Maroulla Nicholas has spent 50 years in hospitality SUSAN YOUNG caught up with her to find out more.
Maroulla Nicholas is a legend in the hospitality industry. The boss of The Glynhill Hotel in Renfrew grew up in the business and is a vivacious, slightly eccentric doyenne of hospitality with a heart as big as her personality.
If her father, Harry Nicholas, could see the hotel he founded today I am sure his heart would be full – because the family have continued his legacy and next year will will see the family celebrate half a century since The Glynhill opened.
Today the business has grown from a 22-room hotel, with a restaurant called The Ivy and a function suite, into Renfrew’s only fully serviced 4-star hotel with 147-bedrooms, two restaurants, a luxury conference and banqueting facility which can cater for more than 400 delegates, as well as, a leisure club complete with swimming pool. In the last three years alone the family has invested more than £2.5 million in the hotel and there is now planning permission for further 14 bedrooms.
Maroulla is as passionate about the business as she has ever been. She has been raising awareness of the unfairness of hospitality business rates, based on hypothetical values and communicating to many including Finance Minister Derek Mackay. She runs the business with brother Ross, her older brother Daso is also a non executive director, so The Glynhill is still very much a family-run business. But things are a changing. After more than 30 years at the helm she is trying to reposition the business, with a team that can take the hotel even further.
Explains Maroulla, “I love the business, but I also realise that to take the business forward it is necessary to keep evolving. Firstly with the refurbishment of the hotel which is ongoing, and then18 months ago we bolstered our management team with the appointment of Graeme Gibson as General Manager. He joined us from the Principal Hayley Grand Central in Glasgow and he is bringing a new style of management to the hotel. There have been a further three management appointments, Elizabeth McNeil, Financial Controller who joined from Kained Holdings an independent restaurants and bars operator, Richard Wilson, joined as Food and Beverage Manager whose experience includes working with Ken McCulloch, and for the first time the hotel has a dedicated Sales Manager – Jeanette Ward, whose career has included time at The Thistle and the G1 Group.”
Says Maroulla, “It’s not easy making such significant changes to the management team, but by bringing in the calibre of people that we have, I believe we are investing in the future success of the hotel. Now that we are a sizeable privately owned hotel we need people to help run the business and who are very good operationally.
“We are heading in a fresh direction with the new management team – and we are re-inventing our business model. We all like familiarity and our own comfort zones, but sometimes we need to work outwith it to ensure continued success and growth”
And Maroulla should know because she has done just about every job in The Glynhill, from the shop floor up. She helped clean it when she was a child – she remembers her father bribing her with ice-cream to help, and when she joined full-time after University she was involved with revenues – organising the Christmas promotions. She worked alongside her father Harry Nicholas taking on more prominent roles and in 1987, when her father started taking more of a back seat, she became Acting Finance Director and Managing Director. Her father passed in 1997.
Maroulla is proud of the fact that The Glynhill has remained unbranded. She comments, “The Glynhill is a privately-owned hotel, with its own unique identity, and we have to be able to compete for business not just in the local market but nationally and globally. We keep our standards high and I believe that The Glynhill is a hotel that would fit into any branded market. Our room revenue has been healthy and indeed we need the new rooms to ensure that we take advantage of all the business going – which we need to do to ease the burden of our excessive rates and utilities.
She continues, “To continue to grow I realise that we needed a better structure and a strategy for the future. Let’s face it, as you grow you need to be adaptable to the changing business trends but equally we need to get more professional in order to compete in the wider market. The business expenses are not going down, and it is not just a case of working harder but working smarter to ensure that the business flourishes. In this business you have to keep reinventing yourself and modernising as the market demands.”
She believes that the Scottish Government is not aiding the hospitality industry. She says, “We’ve got the same business challenges we have always had, but now the costs are escalating out of control. We don’t have a level playing field. It amazes me that other businesses with higher turnovers pay a massive amount less, because they are not rated on their turnover, which the hospitality business is. Other business people that I have spoken don’t realise this. When I tell them how much we pay they are astounded.
“Nicola Sturgeon should be supporting private businesses that are indigenous to Scotland, Government makes it easier for dotcom and franchise businesses to do business here than the private sector. I also think that Scottish Enterprise should do more to support well-established companies. As our margins become tighter, and our costs rise, we are not able to carry inefficiencies – and the very people that the government has supported with the likes of rises in minimum wages are actually the people that could suffer the most. I am sure many of them would prefer to have a steady 35-40 hour week on slightly less, rather than not knowing how many hours they will be working in a week. This may sound controversial, but the luxury of being able to look after loyal staff has been made more difficult as a result and being a family run business with people being the heart of the business this is a tough one to swallow.”
She adds, “This is a multi-million pound family business – we employ more than 150 staff, and we certainly contribute to the local economy. We support local suppliers and we are very loyal. But I fear for the future of mid-scale private businesses including hotels, bars and restaurants that don’t have the purchasing power of the larger chains.”
The Glynhill continues to evolve and the family have a capital plan that is invested back into the hotel. Says Maroulla, “We have managed to do this over the years with good support of the bank, suppliers and our own resources, it is an ongoing investment, even though over the last 12 months the uncertainty of Brexit has kept capital investment lower than it may have been. We are working to align our business efficiencies to map to those of our large corporate clients. We still do very well for a hotel, sub city and peripheral to the airport. Our business is made up of corporate accommodation and meetings/events midweek. At the weekend leisure guests take over with the hotel being a popular wedding venue. We were prudent when the Referendum was happening – we held back a bit on investing, but as soon as we decided to ‘stay’ we got our cheque book out.”
She may be doing that again once Brexit is passed with her planning permission for the new rooms, but says she, “We’ve just got the planning through so we haven’t made any firm plans when to start.”
Certainly on the day that I caught up with Maroulla business was booming. There was a conference running for 200 clients, an event for 35 people and various people dining. The hotel was bustling on a cold but sunny Monday.
With her management team in place Maroulla is also able to take a bit more time off and she has used her time constructively visiting other hotels. She reveals, “The visits are for pleasure, but you can’t help compare their offering to ours. And I am always seeing things with fresh eyes when I come back.” Hotels she loves visiting include Turnberry.
“Nicola Sturgeon should be supporting private businesses that are indigenous to Scotland. The Government makes it easier for dotcom and franchise businesses to do business here…” Hotel, “Ralph Porciani is very good”. She also loves what Tim and Kit Kemp have done, owners of Firmdale Hotels . Says Maroulla. “.I just love the way Kit Kemp has designed the interiors of each hotel. I would love to meet her.”
And I would love to get Maroulla one of Ken McCulloch’s ‘Doo dahs’! He uses this discrete button to alert staff that something requires to be done – whether a meet or greet, or an order taken – by pressing the button each of his staff (or the nearest one) gets a vibrate from their pagers…Maroulla doesn’t have one but I am sure if she had she would save herself a fair bit of anxiousness – because she is always the first one to notice when a guest is a bit unsure about where to go or what to do… and despite, or perhaps because, she is the owner she is always right there helping out and making sure they have the best experience in The Glynhill that they can have. That is the sign of a true hotelier.
She concludes, “I just love this industry but you need a good team, and I think I’ve got one, that will help take The Glynhill forward to a new era.” She may have, but they have big boots to fill.