very few hotel groups that have a set of bibles on how to run a hotel.” Chardon’s managing director, Robert Crook, who also has a top pedigree in running hotels, such as the Crowne Plaza in Leeds, and working in Holiday Inn’s HQ in the UK, worked with Maurice on the creation of the bibles.

“He is a key player in all this. We have something like 100 years’ experience between us, which is all distilled into our bibles.”

The major franchise companies have a minimum service agreement which tell you what but, according to Maurice, they ‘don’t tell you how.’

What a large franchising groups brings to the table is its international reservations system, which means the customers can book a hotel for free anywhere in the world, and powerful databases of customers. This has evolved into sophisticated pricing for rooms, based on supply and demand.

“With the advent of the web we can text people and offer keen prices. The objective is to get as personal service as you can get for a global organisation.

“From Okinawa to Oklahoma, we are saying ‘we need your business’, so we ramp up the occupancy percentages.” His advice to those wanting to build a hotel group is to go for a brand, and his consultancy helps find the right brand and brand for the right site.

“People get fetishes about things. Someone might have stayed in the Crowne Plaza in Hong Kong and think we should have that hotel in Scotland.

“We look at this in the cold light of day and discourage those from building hotels that don’t suit the available market. It’s about maximising the potential. I’d rather be a fantastic three-star hotel, rather than a crap five-star hotel. All over my business life I have looked for value for money.” He used a favourite analogy of the difference between types of cars.

“You don’t get a Rolls-Royce for the price of a Mini. But a Mini is a fabulous car and it’s great value for money. It’s the same with a Volkswagen, great value for money, and I’ve got a Bentley, so I know what I’m talking about, and I love cars.” “It is like going to the Tour D’Argent and paying $1,000 for a meal for four.

“For me, it is wonderful value for money because of the artisan and the craft and the staff, it’s worth every penny.

That’s value for money. But I can go into a good fish and chip shop – like the local one in Helensburgh where he cooks the fish individually - and if I get good value for money, then this is brilliant.”

So, for Maurice Taylor, it must be value for money. “The secret is to do what you do and do it well and don’t charge like the Light Brigade for it. People don’t like being ripped-off.”