Our cover stars most probably need no introduction, and even if they do, their names aren’t hard to remember; the ‘two Craigs’ have become renowned for putting Northcote on the hospitality map. While Craig Bancroft is no stranger to his leadership role at Northcote – for the past 30 years he has been weaving the DNA of the luxury property – for Craig Jackson, the newly-appointed general manager, it’s been a complete learning curve. We sat down with the double act to get an exclusive insight into the cogs of their relationship at Northcote and how the hotel has become such a success.
Northcote is an extraordinary business. On paper, its credentials speak for itself – four AA red stars, a Michelin-star restaurant and countless awards for food, drink and hospitality – but in person it’s even better.
Joining a handful of Ribble Valley Inns, Northcote at The Rovers catering company and the newly-opened Café Northcote, the 26-bedroom luxury boutique hotel is part of the Northcote Leisure Group owned by long-time customers Richard and Lynda Matthewman, managing director Craig Bancroft and chef patron Nigel Haworth.
Perched on the cusp of the Ribble Valley in Lancashire, the impressive hotel has built a legacy over the last 30 years to position itself among the best boutiques in the UK. Aside from the bricks and mortar, the tantalising food and picture-postcard setting, step one foot inside and you’ll experience something rather special.
Immediately you get a glimpse into normal life at Northcote and the genuine care and courtesy that is set aside for each and every guest without fail. It’s clear to see from the get-go that it’s the staff who are the real jewels in the crown here.
Craig Bancroft and Nigel Haworth have been championing apprenticeships and training long before they became real buzz words in the industry, and the fact that it’s the tight-knit dedicated team behind the success of the business is no coincidence.
And while the names Craig Bancroft and Nigel Haworth have long been associated with the growing brand, it’s recently-appointed general manager Craig Jackson who has become the real home-grown star of the hotel.
Northcote as a business has been part of Craig’s life since the age of 16. He has grown through a Management Training Course while working for Ribble Valley Inns, before moving to Northcote at the age of 21 to become guest relations manager, a role that was created especially for him by Craig Bancroft – Mr B – himself.
A hospitality career wasn’t always on the cards for Craig however, as a glittering life of a London PR nearly tempted him away from hotels altogether. But a part-time stint that quickly became a full-time role and some stern words from Mr B soon made Craig see sense that he was destined for a life at Northcote.
Craig is fiercely ambitious – “I want to be the youngest person to become a Master Innholder” – and Mr B is always there to make sure this nurture and develop this determination in the right way.
As I sat down in the Louis Federer private function room at Northcote for a chat with Craig and Mr B, I could tell I was in for a treat.
The double act are a delight to be around, often finishing each other’s sentences or speaking in unison, and their passion for the hotel is infectious. The pair have a relationship that would be the envy of a lot of hospitality teams around the UK – “It’s like a father and son bond” says Craig.
What were your first impressions of the business Craig and when did Mr B really recognise your potential?
Craig Bancroft: Craig has worked for us for a long time – he’s been involved in the business for a long time but not always at Northcote. Initially he was a Ribble Valley Inns management programme…
Craig Jackson: I started working for them when I was 16…
CB: He should’ve gone to university, but didn’t…
CJ: Well I did, but then I quit. Then i came back into the fold and needed a full time job and then naturally grew into it.
CB: From the very beginning, you could tell that Craig was a natural leader. Even from his school background, he’d been a keen sportsman and a strong swimmer, he was head of school and all those things are building blocks to stability in later life and you could see that during the time he was working in the pubs. Even in a junior capacity he was always prepared to take the lead and have a go. He did a great job.
CJ: I left in 2011 and went off to do some work at the Olympics, where I worked with British Swimming because of my background, so I was living in London for six months during the Paraolympics and Olympics. It was completely different, but still based around the same ethos of hospitality. I probably grew up in those 12 months more than most because I was subject to the outside world, rather than just being around the Ribble Valley. It was a huge experience, being away from home and in London and so busy; it was a curve for me to grow up and be the person I was going to be.
Then I came back in October 2012 on a part-time basis to Northcote. Two shifts a week, turned into four shifts a week…
CB: Then I sat him down and said ‘look, this is the business you were born to be in, stop messing about, I’ll build you a programme that will bring you into management and will turn into a role that you can work towards and be proud of’. I was pretty hard on him – I brought him in on a low wage and the title of guest relations manager, which was operating the front of house. But I wanted to make sure Craig was committed to the cause – because we weren’t sure that’s what he was going to do, but the spirited man he is, he showed his teeth and we promoted him and promoted him and then I promised him that when he passed his Master Innholders he would be promoted to general manager of the hotel – and true to my word, I did.
CJ: I remember thinking, this is a lifestyle change – it’ll be giving my absolute everything to one place. I wouldn’t say it was a hard decision, but it was a big decision. Looking back now, everything Mr B promised happened – he always says take tiny footsteps and you’ll get there. There are a lot of people now who want everything to happen straight away, but we did it all at the right time at the right pace.
CB: You can get all the qualifications in the world, but I use this phrase with them all the time – you can learn to drive a car quite easily, but to drive it well takes time and experience and it’s the same thing here. I was a five-year management trainee, so what Craig did, I did as well.
How have you set about developing Craig, Mr B and why do you think it’s worked so well?
CB: If you think about what Craig’s achieved in a short amount of time – it’s been rapid, going from a relatively low wage and guest relations manager to a better rewarded gentleman with the title of general manager, which is what Craig always wanted.
CB: I kept saying to him, what do you want, and he said ‘I want your job’ and I said, well you’re not getting that, but I’ll be able to give you the responsibility of my job and I will take a bit of a step back. But I need someone to be able to take the responsibility, because I’m still here a lot, but I have to run the pubs as well, so I really needed that anchor man here. The more I’m away the better it is for Craig because the more he grows with that, as long as I don’t come back in and turn the place upside down.
CB: I actually had quite a few general managers previous and the best GMs I’ve had we’ve grown ourselves. Every time we’ve brought in other people from the outside, it doesn’t work. Northcote is a really special place, it’s very unusual, it’s fanatically busy. We had someone on trial from a very-well known hotel once and he couldn’t cope, he couldn’t believe how busy we were.
How do you all work together as a team so well? What’s the secret?
CB: We are all operational and we are all very hands on –Craig will have me coming in to do menus and presentations, I don’t just float about with a suit on, I have a job to do. Craig’s biggest challenge is probably that I need to give him more freedom to be strategic and being able to apply the management skills he has learnt better.
CJ: It is true. We are phenomenally busy and I know the operations side like the back of my hand, but slowly but surely we’ve begun to learn the management side and business side of it and now it’s about actually getting that time to completely submerge yourself for two or three days in what you’re trying to do.
CB: Well your consistency of turnover is what gives you the confidence to bring in new people to the team. We’ve been very strategic and clever over the build period – this was a very disrupted house and for our incoming guests, it was quite scary at time. We had the confidence to say ‘look as soon as you’re through the doors you won’t know it’s going on’ and we lost one table of four during the whole 18-month refurbishment process and managed to secure everybody else. Our TripAdvisor never lost a point. During that period we never de-staffed, kept them all employed, made sure there was real strength to that and then coming through, we are trying to grow the staff base as the turnover arrives, but it’s a really fine balance to knowing when you can or have we not got enough.
What methods do you use to mentor Craig and is your relationship still based on Craig learning from you Mr B?
CB: The mentoring we give is more subliminal – we lead by example, Nigel and I – we don’t sit down every day and have meetings. We know we are developing, we talk all the time- we probably have too many corridor conversations!
CJ: I know the way in which my father runs his business and he doesn’t have the relationship that I have with Mr B with any of his staff. My dad always says, why are you texting Mr B? Because that’s the way our relationship of mentoring happens with us.
CB: I have an open door policy all day long – I never close it. Sometimes CJ will just pop in with his coffee and say ‘it’s been a tough day today’. It’s that type of freedom to allow people to talk about their kids or whatever they like, and it means that I understand what’s going on in other people’s lives.
Similar with career progression, if people want to leave them we’d rather they come and tell us, and tell us where they are going. We have this extended family approach, where even if you’ve left you’re still part of it, we’ll always help, you can always come back and we’ll help you get an interview.
How are you nurturing Craig now and understanding the next best step for him?
CB: So now what we’ve got to do with Craig is to just keep educating him, although he is at the general manager stage, then we want to send him off to the St Julian’s Scholars – it would be great because it improves the business, so he might leave us for a while – but then he’ll come back a stronger, better leader and the better Northcote becomes and the easier my job becomes, and the more we can develop people underneath him. We are really genuine it about it.
So what do your roles look like now and how do you work together day to day?
CB: Simply I let Craig run the hotel and he comes to me for help and advice and guidance. But you run the day to day…
CJ: I run the day to day and anything that requires a decision I’ll run it past Mr B.
CB: Then I do the finance, but I’m teaching Craig how to do the finance.
CJ: Mr B has got your back constantly. I tell this to the guys, if they say no, I’ll say no. He’ll back you 100% – he might in his office tell you you’re wrong – but he’ll back you.
What challenges do you both face and how do you work to overcome them?
CJ: The hardest thing for Mr B is to let go because this is the love of his life. He loves this place, but slowly but surely we are trying to get Mr B, not to step back, but get him off the floor to let us run the property and slowly over the last 18 months we’ve got him to let go.
He is my boss; he does tell me when I’m wrong, he tells me when I’m right, but he knows how to teach people and he has no problems with people taking over, which is the nicest thing. I’m so proud of Northcote.
For you Craig, what’s some of the biggest things you’ve learnt throughout your time at Northcote?
CJ: It’s probably to listen to other people. Since I’ve did the Master Innholders I’ve been building up my contacts; I always make sure to email someone after we’ve visited another hotel. Now as a result, I probably have about 15-20 mentors across the industry who I listen to and take pieces of advice from everyone.
When I came down to London to be on the Independent Hotel Show steering committee and I looked around the table and thought ‘oh my god, why am I here’ and actually I really enjoyed it.
Can you pinpoint one specific moment where you felt like you’d ‘made it’ as GM, Craig?
CJ: I think when I go to London now, people know my name. It really sinks in then that you’re not at work but you’re still representing the hotel.
CB: Everybody now knows Craig as Northcote and quite often people will go to him rather than me.
CJ: People ring the phones and it used to be ‘oh is Craig Bancroft there’ and now it’s ‘oh is Craig Jackson there’ and that to me, I feel like I’m taking something from Mr B, it is quite peculiar…
CB: I think if you’re comfortable in your own skin though that’s good. You need to let people grow and take responsibility; it doesn’t worry me in the slightest. The only time I’m difficult is when you invite me into work and I have nothing to do – I can’t be doing that.
*points at Craig* CB: he says to me just ‘showboat’…
CB: I can’t bloody showboat…
*In unison* CB & CJ: “Just give me a job!”
What are the aims for Northcote and where do you plan to take the business now?
CB: Two Michelin-stars is definitely one of our goals, but it will come when it’s ready we don’t have to force it. We set a goal to join Relais and Chateaux in January 2017 but we joined them in 2016 – a year ahead of our time. We’d like to get seven or eight out of ten in the Good Food Guide, but that is the one award structure we are not comfortable with – we’ve had a rating of six for 15 years and never moved. That means that Northcote has not improved in 15 years and that is not right.
In terms of the business, it needs to be profitable and long-term sustainable. We are not going to build anything else, we might extend the cookery school in time but I think at the moment from a building perspective we are a done deal.
CJ: My main aim now is to grow here – myself and Lisa are spending a lot of time doing education – I’ve done a couple of lectures back at Manchester, I’ve done one at Blackburn – and we are now forming a good relationship with the Edge School in Essex.
I don’t want to take my eye off here though – because the moment you take your foot off the accelerator it will just go, equally, I know I’m only 28, so I want to use a bit of my youth to get people going.
What things would you like to tick off as manager Craig?
CJ: I’d like to get into St Julian’s Scholar and I’d like to get Master Innholder status.
CB: You’ve been public about that, wanting to be the youngest one ever.
CB: Probably the thing we’d like to achieve internally is to improve the staff welfare network. We’d love to be able to nail down the social side of the hotel – we’ve created an internal Facebook , plus we’ve invested a lot of money into the canteen and staff area – but we can do more with that. I think we do it a lot better than other people, but there is more we can do to enable staff to get a broader range of benefits for being part of the work force.
Where do you see Craig developing now?
CB: I think his role will develop as I step away more and more. Strategically, he has got to become more strategic and be more off the floor and operational but never lose his human touch in terms of hospitality. My job with CJ for the next two or three years is to really get him to understand the business and together work at making it more profitable, so that we can all benefit from it really.
Where Northcote has had a fault in the past has been focusing on being bloody brilliant – we’ve never been that focused on making money. It can’t all be about making more money, but ultimately underneath it all the business has to be sustainable and successful. We’ve really cracked that now and we just have to keep a watchful eye on it.
Being such a shining star Craig, have you ever been approached for a job by anyone else?
CJ: Oh yes! I’m very open to tell Mr B about it…
CB: I usually think, oh not him, he’s one of my mates!
CJ: I always get recruitment agents constantly ringing up – it’s so annoying because they’ll ring up at like 1.30pm on a lunch service and I’ll think do they not realise we are a hotel and it’s the middle of a busy time!
CB: It’s a bit dog eat dog our industry for that, because we are all so needy of great staff.
What do you think is key at the moment to encouraging young people into this industry?
CB: Work, life balance; nothing to do with anything else. Young people want a work, life balance – gone is a 60-hour week, and despite the fact we do it!
In general they want to know, when are my days off, when will I be off and don’t change it. I think people have given up with this messing around their life.
Education as well and training to help them develop in themselves.
CJ: Trust as well, saying you’re going to do something, actually doing it.
CJ: We have a 50-hour contract – not many places have that and we get paid for that. It’s very reflective of the business, you’re being paid for the work that you do and we try to be quite flexible and we’ll drop to 40 if they want us too.
CB: We did it to benefit the staff really because we realised we were working them all bloody hard, and thought we wanted to pay them rather than abuse them.
CJ: We do it for the love of it though.
What’s your favourite part of the job Craig?
CJ: All of it – there isn’t one part where I think; oh I don’t want to do that. People used to say, find a job you love and you won’t work. It’s all about delivering excellence right through the business.
CB: And I bet he is sat here worrying about the afternoon tea service going on next door right now…
CJ: I am because it sounds busy!