The man who would be King

Kelly Cooper Barr had it all, a husband who operated the hippest bars and night-clubs in Glasgow, and access to Britain’s top celebrities. She was, to anyone who listened to her at the bar of the city’s trendy Apartment night-club, Scotland’s self-styled It girl.

But last week the bubble didn’t just burst, it exploded. Her husband Colin, the man behind some of Glasgow’s most famous night-clubs, including Volcano and The Tunnel, went public on the city’s worst secret - he was going under, and fast. Colin Barr was the latest victim of Glasgow’s bar wars.

To those in the know over the past five years, the high-profile Barrs were no longer main players in Glasgow’s lucrative clubland. Colin may have talked a good game, but for a long time had been in the shadow of his Nemesis, Stefan King.

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In modern Glasgow, arguably more than any city in Britain, looking good and eating and drinking in the right place is the raison d’tre of much of the twentysomething population

But behind the gleaming pub gantries and chrome interiors of the city’s trendy watering holes and restaurants a bitter trade war has broken out, with clubs, pubs and restaurants fighting for a share of the most competitive leisure market outside London. Colin Barr, once the epitome of the successful Glasgow businessman, is the latest pub-and-club boss to hit the wall.

Barr once ran the Apartment night-spot in Royal Exchange Square, and more recently the Republic Bier Halle in Gordon Street, but his assets are now being managed by an insolvency expert and he has signed a trust deed to try to pay off his debts without being effectively declared bankrupt.

Last year Barr’s close friend, Ron McCulloch, the man who founded the Big Beat empire, a chain of 20 Glasgow pubs and clubs, also saw a large part of his empire crumble after his 10m London super-club Home had its licence revoked by Westminster City Council following an undercover police operation which found evidence of drug dealing in the club. McCulloch has since moved to Australia.

Last week James Mortimer, the owner of Victoria’s, a once legendary hang-out of blonde-quiffed footballers, gangsters and glamour models, said he feared more big names and famous clubs could go under over the next six months.

"People involved in the entertainment business in this city had better wake up to reality. Too many big premises have opened offering cheap drink and food as they try to get as many people in as possible - but that affects standards. It’s time councillors and the licensing board realised the city has reached saturation point. People only go out two or three nights a week. Many more businesses will go to the wall."

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But in every battle there must be winners and losers. As some club bosses bemoan a bleak future, on the other side of Glasgow the champagne continues to flow.

The downstairs bar at Corinthian, on the edge of Glasgow’s Merchant City, is packed to the rafters with lower-league footballers and small-time gangsters, their Emporio Armani shirts fresh out of the wrapper. Their giggling girlfriends in kitten heels are drinking Bellini’s at 6 a throw.

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In the corner stands the sharply dressed and even sharper-eyed Stefan King, the archetypal grey man, curiously eyeing his clientele with a studious look of fascination and bewilderment.

King, close friends claim, has never properly understood his customers. A non-drinker, he has never smoked or even gambled so much as a penny. He is probably the most unlikely pub magnate in Glasgow’s history. He is the most successful club and pub owner in Scotland and boasts a personal fortune estimated at 12 million.

The son of an uncompromising Glasgow bookmaker, King has inherited the mantle of McCulloch and Barr, but maintains the aura of a small-time office clerk, blending into the background of his trendy eateries and watering holes almost as if he shouldn’t be there.

The King empire, G1, includes his flag-ship Corinthian and Arta clubs and restaurant, dozens of pubs and now huge chunks of the city’s West End real estate, including the former Grosvenor Cafe and cinema. Business is positively thriving.

Later this year he will also open a four-star hotel in the heart of Glasgow’s George Square, testimony of his own self-belief, and his faith that Glasgow has the potential to attract tens of thousands more tourists over the next five years. King, these days, can do no wrong , and his competitors can only look on with the same sense of bewilderment he reserves for his clientele.

As one industry insider puts it: "For people like Colin Barr and Ron McCulloch who were at their peak ten years ago, King probably didn’t seem like a serious player, but he was very under-estimated. He is the wee shy boy in the playground who has turned round and battered everyone before taking their sweets." The story behind Stefan King’s success is the stuff of legend in Glasgow’s highly competitive clubland, and his rise to dominance is as much about his competitors’ short-sightedness as his own ability.

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But scratch the surface a little bit more and you realise how tough King actually is, and his background may have helped him to see off his rivals more than he would care to admit.

One of Stefan’s uncles owned Shawfield Stadium, the dog track, another has the country’s largest chain of independent bookmakers. The Kings have long been known as "the kind of family you don’t mess around with".

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For Stefan, business was in the blood from an early age. His 61-year-old father George was a famous bookmaker in the 1960s and 1970s before moving into the off-licence trade. His mother Cynthia owned a string of boutiques and now works in partnership with her husband.

Unlike his father, who grew up in a tenement, Stefan King attended private school. But his father never forgot his own tough Gorbals upbringing and "stood no nonsense" from his children.

George King was known as an ambitious and shrewd businessman, although he did once have a brush with the law when he was implicated in a jewellery scam in Glasgow’s Royal Exchange Square. But he was later acquitted by a jury, who found him not guilty on all counts.

Although Stefan King’s father is Catholic and his mother Jewish, neither chapel nor synagogue influenced the boy’s childhood. Today, he has no involvement in religion or politics, but still sticks to the "family rules": no drinking, no smoking, no gambling. His father is teetotal, as was his grandfather.

In the mid 1980s, making an impact in a brutal and often violent pub and club industry dominated by Glasgow hard men was never going to be easy for King. He knew the doors of the city’s clubs were controlled by drug syndicates, the bouncers and senior staff were placed inside clubs by gangsters to make sure the distribution of cocaine, ecstasy and speed went ahead away from the prying eyes of CCTV cameras and Strathclyde Police.

In Glasgow the saying remains: If you control the doors, you’ve got a licence to print money.

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To make things even tougher for the ambitious King, illegal liquor was a burgeoning business in the city. Stolen vodka and whisky filled the gantries of Glasgow’s pubs and clubs; even the cigarette machines were stocked with stolen products.

After school, King pursued a career in the travel industry, forming Kwik Travel, and began undercutting established tour operators with cheap package holidays. Business boomed. But in 1987, things began to go wrong. After a series of delayed flights and cancelled holidays, Kwik Travel was wound up.

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Almost bankrupt, King asked his father for backing towards a new venture but King Senior refused, pointing out his son had a perfectly good asset sitting in the driveway, a 30,000 Mercedes that he had bought with the profits from his travel firm.

Within two years of the demise of Kwik Travel, King changed direction, establishing two city-centre sandwich shops, calling them both No 1 Sandwich Street. Using the money he made from selling sandwiches to Glasgow’s office-workers, King established his first night club, Club X on Royal Exchange Square. To everyone’s surprise, including his father’s, it was a gay venue. But the move was smarter than most gave him credit for at the time.

What King needed was a gap in the market, and in one of the most macho cities in Britain "the pink pound" had been overlooked by most club and pub bosses. But King knew Glasgow had a thriving gay population.

On the back of the success of Club X in the early 1990s, he opened Delmonicas, a gay bar on the edge of the Merchant City, an area King would make his own, creating a stylish new gay quarter in the heart of town. With the addition of Cafe Latte and the Polo lounge to his empire, King had the gay market sewn up, and invested the money in his super-club, Archaos, which he later sold for a huge profit.

With the creation of Corinthian, a grand pub, club and restaurant conversion of a former courthouse in Glasgow, and the stylish Arta in the city’s old cheesemarket, King appeared to have collected the full set.

Critics claim that his shrewd business sense cannot be the only key to his success. They wonder at his ability to have escaped the violence traditionally associated with the club and pub trade in Glasgow. It’s a fact that causes a great deal of resentment among his competitors.

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When recently asked what he does to stop drug dealers preying on his customers, he said he hired the best bouncers and took security at his doors more seriously than most.

King also claims there have been occasions over the years when, "on a very personal level", he had been "subjected to difficult circumstances". This turns out to mean he’d been seriously threatened and, on another occasion, suffered a severe beating.

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Each time it was by professional hard men, hired by major drug dealers who wanted to get inside his clubs. "There’s a nasty side to the club business," he said recently, "and I suppose that’s why I take it so seriously."

But in business terms King is scrupulous himself. Last year he bought up a huge slice of Ron McCulloch’s Big Beat chain, taking control of 17 venues in one fell swoop, making him the biggest bar owner in Scotland. His audacious bid eclipsed another spearheaded by various club entrepreneurs and millionaires, including Ricky Simpson, Aberdeen club-king Stewart Clarkston, Raymond Cadona and John Waterson, the Glasgow publican.

Unlike many of his competitors, King also believes in the power of surveys and even employs professional trend-spotters to analyse bar interiors and assess the likes and dislikes of his clientele.

Today, despite the downturn, Stefan King shows no signs of slowing down. He’s currently in the middle of a 12million renovation of the former GPO building on George Square, preparing to open it next year as a four-star hotel, and he recently bought up huge chunks of Glasgow’s West End.

The real question remains, though, will King, like his more high-profile contemporaries, go the way of the dodo? One associate claims it is highly unlikely. "The difference between Stefan and the Cooper Barrs of this world is that King isn’t into self-publicity on a grand-scale. He likes to be under-estimated, it gives him a great deal of strength. He also takes a very studied, almost intellectual look at the needs and aspirations of clubbers. The proof lies in the fact that he cornered the city’s gay market in such a short space of time.

"He has an obsessional focus on the latest styles and trends and that comes out in the interior deigns of his pubs and menus in his restaurants.

"The fact that he is also uncannily shrewd with his money also helps, he may seem like he is empire building, but he rarely takes risks. He’ll be around for a long time yet."