Lawrence Kenwright: I was pretty clueless about property - I had made a lot of money by that stage and then I lost everything
The Big Interview: Lawrence Kenwright
Lawrence Kenwright is a man with ambitious plans to build four hotels in Belfast — a move that would add 500 bedrooms to the city in an £80m investment — and in the process rejuvenate one its most famous, if longest-empty buildings.
The 51-year-old Liverpudlian wants to begin work on his first hotel this summer, tackle two others, and then turn the former Crumlin Road courthouse into a 150-bedroom development. And he’s planning on hiring 350 people to work across the hotels.
He’s buying locations for another two of the hotels in the Waring Street area of the city — one of which will be George Best themed — and recently purchased the Scottish Mutual Building on Donegall Square for more than £6m.
But it’s very much been a rags to riches and back again story, one where he was once nearly financially wiped out.
He at one stage discovered the locks had been changed on one of his own buildings.
Lawrence is now the man behind Signature Living hotels and serviced apartments. He first looked at investing in Belfast two years ago, and said he fell in love with the derelict Crumlin Road courthouse in the north of the city. “I know it’s a mile outside the city centre; I know it’s tough and difficult, and has no roof on it, but if you look past the dereliction and look at the stories within it, it’s off the scale. I would argue it’s the most endangered building of importance in Europe.”
He bought the site from former owner, Belfast property developer Barry Gilligan, for just £500,000.
He will retain the current footprint of the building, and hopes to develop a 150-bedroom hotel, as well as ‘resurrecting’ the tunnel connecting the courthouse to the gaol across the road.”
As for a name? Well, it won’t be the Crumlin Road courthouse.
He says he’s had positive reaction and support from politicians in the area.
“I also want a centre of excellence on the old (prison) hospital. I think that would make an amazing centre of excellence for Signature Living, considering we are employing 350 staff.”
He wants a host of apprentices across his four proposed hotels.
And as for the George Best hotel, he says two sites are currently on the cards, both of which are in the Waring Street area of the city. It’s set to be a “huge” development, Lawrence says, of around 200 bedrooms.
“We have two sites. One we are in legals with at the moment, and another site which I have looked at.
“We need to be quick. When I come to Belfast, I don’t want to be here for four years developing, I want to be here for one and a half.”
He’s also about to sign for another building, which he hopes will become a 100-bedroom hotel.
Lawrence is turning the former Scottish Mutual building into a five-star hotel, with 80 bedrooms — initial thoughts are that it will be called The Baronialinitially with the name The Baronial. He bought it from the Ballymena-based Hill family for more than £6m.
“It’s very distant from what they had,” he said.
Plans for it include putting event space on the top floor, as opposed to the ground.
There’s a lot of money involved: “We have £80m put to one side (for the Belfast hotels).” Work will start on the Baronial first and it could be open by next year.
The son of a Liverpool docker, also called Lawrence, and shop worker Marian, he recalls his modest upbringing: “It was five people living in a two-up, two-down, and working class.”
Aged 23 he opened up a chain of stores, Yes & Co, but by the time he was 36 he was hit by the financial crash and left with almost nothing. “I sold the stores and then went into property. I was pretty clueless about property,” he admits. “I had made a lot of money by that stage... and then I lost everything.
“I’m not from a business background so I don’t have that background to fall upon.
“I think you believe your own bull****. You believe you are invincible. I’ve gone from a retail background to property, and it’s a whole new set of rules.”
Before the collapse of his previous empire, Lawrence owned swathes of commercial property, warehouses, developments, apartments and retail shops.
“I didn’t understand property at all,” he says. “I pretty much went on holiday and didn’t really get involved that much... the crash came about and I lost everything.
I was pretty much homeless. The liquidator let me stay in one of the apartments for two years.”
In those two years, he managed to buy all the buildings apartments back from the liquidator.
“I had a house that I sold, and I was going through a divorce at the same time. I used part of that money... the liquidator couldn’t sell any of the properties at all. There were 12 apartments and I bought them all, one by one.”
That led to him going in to luxury group accommodation, targeting the hen party market.
And that expanded, with a number of large apartment developments, before he travelled to Singapore to seek further investment, around 10 years ago, for his first foray into the hotel market, which was rather closer to home.
“I was buying 30 James Street [Liverpool]... I didn’t have the money for it, maybe enough for the deposit.
“I met up with 700 Singaporean investors.”
Around 65 ploughed cash into what would become his Titanic-themed hotel in 2008.
The James Street building is where the ill-fated luxury liner was first registered.
“We got it open in about three months, and then every month we opened a floor. It’s now 99% full and does a £6.5m turnover.”
That then led to The Shankly, where Lawrence turned an old council building into a hotel named after, and inspired by, the late, legendary former Liverpool FC manager, Bill Shankly.
“We turned that around in four or five months. It’s about 98% occupied,” he says.
In its latest accounts, his company, Signature Living, has seen profits more than triple to £5.6m.
He now owns around 15 developments, including hotels in Liverpool, a bar and restaurant, as well as four serviced apartment blocks, and schemes in Cardiff and Preston.
“When we did our business plan, we didn’t think Liverpool people would be staying.
“But now, 50% of our accommodation [bookings], particularly during the week, is from around the corner.”
Asked about what he believes the reaction will be from well-established Northern Ireland hotel developers, he said: “Am I worried about people trying to stop us from coming in? Not at all.
“In Liverpool, I started off in August 14, 2008. Liverpool had 2,400 beds. Now it is up to 9,000 beds. “(Belfast) is at the crest of a wave of what is about to come. You have to build beds, because it’s coming.”
And he says the reason he can plough through with plans for hotels in just a matter of months is because he avoids the traditional route of bank funding when he’s seeking investment.
“The old banking system is pretty much not in use,” he says.
“Imagine me going to a bank saying, ‘I have an old listed building with no roof, in Crumlin Road, can you give me £20m please’? They aren’t going to give me it, are they?”
But Belfast wasn’t where his £80m budget was originally due to be spent.
It was initially going to be invested in Cardiff. But Kenwright said he “got a rough ride” in the Welsh capital.
“That’s when we came to Belfast, and parked the money here,” he says.
Signature Living now has around 500 staff across its UK sites.
Lawrence is a busy family man, with five children — Daniel (29), Alexandra (22), Ava (11) and twins Arabella and Lawrence junior (18 months) — with wife Katie.
Outside of work, he’s very much a family man. He says he loves his job, and even goes so far as to also live in one of his own hotels.
As for hobbies, he adds: “I want to go to football, but I don’t have any time for football. Any spare time I have is with the kids.”
Asked about Northern Ireland’s political situation, and the current lack of devolved government here, Lawrence says it hasn’t interfered with what he’s doing.
“From start to finish it has been amazing.
“Suzanne (Wylie, chief executive of Belfast City Council) and the team have been very welcoming. It’s been an amazing process.”