Malcolm Simpson and wife Karen are the couple behind SimpsInns, one of Ayrshire’s most successful leisure groups.
Malcolm and Karen Simpson are the dynamic duo behind one of Ayrshire’s, and indeed Scotland’s, most successful independently owned hotel groups – SimpsInns. Susan Young caught up with Malcolm to find out the secret of their success.
The company strapline is ‘Privately Owned, Proudly Independent’ and that, Malcolm tells me, is the ethos that drives the company. The group has a diverse product range and owns and operates hotels, restaurants, bars and golf and leisure facilities across Ayrshire including The Gailes Hotel, The Waterside Hotel, Old Loans Hotel, The Riverside Inn, Si Cafe Bar: Restaurant and Gailes Golf: Leisure Spa as well as golf tour operator Wilkinson Travel. The combined turnover is in the region of around £10m.
The Simpsons didn’t hail from the hospitality business, in fact, Malcolm was a Production Engineer in textiles and Karen, a travel agent, when they both – as a married couple – went to work for Whitbread developing new concepts. They spent ten years with the company honing their skills. Explains Malcolm, “When we decided to leave our respective jobs and join Whitbread neither of us had as much as pulled a pint. My late sister Linda, and her husband Johnnie Macaloney were both in hospitality – they owned Glenskirlie House, so I was aware of the hard work involved, and I could see that hard work paid off. But it was at Whitbread that Karen and I learned all about P&L, training, customer care and food. When I look back at the 10 years we spent there I realise they were fabulous years, and we learned a lot in how to run a business.”
After Whitbread, the duo set up SimpsInns, just over 20 years ago, when they bought the Old Loans Inn (formerly The Bruce Inn) in the village of Loans on the outskirts of Troon, in Ayrshire. On the day that Malcolm and I caught up he was in the mood to celebrate. The company had just won two accolades at the Scottish Golf Tourism Awards – the Old Loans Inn was named Best Small Hotel (20 bedrooms or under) and The Gailes Hotel was announced Best Hotel (with 21-50 rooms). The two Ayrshire venues were in great company for the third award in the hotel category went to Gleneagles Hotel, which won the Best Large Hotel accolade.
Says Malcolm, “To have one of our hotels win an award was fantastic, but to quickly follow up with a second was simply wonderful news and especially when shortlisted alongside such great venues across Scotland.”
Malcolm is certainly passionate about his own business, but he is also passionate about hospitality and tourism as a whole. He tells me, “I do believe that hospitality needs more local and national support and it is crucial we work collaboratively with government to develop this industry.
Over the years Malcolm and Karen have continued to drive their business in Ayrshire forward and grow it. The Waterside opened four years ago, and then they opened the hotel and added a function suite. Says Malcolm, “It is doing really well.”
He adds, “The easiest job is just to sit on your hands but we have a strong philosophy of reinvesting in our business. For instance, we have just spent half a million pounds reinvesting and refurbishing The Gailes – all the bedrooms have now been finished. In fact, all our bedrooms in each of our hotels are now bang up to date. Refurbishing rooms are one the hardest investment decisions to make. It is a big spend for not a lot of return because you don’t make any more from them. But you cant let the standards slide. But my personal view is that you have to do it. We have a label ‘Privately owned, privately independent’ and my pride wouldn’t want people to come into our rooms and not think that they were not up to standard.”
Now Malcolm is considering investing in a new project but he is a tad nervous given the current unstable economic climate. Understandably so because he looking at a significant investment to upgrade their Golf and leisure facility at The Gailes Hotel.
He explains, “We are keen to invest but are looking for support, encouragement and reassurance from the government at local and national level to give us confidence, however at the moment the reality is no
He adds in relation to Brexit, “We spend our lives collaborating and doing things together. We know teamwork leads to success. Yet now, as a country, we are isolating ourselves. The European Union may be a shambles but when it comes to leaving it or fixing it I think we ought to have chosen the latter?
He tells me, “I believe if you make the cake bigger we can all get a bigger slice and Ayrshire is known for the quality of its hospitality offering. I talk to guys in Glasgow they say they would never come down to Ayrshire because of the quality of operators in the market. I think that is a positive – we sell ourselves well – and customers know that if they come to Ayrshire they should get a good experience.”
He is not wrong about the quality of hospitality operators in Ayrshire – there is Costley & Costley, the RAD Group and of Buzzworks. Says Malcolm, “We all sit in slightly different marketplaces, but collectively we have an outstanding and diverse hospitality offering in Ayrshire.
He explains, “We are going to focus on The Gailes next. It has evolved massively since we built it. It took a while to buy the leisure club and golf course, and it was a complicated deal, but it has changed the dynamics of where we are going. At the moment if you come to The Gailes you are either a corporate guest and The Gailes is your hotel of choice, or you are a golf customer or possibly you are a wedding guest. But our next investment in The Gailes will change that. I want it to be a leisure resort where you would choose to come for a holiday with the family. It will be the reason you are in Ayrshire. It will offer access to golf at three world class championship courses, and a 9-hole course too with golf Academy and range, woodland walks, a full spa and much more, and of course an opportunity for people to learn to play golf. Our other hotels will be able to feed off it because guests will be able to use the resort facilities. I have a vision of a golf course on our course that is very accessable and offers golf over a much shorter time commitment, also our resort will be different because it will be a centre of excellence, it will be all about training and developing and the last thing it will be is intimidating. I hate golf snobbery and our 9-hole is female and kids friendly (we already have almost 200 children who are on our golf programme.). The new resort is my vision for the future, all I have to do now is have the confidence invest!”
Malcolm’s vision for the future also includes seeing his two sons take more control of the business and both of them currently work in it. Says Malcolm, “Karen and I debate this subject all the time. But we haven’t tried to push them into the business. After all, it was our dream and you either love it or hate it, there is no in between. I don’t want them to feel under pressure. But Lee and Jack do seem to enjoy it. Our youngest Jack is studying hospitality at Strathclyde Uni and he is working in the business when he is not studying. And we are trialling a graduate programme with him. While Lee has recently returned from his travels in Australia. He came back to surprise his brother on his 21st birthday. He has been working in hospitality all over the world and he arrived back on Thursday and was at work on Monday. ”
He continues, “I do have confidence in the two of them and I needed to know they both wanted to do it and they do. We, of course, would support them whatever they wanted to do. But it seems they are both embracing it. They have a lot to learn, but they have a great team around them to learn from. I’m a strong personality but they are putting their ideas forward and nipping at my heels.”
He concludes, “We have taken some big gambles and we have succeeded, and I will keep on expanding in our business, but I don’t need to buy another hotel to do that. I like the fact that it doesn’t take me longer than 15 minutes to get to any of our properties and I also like the fact that when I am driving to them there is always water on one side and great views. It’s great. But best of all I like the fact that we will remain for the foreseeable future “Privately Owned, Proudly Independent.”