Hotels magnate Sir William playing his own 'generation game'

As he takes a back seat from the day-to-day running of his hotels empire, leaving it to his son and three daughters, Sir William Hastings says he has left a legacy far beyond just bricks and mortar. Business editor Gary McDonald reports

It's a family affair - Sir William with his wife Joy, son Howard and daughters Julie, Aileen and Allyson, who now run the Hastings Hotels Group
Gary McDonald Business Editor

NORTHERN Ireland hotels magnate Sir William Hastings doesn't only share a birth year (1928) with fellow knight of the realm Sir Bruce Forsyth.

Neither octogenarian was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, yet each was grateful to be given a decent early-life leg-up by committed parents.

Through an unstinting commitment and unwavering work ethic, both then carved out niches for themselves in their respective (yet not-so-far-apart) sectors of hospitality and entertainment.

That ultimately led to both earning a mention (several times over) on the same annual Rich List page, with personal fortunes running into the tens of millions of pounds.

And then there's another unlikely link between the pair - let's call it the Generation Game.

Sir Bruce, of course, fronted his version of one of the most iconic shows in British TV history from 1971 to 1977 (and then from 1990 for another four years). Yet Sir William's generation game continues unabated.

These days the hotelier who built an empire during some of the most traumatic and turbulent times in the north's history has, by choice, taken at least one hand off the tiller and passed the baton to his own 'next generation'.

And for the first time in a career which began immediately after World War Two, when he worked in (and then started buying and renovating) working-class boozers (and had the foresight in the early 1950s to build ladies' toilets in his bars), he has decided to slow down a bit. Not completely, he insists.

"I've enjoyed a long and absolutely tremendous business career, and I've been so lucky in many, many ways," Sir William philosophises over a cup of tea at his plush Simmy Island home at Toye, near Downpatrick.

"And I feel like I've left a legacy far beyond anything I could have imagined, not just in bricks and mortar but in the fact that my four children have all evolved into the business in very different but vital roles. Now it's all about my family, the next generation."

Statistics say there are more than 60,000 first-generation family-owned businesses in Northern Ireland, and many cite succession-planning as a key future issue. That's not a problem at the Hastings Hotels Group.

Sir William and his wife Lady Joy have looked on with pride as all four of their offspring have assumed senior management roles at a group which has just published stellar trading figures.

They show sales up 4 per cent to nearly £37 million and pre-tax profits up more than 20 per cent to just shy of £5 million - notwithstanding the company ploughing around £53 million of its own reserves into converting the old Windsor House into the 304-bedroom Belfast Grand Central Hotel.

Son Howard Hastings (55) has long been associated with the group and, like his father, is a fierce advocate of tourism in the whole of Northern Ireland.

Sir William's three daughters Julie Hastings, Aileen Martin and Allyson McKimm, all now into their 50s, have also following into directorship roles.

"Each got a great education, then stepped out into the world to do different things, but one by one they have been absorbed back into the business, running their own departments, and I'm as proud as punch," he says.

"All four have their own specific roles. Howard is managing director, Julie is in charge of marketing, Allyson is group events director looking after conferences, weddings and banquets, while Aileen is sales director."

He adds: "The industry is changing at a relentless rate, and right now I have to ask them on a daily basis what's going on. Thankfully they're always on top of things!"

It was when he was just plain Billy that the now group chairman started to create the burgeoning Hastings empire and become pivotal to the north's hospitality revolution.

His own father, who was a groomsman on the Moyola Estate in Castledawson, had been head-hunted to manage the Bloomfield Bar in Belfast, but died when Billy was just 12. Even at that tender age, though, he became involved in running the family-owned pubs business, which at its height had more than a dozen hostelries dotted across the city.

William tried his hand in the catering sector, but in 1964 gravitated into the hotels sector by buying the Adair Arms in Ballymena and then the 10-bedroom Stormont Hotel, followed two years later by the Ballygally Castle Hotel on the Antrim Coast Road (he paid carpet entrepreneur Cyril Lord £40,000 for a building which dates back to 1625).

“I then bought The Culloden in 1967 for £100,000, which was an extensive purchase for me back then. The era was properly named the ‘Swinging 60s', having left the legacy of wartime rationing and other restrictions well behind," he says.

"My company was engaged in reinventing itself from a major licensed trader into the hotel business, an enterprise which required knowledge of a very different type of operation.

“Once a Bishop's Palace, when I purchased it the Culloden was a 13-bedroom boutique hotel with a reputation for luxury, by far the best in Northern Ireland. And 50 years on it has stood the test of time, now our foremost five star hotel with 98 bedrooms and suites, a spa and health-club, ballroom, conference facilities and meeting rooms and the Cultra Inn,” Sir William enthuses.

Later came the Everglades in Derry and then the Slieve Donard in Newcastle, which had opened as a railway hotel in 1898, before in 1994 Hastings snapped up the Europa in Belfast, which had the ignominious reputation of being the most bombed hotel in the world.

“There's a continuous trend towards making our hotels better and better, as well as more efficient, and I believe we've helped make Belfast the UK's best value for money destination," he says.

"But now, more than ever, running this group is a family affair. I'm on the bridge now, and my four children are all in the engine room, doing a far better job than I ever could."

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