In the first of a new series profiling general managers, Sara Guild talks to the Halkin hotel's Tom Orchard.
Tom Orchard nearly didn't make it into the hospitality industry. He was considering a career in the Army, but then he began a hotel management course at Middlesex Polytechnic and decided that hospitality was the career for him. "As soon as I started in the kitchen, I knew that this was where I wanted to be," says the general manager of London's Halkin hotel.
However, he is still curious about how things could have turned out. "If there was an opportunity to experience the Army, I would have liked to have done it, but it's not something I regret," he says.
Orchard, now 36, joined the 41-bedroom Halkin in June 2000. Working in the original design hotel in London, Orchard had no intention of touching the product or design aspects, focusing instead on the back of house and human resource management issues. "The main things were to put some structure into the management and some belief into the younger members of staff," he says.
During 2001 the Halkin celebrated its 10th birthday, and owner Christina Ong made a dramatic change to what Orchard calls the heart of the hotel - its restaurant, Nahm. Stefano Cavallini's Michelin-starred Italian style was swapped for the Thai cuisine of Australian chef David Thompson. And with more than 50% of the hotel's 90 staff working in food- and beverage-related areas, the hotel underwent a change in the cultures of those employed to present the new food, with southern hemisphere nationals replacing Italians.
When first told of the change, Orchard admits he had heard of Thompson but had not tried his food. "I was sold on the idea of bringing him here," he says, "but I had to sell that idea to other people without having tasted his cuisine. I believed in my principals [the Ongs] - they are very successful, and anything they were a party to I knew would be a success."
The change gave Orchard his first chance to be involved in such a refurbishment from the start, although he had been at the Berkeley as rooms division manager during its refurbishment. Joining the Halkin, though, was a conscious move. "I wanted to come somewhere small in my first number-one role," he says. "I thought I had a better chance of being successful and being competitive within that position. I thrive on competition and I wanted to go somewhere I thought I could make a difference on service and average room rate and quality of training."
Orchard believes he has achieved some of those goals. He says: "We have converted a Michelin-starred Italian restaurant to a Michelin-starred Thai. We managed to continue trading in a year that was horrendous for several reasons and to increase market share in 2001 without a restaurant for three months."
Ask him what he is most proud of and Orchard immediately says it is his staff. "I joined the industry to serve people," he says, "but what I really do is serve staff. It is easy to spend a whole day on non-guest-related issues. Sometimes I have to make sure I have a profile with the guests, too."
He describes himself as firm but fair, standards-orientated and a stickler for detail. Of his staff, he asks that they commit 110% to the hotel every day. "This is your one life and you have to put your heart and soul into it," he says. "I want people to want to work here because they want to be in this hotel, and not just because they want a job."
"Go and do something you want to do" is a phrase Orchard applies to himself. This took him to Royal Caribbean Cruise Line's MS Song of America on leaving college. With 1,500 crew and 2,000 passengers around him, he quickly learned about dealing with large numbers and never getting away from the job.
Returning to the UK, Orchard went to Hanbury Manor in Hertfordshire, where he met two of the men who would shape his view of how hospitality should be provided.
The managing director was Eugene Wagner, who had had a prestigious career with Four Seasons. Orchard remembers him as "at times terrifying" and "a man of few words". He says: "His communication was to the point, and I am quite happy with that - I prefer to know where I stand."
Soon after joining Hanbury, Orchard met Jean-Jacques Pergant, who joined as general manager and was to be his greatest influence. Pergant, known as "JJ", had also spent time at Four Seasons, and Orchard liked the professional practices he brought with him. He also admired his people-management skills and his concern for the staff. "He made everyone feel comfortable and important," says Orchard.
After three-and-a-half years at Hanbury Manor, Pergant left to take up the general manager's job at the Berkeley in London. Whitbread had just taken over the management contract for Hanbury Manor, turning it into a Marriott property, and Orchard stayed for a year before following Pergant to London. "I did not want to be part of an operation that was no longer going to be a five-star de luxe property," he says.
At the Berkeley, Orchard met Ramón Pajares, who had joined the Savoy Group before Pergant's arrival. Pajares was also to influence Orchard's thinking and management style. "We had the traditions and qualities of the Savoy Group, combined with the standards and professional practices of the Four Seasons background," says Orchard. "It was about respecting the past and planning for the future."
Orchard continues to be influenced "whenever we are in the same room" by both Pergant and Pajares.
Motivated by his love for his job and his desire to provide a future for his young sons, Robert and Alfie, Orchard comes across as someone who takes work and life quite seriously. But there is a sense of humour below the surface. "You have to have a huge and diverse sense of humour to do this job," he says. "I can always laugh at myself. We are on stage, and the performance starts when I walk into Halkin Street at 6.30am and finishes when I leave at 8.30pm."
Since he has no trouble getting up for work and enjoys the "structure and regimental nature of some aspects of the job", it is easy to see how Orchard could have been at home in the Army. However, he would not have met his wife, Mandy, who worked at Hanbury Manor and is now his most important critic. Orchard is openly besotted with his children, who "make the world go round", but he rarely sees them awake during the week. However, he calls them every morning and admits that he would like to see more of them. "What I am doing will provide their future, and that makes it easier for me," he says.
He tries to keep his worlds separate and says that he was no more nor less pleased by the success of his son in swimming without inflated armbands than by the Halkin's restaurant, Nahm, being awarded a Michelin star. "You have to have work-life balance, and my days off are important to me," he says. "I will work 65 hours during the week, but my weekends are mine."
So what's next for Orchard? "I have a huge ambition, but it is to be happy," he says, "not to run every five-star de luxe hotel in the world." Working again in the Caribbean appeals, particularly at small, more intimate hotels such as the Calabash in Grenada and Little Dicks Bay in the British Virgin Islands. However, for now, his children's education comes first, so a likely next move would be to one of London's larger five-star de luxe hotels. Should Pergant vacate his berth at the Berkeley, he may find his protégé filling it for him.
General manager, the Halkin
June 2000: hotel manager, the Halkin
1996-2000: rooms division manager, the Berkeley
1990-96: front office manager, Hanbury Manor
1988-90: assistant purser, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line
College: Middlesex Polytechnic
Hobbies: avid sports fan, especially football; follows Wolverhampton Wanderers and his local football team, Barnet, with four-year-old son Robert
Holidays: four weeks a year; usual haunts are in Spain with his in-laws, and Salcombe in Devon with his own family
Halkin Street, London
Tel: 020 7333 1000
Restaurant: Nahm (65 seats)
Occupancy, 2001: 75%
Average achieved room rate: about £310