They call him Scotland’s answer to Terence Conran. True to form, he is a model metropolitan man. The day we met he was neatly groomed, puffing on a sweet smelling cigar that, just like those Conran smokes, must be an inch in diameter. He has a passion and a brilliant eye for design and has set up, designed and run a clutch of over 20 hugely successful bars and restaurants in Scotland. However, unlike his English mentor, Ken McCulloch has resisted the lure of retailing and instead runs hotels. He has a trio of award-winners open in Glasgow and Edinburgh and is poised to come south of the border.
McCulloch doesn’t bat an eyelid when comparisons are drawn between him and Sir Tel and leaps to Conran’s defence when Roy Strong’s biting review of the new Nicholas Ind biography is mentioned. “Who the hell does Roy Strong think he is, carping on about Conran? What’s he ever done? Conran has utterly transformed British homes in the past couple of decades. I know who I’d tip for a place in the history books.”
Now in his mid-40s, McCulloch began his career straight from school as a management trainee with British Transport Hotels at the Northern British (now the Balmoral) in Edinburgh – “it was extremely formal, but taught me a huge amount about service”. He has never taken formal art or design training – “for me that would have been more of a hindrance than a help because I operate very much on instinct”. He then cooked at his father’s nightclub on the island of Cumbrae before working at a couple of smaller hotel chains. His first job as a general manager was bestowed when he was just 22. Six years later he set up his own enterprise with a Glasgow restaurant: “I had the great privilege of working with a wonderful designer called Warren McInven. In those days architects were usually responsible for interior design, but Warren established himself as an interior design specialist. Our first venture together was Charlie Parker’s – a huge 930m2 place right in the city centre which we transformed from an old-fashioned restaurant called the Gay Gordons (we felt we had to change the name) to Glasgow’s first cocktail bar.” It was the first of its kind and a runaway success. Parker’s was followed by a handful of others which McCulloch sold as a package in the early Eighties.
After a pause for thought, which included redesigning and relaunching two of the Alloa Brewery’s famous Glasgow city centre restaurants The Buttery and Rogano’s, McCulloch decided to return to his love of hotels. He founded One Devonshire Gardens in a former merchant’s home in Glasgow’s West End area nine years ago. A handsome, deeply luxurious town house hotel with an excellent restaurant at its hub, the rich, clubby design was the product of collaboration between McCulloch and interior designer Amanda Rosa. The two have worked together for the past decade and the working partnership has recently extended to marriage.
“I wanted One Devonshire Gardens to be discreet and recommended by word-of-mouth,” says McCulloch. However, he soon realised that the policy of no advertising needed revising and a single ad in an in-flight magazine proved a turning point. Among the first to stay was Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil, who recommended the hotel for a conference he was attending.
The hotel has since expanded into another two neighbouring houses and has scooped a series of accolades – it was described in the Good Hotel Guide as “an oasis among the bed factories” – won its owner the title of Hotelier of the Year in 1993 and a year later was nominated by Egon Ronay as Hotel of the Year.
Last year was momentous for the Scottish hotelier as it saw the opening of his two most courageous forays into the hotel world – the modern, budget-price Malmaisons in Glasgow (in a converted Greek-style Episcopalian church) and Edinburgh (occupying an elegant port-side building at Leith). While the design team remained the same, these hotels couldn’t be more different in style from One Devonshire Gardens. Opening within a few months of each other, they are the rarest of beings in Britain – modern, comfortable, well-priced and equipped with brilliant restaurants.
“The plans to start a new hotel were hatched in the depths of recession when the hotel sector was flat on the floor. I’d been toying with ideas for a new project and then hit on the combination of a really good restaurant with modern, budget-priced rooms. I believe people should want to come to eat and then stay the night, not the other way round. For me the heart and soul of any hotel is its food and beverages. This seems to be the complete opposite of what other hoteliers think. I suppose the reasoning is that if you’ve got 300 bedrooms, you’re not going to worry about feeding all those people. It would concern me though.”
McCulloch’s financier instantly saw that the new project was a runner. “By good fortune we found a couple of really distinctive buildings – which we then fitted out on a tight budget. For maximum impact at minimum outlay we opted for a stripped modern look that was achieved almost entirely through bold coloured paints and fabrics. But we’ve also added a few special features, such as a CD player in every room – almost everyone comments on those,” says McCulloch. The interiors also feature special commissions including, in Glasgow, a complete iron staircase based on the paintings of Napoleon’s court artist Jacques Louis David. This was designed and made by sculptor Andy Scott, who was discovered by Rosa.
“We knew there was no point playing the big hotel chains at their own game, so to gain the commercial edge we have taken a different line and pay very special attention to our restaurants – it’s something the big boys can’t do.” The innovative approach has certainly paid off – the two brasseries serve up superb food and are regularly fully booked days in advance, while the hotels manage impressive occupancy rates.
Courage and confidence feature large in the McCulloch portfolio. He says more than once during our conversation that he looks back on a number of projects and can’t believe he had the courage to start them. “The danger never occurs to me at the time. I hit on an idea, I think it’s great and the possibility of failing never enters my mind. I’m a great believer in not always making sense. The more you make sense, the more predictable you are and the more likely it is that everyone else has the same ideas. However, I do get very frightened about two years later when I realise what I’ve done.”
With operations leapfrogging from strength to strength, McCulloch is planning a second version of One Devonshire Gardens, this time in Edinburgh, and is adding a further 55 bedrooms to the Glasgow Malmaison. He is also ready to turn his attention to England.
“We have options on a few properties at the moment, but I can’t really divulge where. However, if you were to ask me about my priorities I’d say that number one was opening a Malmaison in London. I’ve got get it out of my system. There is also a sense that once we have a site in London we’ll be taken more seriously.”
Despite the empire-building, McCulloch is pledged to resist imitating the big boys. “I’d run a million miles rather than go to one of the big hotel chains; they’re so impersonal and run by financiers, not hoteliers. When it comes to enthusiasm and the required energy to produce something different, they’re too busy looking at each other to try anything new. And this is all at the expense of the customer. We went through a phase of thinking we should add banqueting suites and gyms and then realised that was ridiculous. That’s not our game. People come to us because they want to get away from all that. However, that’s not to say we have a fixed formula. We’re probably about half way there.”