HOTELIER Angela Vickers knows plenty about fast-paced industries and rapid change, but the managing director of Apex Hotels isn’t rushing the group into a potentially-fatal breakneck expansion.
“It is very much a steady growth model,” she says when questioned about the next move for Apex. “We wouldn’t want to put the company at risk by going for explosive growth.”
Owned by the family of Edinburgh entrepreneur Norman Springford, Apex was at a critical juncture when Vickers joined as finance director in 2004. The company was gearing up to open its first hotel in London, a conversion of a 1950s office building into a four-star establishment with conference and leisure facilities.
“It was pivotal for us,” she recalls. “It exposed us to a very strong London market where the Apex name was unknown.
“We had to get it right, because we knew that was not going to be the end point. We knew there would be other acquisitions.”
The onus of “getting it right” fell to Vickers faster than she expected, as she was promoted to managing director after just eight months at Apex.
This rapid ascent wasn’t on the agenda when she joined but, given the changes at the company, it soon became apparent Apex needed a director to focus upon day-to-day operations while Springford stayed in charge of “the vision”.
Despite her strong background in the leisure industry – as well as a stint in the rapidly-evolving IT sector – Vickers found the sudden change of gear challenging. Though familiar with functions such as human resources, sales and marketing, her primary responsibilities had always been in accounting.
“Literally overnight, I was looking after everything,” she says. “It was quite a step-change, and there was a lot to learn.
“The good thing was, you have the benefit of asking all the stupid questions and getting away with it for a while.”
Like Springford and Apex non-executive Jim Wilkie, Lanarkshire-born Vickers is a chartered accountant by trade. She trained for two years with KPMG, working primarily in the hospitality division, during which time she became heavily involved in auditing at the Stakis group of hotels and casinos.
She joined Stakis outright as head of internal auditing around the same time that David Michels was brought in as chief executive to rescue the group from the brink of collapse.
She stayed on for another couple of years after Stakis became part of the Hilton Group in 1999, but in 2001 was lured away to become just the third employee at the newly-formed Damovo telecoms group. “I always at that time had considered myself more of an accountant than a hotelier, so I liked the idea of doing something different,” Vickers explains.
Formed through a management buy-out from Ericsson led by chief executive Pearse Flynn, Damovo grew to employ 120 at its Glasgow head office and more than 1,000 people world-wide before cash shortfalls allowed creditors to seize control of the business at the end of 2006.
Damovo was a good story “that unfortunately didn’t end well”, Vickers says. Though she did gain a great deal of experience and international exposure, she eventually decided she “quite liked the comfort of hotels”.
If her rapid promotion at Apex was a bit discomfiting, the global downturn that nearly crushed the industry a few years later certainly eradicated any sense of complacency. Come the height of the crisis, the firm found itself in the unenviable position of adding properties in Edinburgh and London.
“2009 was a tough year,” Vickers says. “We had two openings when the market was at its lowest. That was particularly challenging.”
Now with more than 1,100 rooms across eight hotels in Edinburgh, London and Dundee, Apex last week reported a 25 per cent surge in profits to £7 million. Turnover at the group, which employs roughly 840 people, rose by 21 per cent to £50.6m.
Apex also completed a ground lease deal on four of its properties, raising funds to cut its debts from £105m to £70m. This freed up financing to open the group’s next hotel, which Vickers ideally wants to be in London.
Born: Motherwell, 1969
Education: Accounting, Glasgow University
First job: Santa’s helper at a large local department store in Motherwell, aged 16
Ambition while at school: To be an architect
Car: Audi A5
Kindle or book? Kindle
Can’t live without: My family
Favourite city: London
What makes you angry? Queuing. I hate standing in a queue
Best thing about your job: Talking to and finding out about people, whether they are staff, suppliers or customers