Sir Rocco Forte tells John Hinton why his family is sponsoring next months 'Cardinal's Lectures' at Westminster Cathedral in honour of his late father
ir Rocco Forte, bearded and relaxed, sipping an espresso, meets me in the boardroom of his Mayfair offices. where he is overseeing the growth of his own international hotel group. We are talking ostensibly about the forthcoming lectures which he and his five sisters are sponsoring, as part of their desire to keep alive the memory of their father, the late Lord Forte who died in February last year, aged 98. But it is clear this is just part of a long-term commitment to honour his father, not just a "corporate" event.
"Why have the lectures?" Sir Rocco asks, echoing my question. "I met the Cardinal in Rome and he raised the possibility with me. I thought it was a nice idea and was relevant to my father so I decided to do it. The whole family are supportive of the idea and they are all chipping in."
Speakers at the lectures, already well subscribed, include the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Hague and Mark Thompson, the Director General of the BBC. With the keen news sense he must have developed over the years, Sir Rocco wonders playfully if Dr Rowan Williams may decide to create some more headlines.
It was Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor who told Sir Rocco, now 63 and a major shareholder in the Herald. about one endearing habit of his father, who came from an Italian hill village and later owned a worldwide empire of hotels and restaurants which was swallowed in a hostile takeover by the Granada Group in 1997. "Whenever they met over a meal and my father saw there were priests or nuns there. he would always insist on paying their In the view of one priest who knew him well, Lord Forte dwelt not so much on theology as on the need for action. His faith clearly had a strong down-to-earth side to it. "He had a very strong sense of right and wrong and Christian morality, which he practised,Sir Rocco recalls. "To his children, he used to get annoyed if we behaved in a way that was disrespectful of other people. If we ever did something that was rude or upsetting to other people, he would come down very hard on us.
"As an example, he was born in this little village up in the hills of Italy and when I was very young, we used to go on holiday there. And one day with some of the local lads, we got into a tomato plantation and had a tomato fight throwing them at each other and rather devastating this plantation. Of course the people in this village were poor people and this represented quite a lot of money to them. Father was furious with me and sent me to each household with presents: sugar, bottles of wine and so on to make up for it and drill into me that you had to respect other people's property."
He smiles at the memory. "He helped people all the time. I once said to him of a visitor he had: 'Why am you seeing that man? It's not important to you.' And he rather scolded me: `No, but it's important to him. And that's what he was like he always found time for others.
"He enjoyed playing golf, fishing and shooting in the spare time he had. But he had a sense of duty which came first and foremost. And he would never allow anything to interfere with that. It's amazing the number of people I meet who remember how they'd been helped by my father. in ways that made a real difference to them."
Did he have a view that helping others should be done quietly? Sir Rocco shrugged, for clearly his father was not a publicity-seeker. "There are plenty of things he did which were quite public and other things which I didn't know about. The Heart Foundation was something he supported very openly, and the Hotel and Catering Benevolent Association he saved that along with Maxwell Joseph. And there was a lot of charitable giving in his life. He didn't want to be seen as giving to charity, he did it because he wanted to do it, to do something worthwhile. He was very generous in every aspect of his life: Lord Forte was known as a businessman of great integrity. Was that integrity shaped by his Catholic faith? "He was influenced greatly by the faith of his parents and his upbringing. He never stopped talking about them. He really did honour his father and mother. He became very much more successful than his father but never pulled weight, was always kind and nice and understanding to them. And listened to them.
Did Lord Forte believe that religion should be a strong influence in public life? "I think he had a strong sense of morality in every sense of the word and thought that it should be a feature of public life. And when he saw examples of it not happening it used to irritate him. He admired politicians who had integrity. I don't think he'd enjoy the current crop we have at the moment very much. They're all playing a game and instead of believing in anything, they're just doing things which will keep them in power on both sides of the House.
"He was a great admirer of Mrs Thatcher, as I am. He believed in her because she was someone who did have integrity and a clear belief in something, a clear philosophy. And acted upon it. She was a woman of great principle and of great kindness although that's not generally the perceived view of her. She took the utmost trouble with the people who worked for her and came into contact with her."
What about Mrs Thatcher saying famously that there's no such thing as society'rfthink she must have been misquoted or misunderstand. She firmly believed in the family unit very much, the village community. She certainly didn't behave as if she didn't believe in society. She believed in the power of the individual to influence things.
"And she certainly didn't believe in social engineering, which isn't about society but about the perceived view of a few individuals who want to impose their view on everybody else."
And more recently? "For the last four to five years of his life, father wasn't really with it, so I didn't think he was a witness to what's happened in the more recent past. I don't think he would have liked it very much: the collapse of authority, respect for institutions, respect for age and so on. He wouldn't have liked today's 'anything goes' approach, that nothing matters any more except the individual the individual indulging himself; the individual whose own pleasures are more important than anything else, certainly more important than any responsibilities towards society?'
Was he concerned that Britain seemed to be becoming a less Christian country?
"Any mockery of Christianity he would hate. He wasn't a fuddyduddy; he understood that society has to move and that things change. He was a very strong, principled family man, he believed that children should be brought up with certain values, in a Christian way. And a lot of what was going on. starting in the 1960s, seemed to be the antithesis of that."
Did Lord Forte enjoy intellectual debate? "He liked people who had something to say and something he could learn from He was very perspicacious in seeing the point of anything. And if people waffled or talked round a subject, he could be quite sharp. He was always someone who thought there was something to learn, not someone who thought he knew it all.
"He was a very outgoing man. never afraid to talk to anybody. He wasn't humbled by people, he wasn't pompous or boastful in any way. He very much kept his feet on the ground. He believed in himself and in his ability to get things done. And he wasn't ashamed of anything he'd done Did he have a key ability which contributed to his success? "He backed his people, supported members of his own team. He was a great delegator, which I think is important in any business. And he had a genuine concern and love for his people."
At its height the Forte empire of Trusthouse Forte hotels, Little Chef restaurants, motorway service areas as well as airline and industrial catering. employed 100,000 people, when it was bought by Gerry Robinson's Granada Group in 1997.
"They ended up paying a lot of money and then sold off the bits for
less than they'd paid for it which seemed rather pointless. For my father it was a big disappointment because it was what he had built up throughout his life. It was also a big disappointment for me, because it was something I'd worked in all my life."
Still, his father would now surely be proud of Sir Rocco. hi the sarne year as the takeover, he launched his own international luxury hotel business. With 3,000 employees, he has now opened 12 substantial hotels in London, Edinburgi and Manchester, Brussels,Frankhrt. Berlin and Munich. Florence and Rome, Geneva and tso in St Petersburg. There are plans for more in Prague, Sicily, Marrakech and Abu Dhabi. The group, called the Rocco Forte Collection, is unashamedly luxurious and five-sta
In just over a decadt, that's some going. Perhaps the yang Rocco dreamt of such a venture when he was a schoolboy at Drnssmside, the Catholic public schoolin Sorrerset to which his father wodd drise, a three-and-a-half hour tip, every weekend to see him ad, take him out. Such commitment— many parents visited only one a tern makes a difference.
One last question: dem Sir Rocco ever feel overshadowei by his father's achievements?
And a final smile. "to, I admired him a huge amount. not irhibited by his memory, Frt inspind by it."