Galgorm manager: We may have begun with a luxury hotel but now we want to really build up our restaurant brand
Galgorm Group general manager Colin Johnston talks to John Mulgrew about an exciting move into restaurants and setting up its own academy
Almost 26 years on from the creation of the luxurious Galgorm Resort & Spa, Ballymena's Tullymore House also looks set to grow its restaurant empire further after posting record profits of £3.7m.
Galgorm Resort & Spa now employs more than 450 staff, with dozens also working across its Fratelli restaurant chain - and is considering setting up its own training academy.
The company says it could roll out as many as six of its restaurants across Belfast, opening one every 12 to 18 months.
After 16 years, Belfast man Colin Johnston is now general manager for Paul and Nicholas Hill's Galgorm Group, overseeing its Fratelli restaurants at Galgorm and in Great Victoria Street, Belfast, and its new French-style restaurant which is opening soon in the city centre.
It hasn't all been plain-sailing. A plan to open a hotel in a striking city centre site was shelved and the building sold on.
A former Grosvenor Grammar School pupil who now lives in Portrush, 36-year-old Colin says business is up, especially with visitors from the Republic.
In the last 26 years, Galgorm Resort & Spa, located just outside Ballymena, has undergone huge investment and upgrades, with around £30m being spent on the luxury hotel. It also recently hosted the official party for the Irish Open. According to its latest results, which are yet to be published by Companies House, turnover is now at £18.4m for the year ending October 2016 -up more than 18% on the year previous.
Mr Johnston said that the company was concentrating on attracting visitors from outside Northern Ireland.
"We are concentrating on our 'out-of-state' business, which is a large target market. The business started as a wedding venue and grew into weddings and leisure.
"We are concentrating on out-of-state tourists, and the business and corporate market.
"A rise in visitors from the Republic has been massively helped by the currency, but we do think we have done a lot of work to prepare the way," he said. He said the number of southern tourists increased by 97% in the last year.
The Galgorm now has 122 bedrooms, six cabins, six fisherman's cottages, and at capacity can hold 300 people.
It's also capable of running three weddings or functions at one time, with separate, self-contained banquet rooms.
He said: "In the last 10 years, we have spent roughly £30m on it.
"We are lucky in a sense, as we have shareholders who are willing to invest in the products.
"Borrowing has been low... that has helped massively. There is always less pressure when you don't have heavy borrowing. And the team has been good.
"Galgorm is 26 years old this year. The big development was added in 2006.
"That was the spa, 51 rooms, the River Room and Gillies restaurants. There have been additional developments. Almost two years ago there was the thermal village, and 48 rooms that have just opened," he said.
"We were the host hotel for Irish Open, so a good few of the golfers were staying. We hosted the Dubai Duty Free large corporate event. That project was about 18 months in the making. And there are additional developments at the moment, including doubling the size of the outdoor space at the spa, a gym, fitness suite, and an additional 80 seats to Fratelli at Galgorm."
The company has a growing portfolio. It has diversified with two restaurants - one at Galgorm, with a second on Great Victoria Street in Belfast. Work starts soon on turning a former church on the Ormeau Road into a third restaurant in a £1.5m investment.
Plus, it's set to open Cafe Parisien - a French brasserie-style eatery at the former Robinson & Cleaver building in Belfast, and named after one of the Titanic's on-board restaurants.
It could create up to 50 new jobs, and it is hoped to be opened for business by September.
Mr Johnston said: "It will be breakfast, lunch and dinner, and very focused on a French offering," he said. "We will do afternoon tea, because of the decadence of the building.
"We are going to do a fully retractable awning structure. You would be able to sit out in the terrace in bad weather."
The company wants to open more restaurants in Belfast.
"We want to create a brand. With the Fratelli brand at Galgorm we thought we could relocate, and we feel the Ormeau Road site is a beautiful building that hasn't reached full potential.
"It's about finding the right site and then choosing the right offering. We definitely want more restaurants.
"We would always keep an eye out, but don't take on too much. We would pass good opportunities up to protect what we have.
"Depending on Galgorm, if the resources allow us, we would like to do one (restaurant) every year, or 18 months. Five or six, off the main Galgorm site, we would be more than happy with.
"We want to do more restaurants in Belfast. We have a number of different ideas that could work. It doesn't have to be another Fratelli."
Mr Johnston said that around 70% of the firm's management team have come up through the ranks of the business over the years.
However, he is concerned about a future supply of staff, a worry compounded by the looming Brexit, which is why the group is looking into setting up its own training scheme. He said: "We are looking at setting up our own academy, which would take in 36 school leavers each year.
"We were worried in general about staff especially with the growth they are predicting for tourism in Northern Ireland. As a company, we don't feel we have enough people.
"Brexit has potentially heightened our sense of urgency,but it's not the main thing.
"Ultimately, business has to change and adapt. Who knows where it could end up? Business likes the status quo.
"We would like to see certainty and a bit more clarity."
Colin started working aged 15, first foraying into hospitality at Cutter's Wharf bar, south Belfast.
He started off with his current company in 2001, when he worked at Ten Square hotel in Belfast city centre. It's since changed hands twice, and is now owned by developer Paddy Kearney.
"It was 2001 when I started with the company with Ten Square, I was there up until 2008.
"I was a supervisor, and worked my way up to hotel manager. I had a break, working down in Limerick with one of the brothers-in-law of the family, in a restaurant in Henry Street."
He rejoined in December 2008 and was promoted to general manager of the Galgorm three years ago.
Not all of the company's ambitions have been fulfilled.
The group had initially planned to turn the former Scottish Mutual building in Belfast city centre into a top-end hotel.
However, some issues, including an initial shortfall for restoration work due to a government grants freeze, and a tenant staying in the building longer than expected, delayed work.
But the group has made a tidy profit on the property - which now has planning permission for a hotel - selling it on for more than £6m. It was initially on the market for just £2m.
Liverpudlian developer Lawrence Kenwright now plans a George Best-themed hotel in it.
Mr Johnston said the offer was presented to the company's board of directors, and the decision was then taken to sell.
"It was one of those things. It was a fantastic offer.
"There was still the will there, from the operational side of the board, to do it. But, I suppose, everyone around the table has to have their opinion.
"We are looking to further invest in Galgorm, the restaurants, and there was a great offer. It was a multitude of factors."
He added that the city needs more hotels to accommodate a predicted rise in tourists.
Away from the job, when not in the office or out and about for work, Colin's a keen runner, and also enjoys travelling.
As the general manager, he said he has a close working relationship with the Hill brothers.
"It's a very close working relationship. They would be very driven on the development side of the business, and that's what they have input into."