Jason Caddy met with Stephen Leckie, CEO at Crieff Hydro, and they talked business, tourism, misconceptions, broken ribs and Kit-Kats.
A two-hour chat with Crieff Hydro CEO Stephen Leckie is like being sucker punched by a force of nature. On stilts. This hotelier-entrepreneur-meets- family-man-meets-classic-car-enthusiast and bagpipe playing freestyle-wrestler’s energy reaches out and grabs you. Stephen fired out the answers to my questions rapidly and entertainingly.
I began by asking him about his business ethos. “I believe in capitalism but I’m also an egalitarian because we all breathe the same air and so I believe in being humble. I also want to be flat out or flat out (asleep,)” he told me in the leafy, tranquil setting of his office at the luxury hotel, one of a nine-strong estate that the 53-year-old presides over. As well as Crieff Hydro and sister hotel The Murraypark, Stephen is responsible for Peebles Hydro plus two other concerns in the Borders town, The Park Hotel and Peel Café. Then there’s The Isles of Glencoe, The Ballachulish, with management contracts for the Green Hotel and Windlestrae Hotel in Kinross and The Kings House Hotel, Glencoe.
On the wall of his office hangs a beautiful wall-mounted barometer and clock encased in wood with touches of brass, a gift from his late father, also a hotelier, that includes an inscription from Ecclesiastes Chapter 9, Verse 10, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do with all your might.” This is a man whose hands are never idle, whether it’s hotel related or one of his other considerations demanding his attention, sitting as he does on a raft of committees and professional bodies. Stephen’s Chair of the Scottish Tourism Alliance, for instance. It’s obvious that his sense of fun and levels of passion and enthusiasm haven’t been robbed by the pressures of having so many plates spinning as well as heading a team of 1000 staff that take care of up to 3000 guests every day. Neither has it eroded his ambition. “I borrowed quite a bit to get a bigger shareholding in the Company,” he told me.
As well as the bagpipes he can also play a bit of piano – well, he can play Jingle Bells and Beethoven’s Symphony No.9, which I think is kind of symbolic of what I started to see early on as a clear ability to mix with all sorts of people from both ends of the social spectrum and everything in between. “I eat lunch and supper in the staff canteen and I always make a beeline for anybody who’s sat by themselves. I want them to feel included, part of the family, plus many of the staff have moved from mainland Europe so they’re often a little dislocated when they first arrive. It also saves on any potentially embarrassing situations because I do my best to let them know who I am from the get-go,” he said.
And he’s equally comfortable in the presence of royalty. When Dumbarton happened to crop up in our conversation, he told me that, in their capacity as Earl and Countess of Dumbarton, Meghan and Harry will make an appearance in the town in the fullness of time. How did he know? “It’s all down to the Lord Lieutenant,” he explained. “It took four years to get the Earl and Duchess of Strathearn, William and Kate, to make an appearance here and Harry and Meghan will eventually make the trip too, depending on Dumbarton’s Lord Lieutenant. William and Kate are a delightful couple incidentally, and so down to earth, and they are so very easy to talk to. My son was part of the motorcade during their visit and told to keep up by the police. He was booked for speeding on the way back from it! “
So what’s currently in his inbox? Not very much by the looks of it. He keeps on top of all his emails. But he’s obviously a very busy man, and seeing as how Stephen is on The Scottish Tourism Alliance and also the Chair of the National Tourism Strategy Group, I couldn’t not ask him for his views on the proposed tourist tax in Edinburgh (see feature on page xx) to which he had this to say, “Tourism in Scotland is set for growth yet they’ll kill us off if this goes through. Measures like the minimum wage, and I’m in no way arguing against it, have already had an impact on hoteliers’ profits, the knock-on effect of which is a drop in quality because reinvestment is stinted and investment training is also compromised. We pride ourselves on good value, high quality and value for money, all delivered by passionate and dedicated people, yet meeting these objectives is becoming increasingly difficult.
“Scottish tourism is one of 8 key areas that has been targeted to deliver growth by 2020 and we are set to increase it by a billion pounds of revenue by then. There are not many industries that could do that. But overtax it to the point of it becoming burdensome, and you’ll kill the goose that lays the golden egg.”
He also has other concerns around the trading conditions hoteliers must contend with right now. He explained, “I’m very concerned about the increased costs to industry, there being less disposable income in people’s pockets, businesses spending less on conferences etc. – so all in all things are tight. I’m not a worrier, but I often wake up at 3am thinking about the business and what I could do to make it better.
He continued, “I feel like I owe it to myself and my staff to increase profits so that we’re able to reinvest in our building and our people, but when the waves keep washing over you like this, it’s difficult.”
But there’s also cause for optimism. In February 2019 the Kings House Hotel in Glencoe will be re-opening after a major rebuild that Stephen has had a big role in driving and managed. He explained, “It will be Scotland’s newest hotel in the most amazing location so it’ll be all eyes on it. We’re running it on a management contract for the owning family so we will be looking to deliver something in keeping with its history because heritage and culture are two key drivers across our hotel estate. It’s also at the gateway to the incredibly successful Lochaber Outdoor Capital and right next to the Glencoe Ski Resort as well as on the West Highland way, so we hope it will add a whole extra dimension to the way people are able to access and enjoy these world-class outdoor activities.”
Stephen, his wife Fiona and their four kids all live on-site at Crieff Hydro, which he’s done his whole life, and it is very much a family affair. He explained, “I choose to live above the shop and that has its advantages and disadvantages, but it’s mainly advantageous for us and to the business. Fiona does all the interiors and we spend up to £4m per year on re-investment in this area. She also looks after the retail side of the business, our two main retail units being located at Peebles Hydro and Crieff Hydro.”
Stephen’s a 5th-generation hotelier, but he’s quick to point out that he had to work hard for what he’s got. During a conversation about people’s preconceptions about other people running away with themselves he said, “People make many assumptions about you, like I had the business handed to me and that I inherited it without working hard. Not true. I worked extremely hard for what I have. From the age of 12, I picked stones, berries and tatties in a field, working 12-hour days. At age 13, when other kids were getting Raleigh Grifter bikes for Christmas, I got a bible. My mother made us work for everything. I cleaned self-catering chalets for 7p per hour with my cousin and we found a pack of Kit Kats that we decided to eat them for our elevenses and my mother (who was also the boss) caught us taking a break and eating Kit-Kats halved our hourly rate for the remainder of the summer.” Having said he’s lived in Crieff all his life in fact he tells me about his 8-year stint in the south of England after he joined Moat House, rising to become the GM at age 25 before returning to Crieff.
And this work ethic remained with him well into his late teens. “When Seve Ballesteros won The Open in 1985, I worked as a waiter at the Old Course in St Andrews. My accommodation was a caravan in a field, but I couldn’t really sleep there after my 23-and-a-half-hour shift. I mostly slept in a fire exit in fact. It felt as though my feet had been beaten by sticks. Mind you I could do 167 press-ups a day back then. I couldn’t do that now.“
And talking of fitness, Stephen has also taken up freestyle wrestling once again, and he lit up while explaining it to me. “I’m nursing two broken ribs to prove it. Fiona, pretty baffled, simply said to me ‘why have you taken up wrestling again?’ I guess I’m drawn to its many complexities and the chat with the guys. It’s the original martial art you know, namely Greco wrestling. Taking it up again some 20-plus years later ‘for some reason’ means that I wasn’t ready for the ribcage compression. My fitness is still there, though it’s more like half the number of press-ups”
Stephen and Fiona have been married 28 years and when I asked what they did for their silver wedding anniversary, I got the best answer. “With a wee bit of nervousness the two of us set off from Crieff in a classic car. The reason we were nervous is that for our whole marriage, bar the first nine months, we had the kids who were usually with us on any kind of holiday.
“Fiona and I remain very close though of course we bicker a bit, but I think that makes us authentic and real. All I ask is that people aren’t subtle with me and then expect me to pick up on it. Direct and unambiguous is what I need at home and in business. “
Stephen and Fiona were born a day apart, and Fiona kindly popped in for part of the chat and it was lovely to meet her. We picked back up on that silver anniversary car trip conversation, “After 25 years together we headed off and hoped for the best. Once we docked in Amsterdam, we just made decisions there and then like where we should head from there. It was September and we were only looking for one room, so it wasn’t hard to come by. “
Stephen added, “We now go away like this every year and we often get the weather on the drive down to Newcastle, so we have the soft top down, and goodies squirrelled away in the car. Stood on the deck of the ferry, we have a G&T each, enjoy an early supper and there’s plenty of entertainment. A month ago, we found ourselves in a small city in Holland named Nijmegen and I broke out my pipes and trews which went down well with the locals.”
They work 51 weeks of the year and, as Fiona also explained, this is something that not a lot of people realise. “As we wave people off for the Christmas holidays on December 23 it’s back to work for us. It’s a tradition to pipe through the corridors at Christmas and Hogmanay and there’s a picture of Stephen doing this with his father and now our kids are also involved. The two boys are pipe players and our daughter plays the snare drum. This happens in both Peebles and Crieff Hydros.”
Once Fiona left us, we then get onto the topic of what makes a good leader and Stephen told me, “Leadership is not about academic intelligence. It’s about the emotional and social intelligences. I haven’t got time to dissect everybody in the business but I try to make an effort to understand the people working the business.
“I must also be seen to be apolitical. For example, half the staff would’ve voted to stay while half would’ve voted to remain in the independence referendum. The same can be said for the customers. We’ve always flown the Saltire over the hotel because I am proud to be Scottish. That’s all. Again, people make assumptions about you based on things like this, like ‘Stephen Leckie supports independence ‘whereas I don’t make these views public.”
He wrapped up his answer to this question by telling me, “It’s important for people, and especially for people in business, to have something else – something that allows them into a zone they can lose themselves in. Like sleep, it’s part of renewal and refreshing your mind and Freestyle wrestling ticks this box for me as do classic cars .”
Stephen also likes life’s simple pleasures and before he does those press-ups of a morning there’s dogs to be walked, and he and Fiona walk them for three miles every morning.
We eventually parted company after Stephen showed me how much of a great sport he is by posing right outside the hotel on his electric scooter for our cover pic, and with me feeling energized and determined to squeeze every last drop of opportunity out of life just like he does.