A weekend job collecting glasses was the seed which led to a more than 20-year career, which has seen Colin Johnston reach the very top of the hospitality profession here.
“I try and be accessibly as possible, and have an open door policy”, Colin tells Ulster Business. “I sit in an open plan office. I like being among teams. I genuinely believe answers predominately come from your team. It’s very much a bottom up, rather than top down approach.”
Colin’s helped lead the success of the Galgorm Collection here – the mainstay of the company, Galgorm Resort and Spa outside Ballymena, alongside the company’s restaurant businesses, and soon-to-be city hotel offering.
“I have been lucky to work hand-in-hand with the two owners for 20 years,” Colin says. “Nicky and Paul (Hill) have been great.”
Following his time as a glass-collector, Colin continued the pursuit of a career in the hospitality sector here.
Most of his career has been with Tullymore House – the company which owns and runs the Galgorm Collection. That includes managing Ten Square Hotel in Belfast, when it was owned by the group, as well as running hotels in Limerick.
“I came back to Galgorm in early 2009 and I’ve been here ever since,” Colin says. That included roles as assistant operations manager, before progressing over the years to become managing director – a role he’s held for around three years.
“The success of Galgorm has, and myself, has been driven around, first and foremost, the team and the people, and that we invested in great product,” he says.
“It’s been a fantastic journey. When I started at Galgorm, the spa and first phase of rooms had just been competed. It’s been great to be a part of that.
“When I started in 2009, turnover was £4.5m – then take that to 2019 of around £25m. Now we have two Belfast restaurants, and The Rabbit (hotel in Templepatrick) well-developed and opening in February.
“We aren’t a company that stands still. There has been work every year – some kind of development.” That’s meant staff numbers have also soared at the business.
When Colin joined, there were around 100-120 staff. Now, that number has grown to 750 at the main site, and likely to head towards the 900 mark into next year.
The business was well-prepared in terms of the financial hit it was going to take, due to Covid-19. It looked ahead to two years, and designed a plan around that.
“We wrote a plan, opened the hotel and took the decision not to open the Belfast sites.
“From a financial point of view, we were trying to break even for the financial year – that was the best-case scenario, and would be a great achievement – at least you aren’t losing money. Our financial year has just finished and we have more or less done that.”
It’s also taken the time during lockdown to invest and develop the business further, to get ready for reopening
“We had a lot of space to manoeuvre in terms of financial investment, doing a lot of spa extensions and other internal changes we couldn’t have done while the hotel was open.
“I do think we are going be sitting under a level of restrictions into March and April, and then an easing. (I think it will be) summer or slightly after before you go back to no restrictions. Life is life, you have to deal with it.
“I have enjoyed the journey. Having done the majority of jobs in the hotel, it gives you a good insight. I enjoy people development. People have been here a long time and it’s nice to watch them grow alongside you.
“I believe we have managed Covid quite well. It’s a young workforce with around 76% under 40. They tend to be adaptable, versatile and tend to take things in their stride.
“I started in industry around the time of the Good Friday Agreement. I had that journey of seeing hospitality and tourism grow, and all the excitement that comes with that.
“Then there was ‘Our Time Our Place’ in 2012, and we have had big golf events, including the Irish Open, along with royal visits. We’ve had far more good days than bad.”