Simon Wood


Co-founder of CS Hotel Solutions


 

Interview by
Claire Wrathall

‘The thing about hotels,’ says Simon Wood, ‘is that when you arrive, they want you to have a good time. They want you to enjoy being there. It’s their business to make you feel at home, so even if you’re just there for work – and I’d say 90 per cent of my meetings are in hotels – you get a very warm welcome.’

Wood is co-founder of CS Hotel Solutions, an investment and asset management company specialising in the development of hotels, reinventing moribund establishments and transforming them into well-designed places to stay and efficient businesses where people are glad to work. ‘Three-quarters of the staff will be on the minimum wage, so how do you get them to stay? How can you be sure they’ll turn up tomorrow, when they don’t really have to because there are a lot of such jobs available? You have to make it work for them as well.’

I’m a great believer in history,’ he says. ‘Everything I studied relates to what I do every week.

It’s a role that enables him to capitalise on an unusually wide portfolio of skills and experience acquired over a career that has taken him from the Army – he joined the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment (now part of the Yorkshire Regiment) as a 17-year-old because he felt too young to take up the place he’d already won at Cambridge – to Whitbread, where he developed Premier Inns, now the UK’s biggest hotel brand. Between times, he’d spent three years at Downing College, for which he also rowed, graduating in Land Economy; become a Reservist soldier; qualified as a chartered surveyor at Debenham, Tewson & Chinnocks (since incorporated into DTZ/Cushmans); and then spent eight years with Grand Metropolitan, five of them in Munich and Berlin just after the fall of the Wall, working for its subsidiary Burger King on a mission to enable Germans to switch from Würst to Whoppers.

‘I did enjoy my time there,’ he says. ‘It was really interesting. And challenging. First, because I was having to speak a different language: working in German, making friends in German.’ But also because the property deals he was there to do were nothing like those he’d worked on in the UK. ‘There was a Jewish owner who came to me, wanting to sell us his shop in Potsdam that had belonged to his grandfather, and it had just been restituted to him by the courts.’ The shop had subsequently been incorporated into the middle of a department store. ‘I said, “You can’t do that, surely. It will cut the department store in half.” “That’s fine,” he said. If he hadn’t been Jewish, he would just have been paid compensation. We didn’t buy it, but somebody else did, and the department store was cut in half and had to close.’ Putting burger bars into petrol stations, notably those operated by Aral, was a more straightforward negotiation.

‘But as you become older, you become more of a specialist,’ he observes. And in time the hospitality industry – specifically its bricks and mortar – became his ‘specialism’. 

Plum + Spilt Milk, Great Northern Hotel, King’s Cross London

Over the past few years he has developed properties ranging from the venerable Grade II-listed Great Northern Hotel in King’s Cross, originally designed by Lewis Cubitt in the 1850s and now a stylish 91-room boutique and part of Starwood’s Tribute Portfolio, to the DoubleTree by Hilton London Docklands Riverside, formerly a Victorian grain warehouse. The latter, also listed, is at Nelson Dock – a dry dock used for shipbuilding from the mid-17th century to the 1960s (the engine used to haul up the ships survives intact) – on the Thames at Rotherhithe, opposite Canary Wharf.

There was already a hotel there in three riverfront blocks, but Hilton’s contract to manage it had just six months to run. ‘We spent two and a half years doing it up and repositioning the business; had four companies pitch to operate it,’ and reappointed Hilton, which branded it a DoubleTree, one of its more individualistic brands. ‘The way a management contract works is that the owner takes all of the operating risk,’ he explains. ‘Hilton is only providing the flag here and managing the staff. So at the end of 2016, we sold the operation and the bricks and mortar as a going concern to a Chinese private equity company.’ 

DoubleTree-Docklands.jpg
 
 

DoubleTree Docklands Riverside and The Fighting Temeraire by JMW Turner.

It was a profitable venture, as well as a fascinating one. ‘You acquire a lot of knowledge with every project because each time you come to completely new things’ – in this instance these were both practical, such as what it takes to maintain 300m of river wall in line with Port of London Authority requirements, and historic. Not only was an archaeologist from the Museum of London called in to analyse the ancient ships’ timbers found in the Engine Room, but the next-door shipyard was where The Fighting Temeraire painted by J.M.W. Turner in 1838 came to be broken up. ‘I’m a great believer in history,’ he says. ‘Everything I studied relates to what I do every week.’

There is also a hotel in Croydon, an area poised to be transformed, he thinks. ‘There’s a lot happening there,’ he says: a tech hub; a Boxpark of more than 35 street food outlets and bars constructed entirely from shipping containers like the one in Shoreditch; and a forthcoming Westfield shopping mall; not to mention plans for a 68-storey tower, second only to the Shard in stature. ‘So if we get our dynamics right, our hotel there will do really well.’ And there’s another north of Liverpool, in Lancashire, Formby Hall Golf Resort Hotel & Spa, the acquisition of which prompted him ‘suddenly to become an expert in golf machinery and greens maintenance’, and for which he’s now preoccupied with the challenge of installing a carbon-neutral biomass plant.

No two days are ever the same. ‘When I look at what other people do, I sometimes ask myself whether I could have been a lawyer or an accountant, and I think the answer is I probably could. But it probably wouldn’t have been half as interesting.’