Howard Hastings: After dad's heart attack, I came home to the business
Hastings Hotels' £6.5m purchase of Windsor House marks another 'step change' for the long-established Northern Ireland family company, its managing director Howard Hastings said.
Many were taken by surprise by the company's purchase from Nama of the 1970s-style Belfast city centre building, regarded as an eyesore by some.
Hastings has ambitious plans to turn it into a £30m high-rise hotel with serviced apartments and offices.
But in an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, 53-year-old Mr Hastings says the deal to transform the office building into the Grand Central Hotel had been six months in the making, "back and forward in one way or t'other".
The name for the new project on Bedford Street harks back to the old Grand Central Hotel, which stood on Royal Avenue until 1969. And its namesake will be "jolly central," Mr Hastings vows.
And he cheerfully acknowledges that the 1970s appearance of Windsor House, the tallest commercial building in Ireland with 22 storeys, isn't to everyone's tastes. The best that you could say is that its an "imposing" example of its style, he says. But it will receive a complete overhaul.
"Its attractiveness and beauty is in the height and the designs the architects have come up with do play to that. It's got a lovely facade which lends itself to a sense of arrival."
Hastings is probably Northern Ireland's best-known family business - Howard's father, William, is chairman, while sisters Julie, Allyson and Aileen take care of marketing, events and sales respectively.
Howard himself has three children - Jessica (23), Matthew, (21) and Oliver (17) - and is married to Philippa, a physiotherapist.
The company already owns the Slieve Donard in Newcastle, Stormont Hotel, Europa and Culloden in Belfast, Ballygally Castle near Larne and the Everglades in Derry - as well as a 50% share in Dublin's luxury hotel the Merrion with radiator magnate Martin Naughton and ESB chairman Lochlann Quinn.
Adding another one was simply a matter of the right move at the right time, Mr Hastings said.
"Windsor House had been in Nama for a while and had a bidding process on it.
"It was sold to somebody for quite a high value, but that somebody didn't complete on it so it came back on the market.
"We'd had a look when it came on the market and thought, that's a shame when it sold - but that sum of £11m was too much.
"But it doesn't matter if you bid £11m - if the person doesn't come across with the money, it doesn't make any difference. We were able to come back in at that stage."
And he dismisses the idea that it's not a good idea to buy a new hotel so close to their existing Europa.
"When you buy a property so close to you, you are accused of competing against yourself. But we can see there are economies of scale and synergies with having them close together.
"Bill Wolsey never worries about buying the pub next door to the one he has."
He has watched the city evolve and seen clusters develop in hospitality. You can see how Bedford Street and Great Victoria Street and Ormeau Avenue have become a kind of a critical mass - the Europa, Jury's Inn, Fitzwilliam, Days Hotel, Holiday Inn. It's now being called the Linen Quarter - but the linen is actually now found on the beds of the hotels."
The company's history goes back around 70 years, when Howard's grandfather started building his pub business, including Avenue One on the corner of Templemore Avenue and the lower Newtownards Road. William Hastings snr died in his 30s - leaving his son, also called Billy and now the present chairman of Hastings Hotels, to take over.
The company expanded over the years, with landmarks including the 1971 purchase of six hotels from the Ulster Transport Authority for £440,000, and the 1994 purchase of the Europa Hotel - another move which was met with derision at the time, Mr Hastings said, the venue having been bombed 28 times during the Troubles.
The first hotel venture was with the Stormont Hotel in east Belfast in the 1950s in partnership with William Hamilton and Ben Kirk - a catering business which is still going strong today as Hamilton & Kirk.
Growth was gradual and in time, to fund the growing hotel portfolio, the business began selling off some of the pubs. In the meantime, Howard was getting on with life, attending Harrow in England, studying law at the University of Nottingham, qualifying in accountancy and staying in England to work.
"I wasn't intent on coming home and I never took career paths that boxed me in either. I didn't want to be pigeonholed in a profession from which there was no reverse gear."
He became an accountant and started work in Volvo Concessionaires, where he worked as the financial planning manager until 1989. "At that time my father had a heart attack and major heart surgery. When he was recuperating, he said to me for the first time if I'd ever thought of coming home, and now mightn't be a bad time".
And 27 years later, 86-year-old chairman Sir William is "still fit as a fiddle" according to his son.
He clearly relishes the business. "It doesn't feel like I'm running a very big business because it's grown slowly and organically down the years. We have been taking one step at a time.
"There have been a couple of times when we have taken major leaps of faith, like buying the Europa in 1994, and there have been step changes for the company, including acquiring the 50% share in the Merrion. But most of the time we have been able to grow from within, by adding on rooms to the hotels." The company has been looking to expand for the last four or five years, he said.
"Property had gotten very expensive to buy before the recession.
"And if you are embarking on a process you have to be sure because the long-term success depends on buying it at the right price. There was nobody else who wanted to buy the Europa when we did." And they have bided their time before taking the latest step. "We are confident about location and outcome and what we are trying to do."
But he admits the downturn was worrying. "You never want to have turnover declining year-on-year.
"We were slightly lucky at the start simply because the sterling was very weak against the euro and this was the era when everybody did cross-border shopping at Christmas and for their dental treatment.
"It didn't strike us like a thunder bolt but in a slightly gentler way." And the company had been able to weather the storm because, frankly, it had been through worse, particularly in 1971.
Three months after the chairman bought the six hotels, internment was introduced.
"If you want to empty a province of visitors, internment is right up there."
And he's still getting a buzz from the business.
"I enjoy the creativity of some of the building projects we have had and working with suppliers and building relationships with suppliers."
And Mr Hastings vows that he doesn't give in to the urge to "mystery shop" by finding faults when he's off-duty and staying in hotels.
"We don't obsess about competitors and we just worry about ourselves."
The Big Interview
Q: Do you prefer the town or country, and why?
A: I like both. It would be hard to choose which one you could do without.
Q: How has the hotel business in Northern Ireland changed in the last 20 years? Is it more competitive?
A: Ceasefires in Northern Ireland in 1994 were followed by the arrival of new hotel properties, especially brands from outside the country. Northern Ireland slowly became more acceptable as a holiday destination and more escorted coaches spent over nights here. However, setbacks like marching seasons and flag protests held back the rate of growth. Booking systems have advanced with technology. The advent of Lastminute.com etc has allowed small operators to be featured globally, but at the price of high commissions. Now Airbnb threatens to distort the market. Hotel keeping is always competitive. The reinvestment required year-on-year to keep up with latest trends is inexorable. The burden of taxation and associated red tape (VAT/PAYE/National Insurance/business rates/carbon taxes) means that it is increasingly difficult for smaller hotels to be profitable, and so most of the newer hotels have been larger enterprises, and many have been in the budget sector.
Q: How do you foresee it changing in the next decade — particularly in Belfast?
A: Northern Ireland lags behind the Republic of Ireland in its bedroom stock. Only 12% of Ireland’s bedrooms are in Northern Ireland. That is set to change. Belfast will see the greatest growth in bedrooms... it has become the second most important place to stay in Ireland after Dublin. If the sterling starts to weaken against the euro, and if VAT rates are harmonised, this will accelerate the trend.
Q: Have you any career advice for anyone setting out in the hotels sector?
A: The hotel sector encompasses a huge variety of career opportunities, and it is important to identify your own skillset before choosing which sort of position will suit you best. Fundamentally, it is important to enjoy meeting and dealing with people... our guests will remember the people they met after they have forgotten how comfy the bed was.
Q: What was the last book you read, and what was it like?
A: It was A Short History of Ireland by John O’Beirne Ranelagh. I wish I’d read it years ago.
Q: What was your last holiday, and what will the next one be?
A: Last year was Amsterdam. This year is Charleston and Savannah, in the USA. I am not keen on spending time on the beach.
Q: What is your favourite band/album or piece of music, and why?
A: My music tastes are generally stuck in the 1970s and 1980s. I sing in my church choir and enjoy good old fashioned hymns. And I love listening to Van Morrison play live, and have been lucky enough to be able to do so several times.
Q: What is your favourite sport and/or team? And have you ever played any sports?
A: I have played many sports, very badly. I enjoy playing golf, occasionally, and I love watching live rugby and cricket.