Paul Milsom and the rise of his self-sufficient family brand

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For over six decades, Milsoms Hotels and Restaurants has built its success on providing great hospitality and listening to its core customers. From its humble tea-room beginnings, the business has grown to encompass eight properties that are regionally renowned for luxury. The best bit? The group is completely self sufficient and has no outside investors dictating its growth or direction. Zoe Monk sat down with managing director Paul Milsom to get the inside scoop.

A man in need of a cup of tea was what sparked the very first idea for Milsoms Hotels and Restaurants. In 1952, a 21-year-old Gerald Milsom was driving past a tea room in Essex and gasping for a break, decided to stop off. Chatting to the owner he discovered the property was about to be put up for sale, and after running the idea by his parents, decided to take the plunge and invest.

Unbeknown to them, a legacy began and what started as a simple tea room serving the needs of a post-war rationing Britain, soon became a pioneer of the hospitality industry for the region.

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“My dad always said that one of the best days of his career was standing on the steps of Le Talbooth in 1961 and declaring, ‘we are not serving tea anymore!’ Paul Milsom explains. “Then the property started to become a proper professional restaurant with a high reputation.”

Le Talbooth was the first property acquired by the Milsoms and it was always the dream to run a restaurant, hence when the business was in a profitable position, the switch over from chintzy tea room to classy dining room was made.

This initial success and clever business sense helped to drive Gerald’s ambition and in the late 50’s the second property for the family came in the form of Milsoms, another restaurant space, and when Paul stepped up to join his father properly in the company, the Maison Talbooth was then acquired in 1969 to become the flagship hotel of the portfolio.

“In business life, a lot of people would look at our business and say, ‘oh we’ve been here for 64 years, it’s been a gradual process of growth’,” explains Paul, “but actually it’s never like that. We’ve had our good times and our bad times and there has been times of expansion and times of contraction and sometimes we’ve had to get smaller to get bigger.”

While growth was still very much on the cards for the group – in 1978, Harwich property, The Pier was purchased – the 90’s recession proved particularly difficult for the group and the family was forced to sell Milsoms to Royal London. Paul negotiated a buy-back clause as part of the deal and when the business was in a healthy position again in 2000, the property came back under the Milsoms’ umbrella.

Despite the challenges that the 90’s recession brought to the doorstep of Milsoms, Paul says that the tough period helped the brace the business for what was to come around again in the recession of 2009/10, which resulted in the portfolio being in a much stronger position.

“In the teeth of the recession in 2009/10, we actually had a strong year,” Paul says. “In the sense that the great slump in turnover that was predicted by everyone, didn’t actually happen. We learnt from what happened to the business in the 90s, and it meant that we really understood what we needed to do to to ensure we weren’t as affected as we were back then.”

And learnt they have. Now the business consists of eight ventures, all of which have carved their own impressive reputations in the region. Four hotels – Kesgrave Hall, Milsoms, The Pier, Maison Talbooth – four wedding venues, six restaurants and event catering arm now make up the complete Milsoms’ portfolio and while there isn’t a noticeable ‘brand’ stamp on each property, Paul says that the reputation has been built on a consistent connection threaded into the DNA of the business.

He says: “There is a definite style of operating and a look and feel in each property that makes people feel comfortable and we’ve purposely done that. Each place looks fairly different to the other but there is definitely a connection which people like. People in this area – we aren’t a national brand at all and we’ll never aspire to be – we are very much a local brand and people talk about us as a local brand.”

Fresh off the back of Paul’s appearance in the first annual Boutique Hotelier Power List, I sat down with him at Milsoms to get to grips with the business and find out how he plans to take the family-owned, self sufficient portfolio to the next level.

What was the aim of the business when you stepped in and how has the model evolved?

All our businesses look different to what they used to – country house hotels used to look quite chintzy and we’re not like that at all now – I’m lucky because my wife is an interior designer so she does all the interiors and there is a feel across all our businesses that if you like one, you’ll like the other one.

The unfortunate thing about Le Talbooth is that there was no ability to develop it with accommodation; standalone restaurants are challenging to run economically so you need the bedrooms to feed the restaurant and so forth.

So when my father bought the Maison Talbooth, it was always the plan to run a courtesy car between the two properties – so guests could sleep at the Maison and then have supper at Le Talbooth – then make it into one of the best country house hotels in the heart of Constable country.

And it has really worked. We have developed it further over the years and the last time we did it was 2007-08 when we closed it for six months and reroofed it, and changed the way the second floor works. We went from 10 to 12 bedrooms, and then knocked out one of the bedrooms to turn into the spa / treatment centre. So we lost that bedroom but added three more at the top of the house.

Then we built the garden room and the swimming pool and so forth. It went from being a bit of a satellite of Le Talbooth – rather quiet, you’d hardly see a customer up there because everyone had these amazing rooms, so they’d arrive and then go into their rooms and then Le Talbooth for supper and then check out in the morning.

Whereas now the Maison has a heartbeat – there are always people in the spa, the swimming pool that is heated all year round, plus afternoon tea has really grown. The through-foot is completely different – the sleepy business that it used to be, it just isn’t now.

In that sense, we are in many respects, first and foremost restaurateurs and then secondly, hoteliers – lots of hotels, the primary concern is filling their rooms and then the secondary thing is hoping that those people stay and eat in house, whereas we have much more restaurant space across our portfolio. Maison Talbooth has 12 rooms, Le Talbooth seats 100.

In Milsoms we do 400 covers a day on a Saturday and we have 15 bedrooms here.

Our restaurants are all about the local community within a 40-mile radius and we have to be in touch with that and make sure our food is great.

What has been some of the biggest challenges of running the business?

I think running fine dining restaurants is very challenging. It’s a massive business over at Le Talbooth; it’s phenomenally busy and on a Saturday we can be doing four or five different events, as well as having a full restaurant and it’s all being done from our base there. So the challenge there is lots to do with the intensity of the business on key days – what we do on Friday afternoon through to the end of Sunday and it’s the challenge of being quite quiet in the winter months to being incredibly busy from May onwards.

At Milsoms, if you look at the worse month’s turnover and the best month’s turnover – we might increase our business by – 20% to 25%. At Le Talbooth, if you look at what we do in January, compared to what we do in July, August, it goes up 500%. So you suddenly have to go from almost slow motion in January, into full sprinting and you have to do it in a fairly short amount of time.

Has there a particular area of growth for the business over the past five years?

If you went back five years, you’d see the bit of business that almost wasn’t there was afternoon tea. So that’s been a big growth area and the price that people are prepared to pay for it I suppose.

The mix of our business hasn’t changed that much actually – all I would say is fine dining is getting harder, and casual dining is getting easier. It’s not just the price either; it’s the feel of it.

When I say the future is in more casual dining, it is, but there is still room for great places looking after people properly but there will just be less of them.

Have you noticed a rise in demand for this type of service?

The fact is the consumer wants to go out more but they actually want to spend less – and we’ve seen this through the explosion of branded restaurants, which has been fantastic. It does enable the consumer to eat well at a good price.

However, I’m not saying there isn’t room for very special, very up market restaurants. Indeed we have one in Le Talbooth. There is always room for a few, it’s not how people lead their normal life, they want things casual, they want to do things on the spur of the moment and they don’t want to have to dress up – all of that is against that more fine type of dining.

What’s been the biggest learning curve for you?

In business, it’s been patience – whether that’s in your own business or what you can achieve. When I first started, I used to get very frustrated if we weren’t achieving everything, but the way that I see it is that we are gradually trying to improve our business all the time, but you’ll always come up against some frustrations along the way but it’s about not letting them hold you back.

The other thing is actually staying on the ‘treadmill’ – your business does not always stay on a linear path, it is always going to have ups and downs and there will be times when serious things go wrong and go backwards and we’ve had that many times in each one of our businesses. Even now, if we haven’t quite got the team right and you have to steady the ship and get it back on track.

How is business at the moment for the company?

Right now, while things are pretty good in the top line and turnover’s pretty good, other things are still happening, so like wages for example, that’s not just affecting the top end that’s felt throughout the business through the lower end so we have got a lot of rising costs. As a result, you might not be worrying about where your next customer is coming from, but the costs are constantly going up and at an alarmingly rate as well which then eats into your profitability.

Will you look to acquire new properties?

The nice thing we have as a business is that we are truly independently run. The number of owner-run properties is fewer than it’s ever been – and I feel that for our business that’s what makes us really special and is our point of difference.

If you’ve got lots of shareholders and investors, they are throwing money at you and they want to see growth for growth’s sake – they are worried about their investment rather than the customer. That’s not our business approach – we’ve been here 62 years so I’d like to think we will be here for a very long time to come. My two children are 17 and 13, it would be great if they were interested in it, but I’m not putting any pressure on them.

It’s not about expansion for expansion sake but that’s not to say that one day we won’t find the right property. The danger is that you get your business too big and then you lose what you like about it.

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