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From boarding school runaway to hotel superstar! The amazing success story of Ken McCulloch

Ken McCulloch is one of the few remaining ‘bon viveurs’ in the hospitality industry. Susan Young caught up with him at his latest hotel Dakota Lux in Glasgow.

You know it is going to be a good interview when you are greeted with a glass of pink champagne, and you know it has been a good interview, when you are told at the end, “That didn’t feel like work.”

So said Ken McCulloch when we met for lunch last month at his newly opened Dakota Lux in Glasgow.
In fact, the lunch flew in, due in no small part, to Ken’s ability to tell a good story – something that he perhaps picked up from his father, well known impresario Archie McCulloch, who had been a journalist in his early days, and a founder of Scottish Television.

His mother, well-loved singer Kathie Kay, sang with the Billy Cotton Band Show, and my mum was a big fan. In fact when I mentioned interviewing Ken, my mum told me she used to work with his brother Stewart on the Glasgow Eastern Standard and he once got her an invite back stage at the Old Empire Theatre where Kathie Kay gave her a signed photo. (she’s still got it)!

Stewart always apparently had good yarns to share, some of them about Ken and his inventive ways of running away from boarding school.

Ken admits to some misdemeanors, but a plus side of running away from boarding school was the fact he got to be a day boy. At school he also developed a love of music and in fact played guitar in a band. But music was not to be his career. Despite the fact his upbringing was all about showbiz, when he left school with no qualifications, it was Ken himself who came up with the idea of going into the hotel industry. Says Ken, “It was always a bit crazy in our house, but it was great fun. I was the youngest, but I can recall clearly standing outside our house in Blanefield and looking at what my mum and dad had, and my brother’s sports car and saying to myself, I want that lifestyle, how am I going to get it? It just came to me. Hotels. I knew my dad must have known some good hoteliers, and asked him to put a good word in for me, and he did with British Transport Hotels (BTH), which at the time ran the likes of the Central in Glasgow and Gleneagles.”

He continues, “If I had taken an academic route I thought it would have taken about five years to get myself through Uni, so I gave myself five years to get myself established.”

AT BTH I started at the bottom in the kitchen as a commis chef, and after three and a half years, I had worked in the kitchen at the North British, the Central’s Malmaison restaurant and Gleneagles. I learnt a lot there, in fact maybe I didn’t realise how much I had learned, until I went to run one of my dad’s places on Cumbrae.”

He explains, ‘My dad had his finger in a lot of pies and he had clubs. I had been considering going to Paris, but then dad told me his kitchen guy had walked out at the Cumbrae Club. So I said to myself, I could do that. I didn’t realise it at the time but it was the best decision I ever made choosing Millport over Paris! It was the making of me, and it let me earn some decent money, which also boosted my confidence. So much so I decided to buy myself a Porsche. I was driving them when no-one had heard of them. I still drive one today and in fact own a couple.”

Following on from the Cumbrae Club his father introduced him to Reo Stakis and he joined the Stakis Group as a trainee Assistant Manager but it wasn’t long before he was made General Manager of his first hotel at the tender age of 23. Says Ken, “It was scary. My first hotel was in Kirkcaldy, my second one in Falkirk, but I had a blast. BTH taught me to do things properly and Stakis to do it commercially.”

After Stakis he opened La Bonne Auberge, a wine-bar underneath The Beacons Hotel in Glasgow. His partner at the time was Maurice Taylor, who owned the hotel, but in 1976 they dissolved their working relationship. Says Ken, “Maurice and I weren’t the best combination.” He then, in his own words “blagged” his way into Royal Exchange Square and opened Charlie Parker’s. He explains, “I noticed that people didn’t have anywhere to go to dress up in Glasgow. But I was skint. In fact I was so skint that my then girlfriend, a ballerina, paid for me to go on holiday before we started working on it. But I managed to get the cash from the bank, and when we got back from holiday we got the keys and got it open. Mind you the Evening Times then tried to close it down, because a couple of their journalists were turned away. They got a high court injunction because they said we discriminated, but we managed to keep it open because we allowed minors in to eat. I think the folk that made the most out of Charlie’s were the boutique owners. Folk really dressed up to go to Charlie’s and bought new outfits every week. It really took off.”

He breaks off our conversation to press his ‘doodah’ – a small, and thin, round object on our table with a button, which apparently emits a vibration to wee gadgets all the staff carry. It allows Ken to contact his team without moving from his chair. This time he had summoned them because the guy at the next table was looking like he needed some help. He did… directions to the loo! This invention called his ‘doodah’ is part of the staff’s induction now. Says Ken, “I’ve got very used to it, and it settles me down. If I see something that needs attention I can draw their attention to it discreetly. In fact I really miss it when I go somewhere and it’s not there.”

After a quick top up of our drinks, Ken continues, “I sold Charlie’s and two other restaurants to Grant Forrest a few years later, took some time off, and when I came back I met John McKenzie, then the MD of Alloa. He was really my mentor – a tremendous guy. He was like a schoolmaster, and he believed in me. We formed a joint venture company he had the site and we had the talent. We did The Belfry and the Buttery and the day before it opened McKenzie suggested we buy Rogano, one of Glasgow’s best-loved restaurants. John said to me, “Why don’t we do Rogano?” and the very next day he put in a bid for it. I went to America to get some ideas and in Chicago I saw a lot of things that inspired me. I was working so hard that my girlfriend said that if I didn’t take a step back I was going to kill myself. My problem was I didn’t really trust designers so I didn’t use a big design team, but the designer I did use at the time had designed me a great office in Glasgow. So I had a great office but no staff. My girlfriend told me to see a student from Dundee who would help take the strain off me. She came to see me and when the door opened this wee soul was standing there with her portfolio, which was nearly as big as she was. Her work at the time was horrendous, she had been at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Dundee, and her dad had a cafe in Dumfries but her stuff was mainstream art school. I asked how she felt about working for me some of the time directly and some time working on the design. She came right back at me and asked what the split would be and I said spend 50% of your time working with me, and 50% of your time on the rest.”

That student was Amanda Rosa, who went on to become Ken’s wife 21 years ago, and who still designs his venues to this day. Says Ken, “She is amazing. You don’t mess with Amanda. What you see is what you get. She came to work at the Buttery and the Belfry, and I always remember 10 years on when we were walking along the Champs-Elysées in Paris and the phone rings, and at the other end of the line is the main man behind the International Design of the year contest and he told Amanda she had been voted International Designer of the year. She deserved it. Her ethic is never over budget and she is meticulous, her attention to detail is fabulous.

With Amanda by his side the two of them embarked on one of greatest achievements, transforming the former Cavendish Hotel in Glasgow’s west end into One Devonshire – a luxury boutique hotel which was, at the time, the most luxurious hotel in Scotland.

The enterprising duo opened it in 1986, after parting company with Alloa which was under threat of acquisition. He didn’t ever regret the move. Says Ken, “I was in a cab recently and we were passing Devonshire, the cabbie asked me, “did you do that?” It is one of the things I am most proud of. But I remember a friend of mine, who is still a friend, taking me aside at the opening and saying, “sunshine, you’ve blown it! People don’t get it.” “You mean you don’t get it I said!” He tells me about a Talking Heads album called ‘Stop Making Sense’. “I think the more sense you are making, the less sense you make. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and do what you believe in. I wanted to change people’s perceptions of Glasgow and I think we did that. Even today Devonshire is still without a doubt, still regarded very highly.”

Next on the agenda was Malmaison Hotel Group. The first hotel opened in Edinburgh in 1994. Instead of a top-end hotel, it was a chic but a less expensive option for travellers. This venture was backed by the Arcadian Hotel business, and when four years later the group was sold to Patriot, Ken’s investment reaped some £55m.
The lifestyle that he had so coveted as a youngster was his, and much more. He and Amanda moved to Monaco to enjoy the fruits of their labour. But… only two years later he obviously got the itch and purchased the Abela Hotel, with business partner racing driver David Coultard, which became the Columbas Hotel, another luxury hotel. Says Ken, “The Columbas Hotel and Monaco were amazing. But if you thought things through you wouldn’t do anything. You have to be crazy enough to want to do it.”

They then came up with idea of Dakota. Says Ken, “The Dakota was named after the Douglas DC3, it used to be the air craft for the New York to Chicago route. Then the war came along and it was used as a training aircraft for Brits who were learning to fly. At the end of the war the DC3 went back into service but by now it was more affordable for people to travel. Before that it was only the rich and famous who flew. The partnership with Coultard faltered, but what has not faltered is Ken’s belief in Dakota. Says Ken, “I’m very invested and I am a doer. You have to have a passionate belief in what you do. Two and two does not always make four. You have to live it and see things through even if other folk bail. We are not here to make up the numbers or to muck about. I believe in ‘Why not.”

He continues, “We call Dakota at Eurocentral the 8th wonder of the world. How did we know every road was going to lead to it? It was just a huge hunch. In fact the property guys that I had got to know from my Charlie’s days said it was very much ‘left field’, but when I had my office in Monaco it was cheaper to go to Nice by helicopter than by cab, so when I got here and thought about going to see Eurocentral, it seemed a normal thing to do, rather than a flash thing, to take a helicopter. From the air you could see how people would get there.”

There is also a Dakota in Edinburgh and the recently opened luxurious version Dakota Lux in Glasgow. Ken says, “It has been tougher than I thought opening here. It means so much more when it is in your home town and it is more difficult. It is definitely a destination venue. But the staff here are great.” To prove the point he invited his pastry chef who had just created the most exquisite soufflé. ‘, to join us. He tells me, “I know most of my staff, and I talk to them like they are individuals.” I would vouch for that.

He adds, “One of the huge problems with hospitality today is that mums and dads still say to their kids, ‘when are you going to get a proper job’. But if you are any good at hospitality and you work hard, you can do very well in this business. You can work anywhere in the world and you would always be employable. It’s a fact good people don’t get sacked, but sometimes people sack themselves”

I asked him what his proudest achievements had been – and apart from creating his businesses, he told me, “Being one of the founder members of Connoisseur Scotland, and winning Hotelier of the Year from my peers.”

My mum also told me that his brother Stewart came to work one day and said “I’ve sold my Chihuahua for a horse.My dad says it’s got good form.” One thing is definitely for sure… there is nothing wrong with Ken’s form!

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