Gary Silcock joined the 365 acre Murrayshall Country Estate in Perthshire three years ago as General Manager, after Chief Executive of the new owner Stellar Asset Management, Jonathan Gain, lured him to Perth.
Stellar had big plans for the estate which boasts a 40 bedroom property and golf course, and although the investment company had already invested more than £2m in the estate since buying it in 2017 with Gary on board it could proceed with its plans to invest a substantial amount more.
Gary’s pro golf background along with his management experience of working with the likes of La Manga Club, The Belfry and Gleneagles, some of the finest golf destinations in the UK and Europe, plus his “strong operational knowledge, strategic vision and leadership qualities” certainly made him a perfect fit for Murrayshall Jonathan Gain said at the time, and chose him over 350 other candidates for the role.
You can see why. Gary has a quiet confidence which is both reassuring and impressive at the same time and is able to paint a picture of what the plans are for the estate and his team. His role includes bringing to fruition Stellar’s £30m plan to extend the hotel, the erection of lodges, the creation of a state-of-the-art spa / leisure facilities and camping and glamping areas which will involve reimagining golf holes that are no longer in use.
It is certainly a big project but one which Gary relishes and one which he is determined to have complete within the next few years. It’s exactly this sort of task he tells me that he “thrives on.”
As the only 4-star hotel in Perth, Gary is determined to make Murrayshall as popular as his former place of work at Gleneagles Hotel, with the same level of service, but keeping it affordable for locals and tourists alike. With a brief spell as a Best Western – now the hotel has joined Luxury Scotland, which Gary believes is a better fit for the luxury boutique market.
Born in Edinburgh, Gary’s parents moved to Perthshire when he was a youngster and he went to school in Dundee. With jobs worldwide, he eventually headed back to Scotland and moved to Auchterarder in 2015 when he joined Gleneagles Hotel as Director of Golf.
Certainly it has been his love of golf and his expertise at it which has helped forge his career. Always a sportsman – he took up golf in his late teens, having given up go-carting, and football. His first handicap was 17, his second 12 and his 3rd 7. When a Pro at his club Panmure mentioned there was such a job as a Director of Golf, Gary was intrigued and set about becoming one.
As a result, despite studying as a systems analyst, he then did his Associates Degree PGA Foundation in 1993 at Panmure and subsequently moved into Resorts at Westerwood Country Hotel in Cumbernauld. He describes it as “wet!” The course not the job! Gary then went to St Andrews, working at the Old Course Hotel, Golf Resort & Spa, as a Pro at the Duke’s Course. It was the first five-star hotel he worked for, but certainly not the last.
Over the next decade Gary’s career took him to Portugal and Parque da Floresta, where he was Golf Operations Manager. He stayed there five years and honed his project management skills – which saw him getting involved in all aspects of creating a new golf academy and the redevelopment of the golf course. It was where his son was born.
Then he took off to India as Chief Executive at the £8 billion Aamby Valley City gated resort in Mumbai which catered for 10,000 guests with its own private airport.
Says Gary, “I worked with IMG and I opened up a Clubhouse, PGA-branded academy, and oversaw the creation of a 250 -acre fully floodlit golf course. It is still the biggest project I have ever worked on.
He smiles, “You could play golf at night on the floodlit course, but you needed an armed guard – to protect you from the leopards!”
From there he headed to Ireland and the City West Hotel in Dublin – the largest hotel in Europe. It could cater for 2,000 people at a function. City West owner Jim Mansfield had also bought Palmerstown Stud – 10 miles away -with the idea of turning it into an award-winning golf resort and Gary’s role as CEO also included branding and marketing too.
He says, “I helped create the Clubhouse, three restaurants and open it as a 23-bedroomed private hotel. I also branded it Palmerstown and linked it all up, bringing a new team in.” He didn’t just talk the talk, he played the course too, participating in the Irish PGA Championship when it took place at Palmerstown.
By 2006 it was back to the UK and The Belfry as Director of Golf. He was there for seven years, before it was bought by KSL. After the change of management he then headed to Spain and La Manga Club. His responsibilities included three golf courses – plus two Clubhouses and a Leadbetter Golf Academy. It remains one of his favourite places.
He then returned to the UK and Gleneagles Hotel after being appointed to the role of Director of Golf by former MD Bernard Murphy, the move coincided with Ennismore buying the Gleneagles estate.
Says Gary, “It was exciting time. Sharan Pasricha took over and he was and is very inspirational. I was involved in every facet of golf and had had an input into the food and beverage operation as well as sales and marketing too – everything outwith the hotel itself.”
During his tenure at Gleneagles, which was always his dream job, he presided over the prestigious 2019 Solheim Cup, raised membership figures and oversaw Ennismore’s investment in its golf facilities.
With Gleneagles crossed off the bucket list – pastures new beckoned – and when the role of General Manager at Murrayshall came up Gary put his name forward. It allowed him to fully utilise all the experiences he had to date – golf, project management, team building and hospitality management. However, he showed off his other skills during the pandemic when the hotel had reduced staff numbers – he did everything bar make the beds – a skill he has never developed.
In fact says Gary, “The staff used to think I enjoyed hoovering because I did it so much. They thought it was my way of relieving stress. However, it was just something that needed to be done.”
The 26 rooms in the main hotel were refurbished in 2019 but one of the things Gary did first of all was put in hi-speed internet. Says he, “What a difference it has made.” He also elevated the hotels offering, from the quality of its laundry from Fishers to stylish coffee machines in every room.
The most recent upgrades have been to the two lodges which extend the number of rooms the hotel has by a further 14 rooms, creating some stunning suites. Gary comments, “I had the opportunity to get involved with the interior design process here. We played around with colour to create different styles, brought new furniture from Gillies in Broughty Ferry, and created beautiful bathrooms with walk in showers and baths. I’m quite good at visualising things and I enjoy interiors.”
In the main hotel the new name for the refurbished lounge bar is The Barossa Bar – this is where you can enjoy light meals and afternoon tea with a fabulous view. In fact most of the public areas and rooms have excellent views. The brasserie has also been rebranded Eolas (pronounced O-lass), which means ‘experience’ in Gaelic. It opened last year.
Gary explains, “This was always a brasserie but we didn’t sell brasserie style food. So we have changed the offering – and now Chef Craig Jackson offers Scottish themes with a modern French take. We have increased our wine offering from 25 to more than 80 bottles and raised the range and quality of wine on offer. We do two courses for £38 and have a really popular Sunday lunch. There are also regular tasting menus that change every six weeks. After losing a Red Rosette when we were a Brasserie, last year we managed to get our Two Rosettes back, and now I’ve challenged the chef to get a third which would mean we are the only 3 Rosette in the area.”
It is not just the hotel itself which has seen improvements there has also been a focus in raising its marketing activity with a new website. Says Gary, “It was fine before, but not very inspirational. So that has now been elevated and we are also invested in PR and marketing and rebranded the name to Murrayshall Country Estate. We want to appeal to a broad range of guests both international and leisure guests. We need to target the right people if we are to take the business forward.
“When Stellar took it over it was a distressed product – you can either look to improve things slowly or try and speed things up and that’s what we are trying to do.”
There is a good reason for this as Gary is just going through the process to submit a detailed plan to Perth and Kinross Council for the next stage of the development of Murrayshall which includes a new 27,000 sq ft spa and leisure facility, 19 luxury holiday lodges which will add an additional 16 bedrooms to the hotel, glamping pods further up the hill, with jacuzzis outside and of course fabulous views.
Says Gary, “It will take us up to a completely new level.” It is a £30m project, however projects are what Gary really enjoys, and of course there are plans for the golf course too.
His plan is to turn the golf course at Murrayshall into Scotland’s only American-style parkland course. The greens will be smaller, with more shapes and in the summer months the grass will go from long to short which will make the greens’ pop’ and look really lush whilst also using white sand in the bunkers. “It does make commercial sense. We have 55,000 people in Perth, we are the only four star hotel, and once we have the leisure club and spa with its amazing view – it will give us a new USP. The leisure club and spa will be a standalone business which will give us a 12-month season and that will elevate our food and beverage revenues – which is at the very core of this business.”
But at the heart of the plans is the building of a team that can take the business forward, and he has that well in hand too. “I’m not trying to build a Real Madrid team, but I am aiming to put together the best team I can and I think we are well on the way. The management team is being built with some very strong members with incredible hospitality backgrounds who want to join us now and be part of the journey with us. Plus, we are also lucky to have a good strong casual base in the area.”
He continues, “Our owner has always said that we should have a bit of fun along the way. I think if there is one thing that Covid taught us, it was that productivity is not about doing more – but we can use potentially less staff, but pay them more. This can improve productivity because we give better service. In fact Stellar is one of the companies that trialled the four day week. It offered 100% salary, for 80% of the hours but the team have to be 100% productive. He is pushing me to that here when we get our staffing levels up.”
He continues, “I am lucky that over the years I have been able to see different cultures and different rules of management. And my degree with the PGA was in business management – which also taught me to tutor, and I am delighted that I can have the opportunity to bring all my experiences and knowledge back to Perth and try and pass them on to next generation.”
One person he has passed his passion for the industry on to is his son Ryan – with his family travelling the world with him for 18 years, Gary’s job has rubbed off on his son.
Despite having a degree in Criminology – years working at Gleneagles while at Uni and with then joining the Signature Pub Group have persuaded him to follow a career in hospitality.
Gary is delighted, “Ryan is a perfect candidate for hospitality because he is outgoing and also loves everything to do with food, while my daughter is more inclined towards artistic ventures and is a brilliant illustrator.”
Gary meantime would tell you he is fundamentally a Golf pro, although he also admits to being somewhat of a salesman. He certainly sold the vision of the new Murrayshall persona to me. Next he has the planning hurdle to clear. If all goes to plan he is going to be very busy.
One of the biggest positives about his management style he tells me is that the fact that he “reflects”, and it is also one of his negatives. I don’t think he is going to get much time to do much reflecting in the months ahead, with all the plans afoot. I look forward to seeing it all finished.