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Big Interview: Belfast's Merchant Hotel owner Bill Wolsey warns of 'Brexit madness'

As his five-star flagship venue celebrates its 10th anniversary, Bill Wolsey says leaving the EU would hit the hospitality sector hard and adds that Belfast may end up with too much accommodation

By John Mulgrew

Published 26/04/2016

Bill Wolsey on the steps of his flagship Merchant Hotel in Belfast, which celebrates 10 years in business this week
Bill Wolsey on the steps of his flagship Merchant Hotel in Belfast, which celebrates 10 years in business this week
Bill with his wife Petra

Madness, is the noun The Merchant Hotel owner Bill Wolsey uses to describe calls for the UK to vote to exit the EU in the upcoming referendum in June.

The 62-year-old boss of Beannchor has a few strong words about the Vote Leave campaign, and believes a Brexit could be disastrous for the hospitality industry here.

Beannchor itself has big plans, which include as many as 15 new Little Wing pizza restaurants, and a roll-out of its Bullitt hotel chain, should the inaugural Belfast business prove a success, as its flagship The Merchant Hotel celebrates 10 years in business this week.

And while sitting in the grand surroundings of a dark, wood-laden room close to the elaborate entrance and dining room of The Merchant, Bill’s demeanour and the story of his own roots are much more humble.

He grew up in the Ballysillan area of north Belfast, the son of two progressive socialists, Irene and Eddie, who were both members of the Labour party. “They always warned us about giving our votes to anyone who wrapped themselves in a flag,” he says.

“My dad was very scornful of unionist politicians. He felt they just had a simple answer, and people would react like Pavlovian dogs to the message.”

Bill’s business is centred around hospitality. Beannchor owns and runs five bars, six Little Wing pizzerias, a further 30 other bars which are run by others, and a property arm.

“I feel if I don’t work, I don’t feel particularly good about myself,” he says. “And, how can you get people to work for you... if they think I’m just sloping around the place?”

Bill doesn’t appear to be the archetype of an entrepreneur and businessman, and is also heavily involved in charity work.

And while he jokes he’s a “bit of a bluffer” when it comes to the running of the company now, he still puts in a busy five days, as well as working on weekends.

“There’s a Mark Twain quote. Give a man a reputation as an early riser and he can sleep until dusk. I’m beginning to feel that.

“I have two sons (Luke and Conall) that remain immersed in the business. I have a finance director, and operational director, Sorcha, who has been with me since day one.

“I contribute to that. But I feel like I’m a bit of a bluffer.”

The Merchant Hotel became Belfast’s luxury five-star location, at the former Ulster Bank building on Skipper Street in the city’s Cathedral Quarter. This week, it’s celebrating its 10th birthday.

“The Tourist Board initially were very sceptical, and didn’t think it would work. They thought the prices we would have to charge to pay for the level of service, that there wouldn’t be that customer,” says Bill.

“That’s obviously not the case.”

But while the recession hit businesses across the hospitality sector, just two years after The Merchant opened, Bill says they didn’t lower their prices.

And while hotel building is going through something of a renaissance here — with more than 20 at various stages of planning — Bill says it’s a “disaster”.

“It’s the Irish disease. Hotels, housing — when there is a perceived gap in the market, everyone piles in,” he says.

“If, and I don’t think half of those hotels will be built, there will be lean times ahead. The best operators will succeed, the mediocre operators will maybe break even, and those who don’t understand the business will be flogging off at a loss.”

As one of the best known in the industry here, Bill isn’t shy about his own views on the impact Brexit could have on hotels, bars and restaurants here, and Northern Ireland as a whole.

He says it’s “madness”.

Bill says: “We will have difficulty getting people to come here. Even though we have a far higher percentage of local people working for us, there still will be a massive shortfall. Any barriers, visas, problems at the border, will have difficulties for our business. And barriers will make things difficult.

“This nonsense that we can stand on our own two feet, those days went about 100 years ago.”

He also believes, given the size of the hospitality industry, that Northern Ireland needs its own tsar to oversee the sector.

And to help the industry grow, he wants a cut to air passenger duty, to make Northern Ireland more competitive with the Republic, and a revamp of licensing laws.

It could have all been so very different for Bill, who played football with Arsenal as a teenager.

Following school, and his time with the club, he worked as a compositor in the newspaper industry.

Then, catering college beckoned after the family moved to England. That also didn’t click, but he says when he began working hands-on in the hospitality industry, it all began to make sense.

After working in various restaurants and bars, his big break came from his mother and father.

“They gave me their life savings. They trusted me with them. My mother and father were definitely the biggest influences on my life, particularly my mother,” he says.

“The more I go on, the more I know I’ve a debt to pay.”

He took over what was then the Trident Tavern in Bangor, which later became Wolsey’s — and it was very much a family affair.

And he’s paid a moving tribute to his parents — who he credits with his success — close to his luxury five-star hotel. Two unassuming benches outside his bar The Dirty Onion — each marked with a brass plaque with just his parents’ first names — pay tribute to Irene and Eddie, and how they helped mould him.

It’s Bill’s son Luke (29) who is in charge of expanding and growing the already thriving Little Wing pizza chain across the Republic and Great Britain.

“Luke has built it up from two to six. In the next couple of years it will probably hit 10 or 11,” he said.

Son Conall (32) runs day-to-day operations across the Beannchor group. But Bill says he didn’t encourage them to join the business.

“What I wanted them to be, as kids, was passionate about something. The hospitality industry is no place for anyone to hide. You are with the customers. It’s not a job for anyone to come in a half-hearted way,” he says.

Luke and Conall began earning a bit of pocket money in the early days, which later grew into full-time careers.

But unlike others, Bill doesn’t court the limelight, and tends to shy away from the deluge of lavish events which fill the Northern Ireland business social calendar.

“We are all pretty low key people. You don’t see any of us in the magazines, ever. I work with disadvantaged kids, and Conall and Luke both work in schools,” he says.

And while he’s still very much a part of the company he founded, Bill says: “I don’t want to be doddering around here in my 80s, if I ever live that long. They (Conall and Luke) are much more capable than I am. But I have some experience, and that’s hopefully of some worth”.

Bill’s also into jazz — a big fan of the legend Miles Davis — and has been with his second wife Petra for 16 years.

His latest hotel venture, Bullitt — inspired by the Steve McQueen film of the same name — is aiming to attract a younger crowd to Belfast city centre.

And Bill says, if it’s successful, he hopes to open others, either in Northern Ireland or Great Britain.

This time it’s personal

Q. What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?

A. My mother once told me after buying a new business: “You think you’re a big man, but wee pants fit you.” She always kept me grounded.

Q. What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?

A. You can give all sorts of advice, but ‘eat your breakfast’ is about as good as any of them — take a bit of time and set yourself up for the day ahead.

Q. What was your best business decision?

A. Looking after our staff. It pays back tenfold — if those staff stay with you, the training costs are halved and, if they enjoy what they’re doing, it’s reflected in the levels of services and it creates a happier environment for customers.

Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?

A. Van driver? I haven’t a clue, really. But the idea, at this stage, of no one ever asking me to make a decision on anything, sounds relatively appealing. The idea of someone asking me to go and deliver something, get a signature for it, listen to some music you like along the way, sounds great. I’d probably last an hour.

Q. What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?

A. Our last holiday was in Donegal. I’m off to Dundonald next… My son, Conall, plays football for Dundonald and I enjoy going to watch him play — it feels like a holiday.

Q. What are your hobbies/interests?

A. Family, traditional music, jazz, art and history.

Q. What is your favourite sport and team?

A Football’s my favourite sport and Arsenal’s my favourite team. In my younger days, I was an apprentice at Arsenal and at that point had an ambition to be a professional football player.

Q. And have you ever played any sports?

A. I’ve played football since I was a boy. In my mind, I’m a star. I also play a bit of tennis. I’m rubbish.

Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?

A. I have only read one book in my life, Tarka the Otter, and it taught me everything.

Q. How would you describe your early life?

A. Happy, mischievous and relatively carefree.

Q. Have you any economic predictions?

A. None — economists keep making wrong predictions. My prediction is, life goes on.

Q. How would you assess your time in business with your company Beannchor?

A. Hectic, rewarding, stimulating and worrying.

Q. How do you sum up working in the hotel and hospitality sector?

A. I came from very little and I’ve probably got most of my very little still left (which reminds me of that Seasick Steve song: “Started out with nothing and I got most of it left”). It’s been a privilege and it’s been extremely rewarding. When people come up to you and tell you how great their experience in your venues has been, you know you’re getting it right. I love the fact that people who come to work for me go on to get a house, get married, or have a child and build a life for themselves and it’s been off the back of something I’ve been able to contribute to.

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