WASHING dishes in a Stirling hotel at the age of 14, Steven McLeod knew exactly where he was heading. Up to his elbows in steaming water, he envisaged a life beyond the Marigolds where he was head of his own hotel group.
He has achieved this ambition three years shy of his 40th birthday, with a chain of seven hotels and 400 staff across the country. “Ultimately, I want to create a brand that is recognised nationally and internationally as Scotland’s most welcoming, exciting and dynamic luxury hotel and leisure group. I live and breathe hotels, and the 168 hours in a week just aren’t enough. I work hard, I love it. ”
The founder and chief executive of Aurora Hotel Collection, who hails from the town’s Raploch estate, started at the bottom in the hospitality industry. Working as dishwasher and kitchen porter, he enjoyed it so much that when he left school he studied hospitality and hotel management at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh. “I’m proud of where I come from. It has helped make me who I am and I think it helped spur me on, to make something of myself. I’ve always had ambition. Even at the age of ten I was out washing cars and selling sweets door to door. I go back to my old school quite regularly and talk to the kids. Just because you’re not living on the nicest street doesn’t mean you can’t succeed. I’m testament to that,” he says.
After university, valuable experience at leading hotels followed, including Dunblane Hydro and the Old Course, before McLeod became the youngest manager in the Macdonald Hotels group at the age of 21.
In 2005 he took the plunge and bought Airth Castle, near Stirling, the first of what was to become the Aurora Collection. “I was 29, I went to the bank and said, ‘I’d like £8 million please’. It was a risk to leave a good job and buy this hotel but I knew it would work and couldn’t wait to roll up my sleeves and get on with the business,” he says.
“I’ve taken plenty of risks over the years, but they’re always calculated. I was putting money into bricks and mortar, and at that time the value was going through the roof. The risk was trying to find the right business partner. I’ve lost a lot of money on a recent project because I took a risk on something and it backfired, but you just have to get on with it,” he says.
Awards have followed, with McLeod winning the Scottish Licensed Trade News Entrepreneur of the Year in 2010 and being the only hotelier to feature in Scottish Business Insider’s Rising Stars of 2012.
Next to open, in 2013, is the five-star Hotel Colessio, in Stirling, and, while he still reckons he has plenty to do to build his target of 24 properties, he admits that “one or two hotels abroad would be fantastic”.
As for the people who inspire him, McLeod says, “My mother has been a huge inspiration in my life as she is the one who grounds me – with a thump – should I need it.”
Despite not getting his hands wet in the kitchen these days, he believes his success is down to being hands-on and leading by example. “I’m uncompromising. Failure is not an option, and never will be. I’ve got loads of energy and its great, because it breeds enthusiasm.
“My staff are very loyal and some have worked for me for more than 15 years. My business motto is: ‘I do exactly what it says on the tin.’” n
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Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 17 C
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