Rex Rozario’s Next Big Thing, Part 2
Follow this link to read Part 1.
In Part 2 of this two-part series, the conversation continues with Rex Rozario and Michael Caines as they discuss the ups and downs of creating their magnificent Lympstone Manor hotel and restaurant, including budget constraints, a fire during the renovation, and the joy of seeing the project come together beautifully.
Matties: In any process, there are lessons learned. What lesson have you learned during this process?
Caines: I think the big lesson is that when you start on the journey, you put a lot of trust in other people's skill sets. I think what I learned is that actually you’re better off employing people directly and controlling key areas. Because ultimately, when you’re so involved with something, you really want to know that those people are loyal to you, and they don’t have any other interest.
The other thing I would say is that, overall, the great learning curve is that a project like this teaches you so many things. It’s an old house. It was architecturally a challenge, in terms of the state of it. We were challenged in terms of the program time and delivery. Along the way, we were blessed with good weather, which saved the project. We had to pull back two months’ worth of the project that was projected to be running over, back to it being open on time.
We also challenged the budget, which required us just to have a short-term loan from our investors and an overdraft. Generally, we were disciplined through the whole process, and we drove the product to a conclusion. We learned along the way that you’ve got to take control of things, and not let a situation get out of control. Also, be proactive with problems, rather than reactive, and see potentially where you are getting problems.
Ultimately, what you realize is that even though the building trade is a different discipline, it’s all the same principle. It's about managing people and doing things in a logical way. It’s getting people to work together as a team, rather than against each other, because nothing happens otherwise.
Matties: It’s the alignment. You have to be aligned.
Caines: Yeah. You’ve got to buy in. Everyone’s got to buy in. As the head of the project and somebody that’s known within the community, you can’t shy away from the problems. You've got to put yourself forward. Because when all the people on-site know that you go up to them and say "Thank you," and you get involved, they buy into you. Even though they’re employed by someone else, they want to represent themselves in this project. Because they want to say, "Yeah, we were there for that." So you know that you've got them to buy in.
I think if I was doing it again, right at the beginning, we would be the project managers. We would be the principal contractors. Because we paid somebody else, in effect, to do a job, and they let us down. We found, as a result, we put trust in them and they didn’t deliver for us in a way that we expected. That really could have caused us a huge amount of problems if we hadn’t been proactive in sorting that out.
Again, we looked back to our investors when we were challenged. When we were transparent and open, we gave them a solution, and they entrusted in us to make the decisions that we felt were necessary to get the project done. Trust is another thing. When people trust you not only do a project, but a considerable investment, delivery is key. How you conduct yourself to get that project delivered with openness and honesty I think is important. You can’t bury bad news. You can’t lie about your circumstances.
If you’re honest and open about it and then you give all the facts, and you make a decision collectively with that knowledge, then we all buy into it as a team, too. We know we’ve got difficult decisions, but best we face them together and unite behind one direction than trying to be dishonest. You can’t deal with the facts if you don’t know. You can’t make a decision if you don’t have the full facts to deal with.
Matties: They want the truth.
Caines: Exactly, because everybody knows where they stand, not everyone’s going to agree, but as long as there is consensus. Actually, across the whole project, we’ve all agreed, generally, with all of the key things that needed to happen. They didn’t do it through blind faith, but they did it through experience, knowing that sometimes these things always never end up quite as planned. It’s how you react to it. I wouldn’t be here but for the trust and faith that investors and people like Rex have put in me and the project.
Matties: Well, it’s interesting, because you mentioned the type of investment. Because there are investments that you make, Rex, and it’s out of sight. This is a place where you can come in and enjoy your investment.
Rozario: Oh definitely, and people can see what’s happening. You can bring them and have a drink and talk about business. You can’t go to a radio station for that, because they'll say, "What are you doing here? There's a microphone," and whatever.
As Michael said, we have confidence in him. He is knowledgeable about what was going on here. It was incredible. Every room he took us to, he knew exactly what was going to happen. "We’re going to take that little bit off; we’re going to put this here." Of course, this was a huge project, and he had vision. Many times we were going home, and I said, "That’s incredible. He knows everything about what’s going to happen."
Matties: That’s the way to do it. Someone has to know how.
Caines: It’s funny, though, some people don’t. Then they wonder why things aren’t right, and then you come in too late. Of course, it’s very expensive to put things right retrospectively. Whereas if you've looked at the detail and you realize, "Why on Earth is that there? You wouldn’t normally do that."
But you can’t be bothered to look at and study the plans, and understand everything. That’s not always easy for people to do. Some people are good at mathmatics. Other people are great at English. Not many people are good at reading maps or designs. Seeing something on a plan is one thing, but having imagination…
Rozario: They’ve got to have the vision to make it happen.
Caines: Yes, and that’s hard. I think the other thing that’s nice is that people make money in different ways, and they make investments for different reasons. I also think that as we sit around the table, we’ve all enjoyed the journey. It’s been very satisfying and enjoyable to see something like this happen. It doesn’t happen very often. I mean, the last person that did this was Raymond Blanc, with Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. It’s a beautiful hotel.
When he did it, he started in a similar vein. He did an old country house hotel in Summertown, Oxford. It's an amazing hotel, but that was 34 years ago, and nobody’s done what we’ve done since. It's a real undertaking, sure. It’s a massive and almost audacious challenge. However, I think we could all now, collectively, be very proud of our achievements. I know that I stand in front leading the charge, but that’s easy to equally forget that when we started, it was just a dream. The reality is the faith, and goodwill, and also support you’ve got from your investors. Tough decisions.
They believe in you. You believe in yourself. If you doubt yourself, and you turn to people with experience and knowledge and they give you your support and trust, it makes you more determined to achieve. If you have doubt and you go and there's a lot of negativity, you start to doubt yourself even more. Even though there are times where I looked at it and thought, just like them, "We’ll never get it finished." But I never let myself think like that. Because if I started to not believe it, and if anyone else was looking to me... You have to have that someone to have that, not blind faith, but that drive to get across the line.
Matties: The commitment to get there.
Caines: Yes, and I know lots of people who say, "Right, come on." We walk around the site, and they’re looking and they're thinking and Tony’s ringing me up and I have to say, "No, I think we’ve gone backwards." I say, "I know, but no, we haven't." This time last year, it was a very different story, but I knew, and as they say, I had the detail and I could see the progress. I had the knowledge of the program, and we knew where our critical points and problems were. Some of it was out of our control.
There was a fire, and we lost some of our windows. Fortunately, the roof wasn’t finished, and we had the driest year ever last year. We had some luck along the way, but we had a plan. That’s the key thing. We had a plan and we stuck to it. Even though the project areas slipped and we were challenged, we didn’t suddenly start changing the plan because we were pressured. We didn’t start changing.
Matties: You can’t overreact.
Caines: No, you can’t.
Matties: It’s always small adjustments, rather than big overreactions.
Rozario: Now, at the end, I think it was like mission impossible. Even the last few weeks we came here, the weather and the conditions were terrible. It rained all over. The glass, everything was waiting to go in, but nothing’s happened. In the first few weeks they discovered a well, which wasn’t in the plan. It was a very deep well.
Caines: It was 18 meters. The thing that struck me was the water in the well was deeper than the water in the basement. We were like, "Where’s the water in the basement coming from?" "Oh my God, what's going on in the basement?" We thought, "Where is this water coming from?" Then we found a water tank, and then we found this, and yeah, it was challenging. But we laugh about it.
Matties: Yeah, of course. It’s part of the story.
Caines: We had a few laughs along the way.
Matties: Yeah, that’s quite a journey. You’ve been open now for three months, and where do you go from here?
Caines: Well, again, thanks to our investors, we’re well-positioned to acquire more property, and we would like to bring into the hotel as additional accommodation, a spa and well-being area. In the meantime, we’ve now looked to join Relais & Chateaux after three months. So this November, we will join Relais & Chateaux, which gives us a European and worldwide window to explore. The American market is very key for us, so a visit there in September and October is planned.
We used an American design company, Restoration Hardware, as inspiration for our interiors. We’re working with Meraki, a small interior team here in the UK. They did a fantastic job working with me on that. We're looking now to consolidate the business, hopefully get the two Michelin Stars for here. Develop our business based on regulars coming back, and people enjoying the house, and developing a great team here. Strengthening what we do daily with better delivery and quality of delivery of what we do.
You’re unfortunately only as good as your last meal in this place, and when people come stay with you, they remember. Often, the last meal being the breakfast, so that has to be perfect, and the meet and the greet. So we’re very good. We’ve got a beautiful landscape in which we’d like to plant a vineyard next April, which we'll then develop a sparkling wine here at Lympstone. We’ve got quite a lot planned, and I think all of that is possible because we have a very successful business; it is also based on the numbers working, and making sure we show some discipline in this year to get ahead of the game. Also to be able to then look to invest, and continue to invest in the landscape. We've got three ponds down there that we want to develop as well. Then over time, we plan to just continue to invest where we feel appropriate in the product and also in the people. The team are equally as important. Then start to enjoy life a bit.
It’s taken a lot of effort and time, and it’s nice to have Rex and Ruth popping in every now and again. Ruth's our most regular of regulars, and she insists on a kiss, which is just fine. As long as Rex isn’t offended. It’s great. Investors like Rex and Ruth come often with friends and use it as a place to showcase their businesses, and also to show what they’ve been up to and just enjoy that beautiful view. That was also the thing that we sold, this sense of place, and everybody imagining just how fantastic it’s going to be.
Rozario: Yeah, especially if you come from Birmingham or somewhere like that. To be here, even for a day, and just being around here, is special. I think there is a lot of potential here.
Caines: It has huge potential, and we know that we've got a great product. We’ve got good PR and marketing strategy. We’ve got great opportunities to develop. We’re talking about local businesses as well. Rex was talking about getting more involved with the CBI and that sort of stuff. With the academy at Exeter we are developing apprentices, and there are a couple of things that are happening in and around that we might get involved with.
We can really be looking forward with a great deal of optimism. I know we have a few challenges with Brexit in the UK, but that creates a few opportunities as well. But we need to face up to the potential challenges that we’ve got. Also, as a business, we’re new and young, so we’ve going to make sure that we're recession-proof, so to speak.
Should there be a problem in the economy, we need to be able to respond, and the business must be flexible enough to respond to those challenges. I think the good thing about the dynamics of our business is that we’ve got investors who are used to responding to challenges, and they all have skills that can add into and enrich what we do.
Matties: Rex, this is not the electronics industry, but this might be one of your best investments, wouldn't you say?
Rozario: Well, yes. One of my favorite investments. One that brings me pleasure to come to. Because in business, as you know, this morning, I was up at 8:00 going to work. But here, I can come and have a drink, and then talk business.
Matties: Rex has had a storied career for sure.
Rozario: Well, we just had a board meeting today before we came in, and now we're here laughing and joking, and no big issue. After board meetings in the industry, it sometimes can seem a little bit dull.
Caines: Well, even if we have a tough board meeting, you can always guarantee a good meal. I’ll tell you what. Actually, what was very, very special for the investors is that as part of our opening, we had our investors in for two nights. We had an opening party, and then the night before, we had a lovely exclusive event. It was great, because none of them wanted to leave. They were so comfortable. They all planted a tree. We've got some lovely pictures we're going to put up on the wall as well.
It was really great, like Rex said, to see people that have invested, no doubt, in different things. Not always successful. At the same time, we immediately were able to reap what we invested in, in terms of sowing that investment seed. Immediately now, we're able to come here and enjoy it. Actually, that sometimes is immeasurable in terms of return. Because actually, every day you come here, you’re reaping the benefit of that investment.
You have that privilege to know that you can walk in this hotel, and these guys can know that they'll always be welcomed. They’ll always be known, warmly greeted. They’ll also know that they are able to have this as a place for them to come and enjoy, and that’s important. There aren’t many investments where, frankly, as Rex says, it actually enhances your life and makes you feel good. Rex has even has his beautiful cream Rolls-Royce out front.
Rozario: Off-white (laughs).
Caines: He rode up in it, and I must say, he looked very dapper in it.
Matties: Yeah. Rex understands style.
Caines: He does!
Rozario: I remember when we were young, and there used to be a place in Maidenhead. It was a trendy place next to a hotel, and sometimes I used to stay there. The club next door, this was the Rolling Stones era, all the parents would bring their children in Rolls-Royces. And I'd think, "That’s the place to go."
Matties: If the Rolls is there...
Rozario: "One day. One day." I think it's a trendy area, and Michael brings his Porsche and his children.
Matties: Well, congratulations. This is a remarkable accomplishment. Rex, do you have any final thoughts that you want to share?
Rozario: I think this will also be a great tourist attraction, with the vineyard coming along, and then there’s going to be a helipad here for helicopters to land. We are also toying with the idea of a hovercraft when the tide is off. Michael also wants to make it a bit exclusive, like have a membership situation so that the guests are always protected. They don’t want people flying in here and having all the locals fighting at the bar. That's not what we want to try and do.
To put it in a nice way, not to say we want to ban you. They can book in to stay overnight, or the restaurant, but not walk in for a drink.
Matties: Well, when you have a facility with such high demand, you have to manage it well.
Caines: I guess it’s protection, isn’t it? You want to protect what you’ve created. Actually, it’s not necessarily about exclusivity, it’s about also making sure that those guests that are here feel special. Sometimes, if you run a business too busy, you actually lose attention to detail on the guest experience.
Matties: I was going to say, it’s all about that experience. Again, congratulations. Any final thoughts from you, Michael?
Caines: Just a big thank you. Rex has been a great support.
Rozario: We’re all a good team.
Caines: Yeah, and all the investors. I have to say also that the realization of your dream, which this is for me, is only made possible by people’s trust, and obviously belief in your vision and ability. To people who are listening or reading, don’t give up your dreams, and be determined, and put a good plan together. Engage people who believe in it and want to be a part of it. I think our success story here is a good example of that.
Rozario: Our team is like a pop group. Michael is the front man. We are at the brink. We are just about to take off.
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