Interview: Hamish Dodds, Hard Rock chief executive

Hamish Dodds has enjoyed a lifetime's journeying. Picture: Getty Images
Hamish Dodds has enjoyed a lifetime's journeying. Picture: Getty Images
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SITTING in a snug booth in Glasgow’s newly-opened Hard Rock Café, Hamish Dodds is easily within earshot, yet at times it’s still difficult to pick out his Scottish accent.

It’s not simply that years of living and working abroad have blurred the edges around his inflection. Neither is it that the Hard Rock chief executive is drowned out by the pounding vocals of Haim, which are being piped in via a speaker above the encased tie of Eric Clapton immediately overhead.

As is ever the case at a popular gig, there is the crowd noise to contend with as well. “It’s what, a quarter past 12 on a Monday, and we are full, and nearly every accent out there is a Glasgow one,” Dodds says as he gestures towards the ground-level seating. “That is a good feeling.”

It’s less than three weeks since the iconic American chain opened in the former Athenaeum Theatre on Buchanan Street, and takings are already 70 to 80 per cent ahead of forecast. Dodds is particularly pleased that most of this custom is generated locally, rather than from visitors to the city.

“We want to build a relationship with the local community,” he explains. “We are here for the long term.”

Even without swarms of tourists, the café has been forced at weekends to open the live music area upstairs for general dining. This roughly doubles capacity available on the split-level ground floor, and looks to become a regular use of that space when it isn’t hosting other events.

Though all signs look promising, Dodds is reluctant to draw any quick conclusions on the company’s $5 million (£3.1m) Glasgow investment. It will take a year to work through what he describes as the “seasonality” of trade, and two to three years before performance stabilises into steady pattern.

That said, Glasgow will likely be the last British city in which a Hard Rock Café opens, making a roll call of just four, the others being in London – where Americans Isaac Tigrett and Peter Morton opened the first in 1971 – Manchester, the largest of the UK venues, and Edinburgh, which opened in the New Town in 1998.

A ten-year veteran of Hard Rock, Dodds’ most pressing job after joining from the international arm of PepsiCo was to revive what had become a tired and overstretched brand. That included a thinning of the restaurant portfolio, which today covers 165 sites across 58 countries. Four UK sites were closed early on – Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and Nottingham – while Cardiff was shut two years ago as part of a further review.

The challenge, Dodds says, is to ensure Hard Rock is offering an unusual experience in a unique location. “We don’t want to be a McDonald’s or a Starbucks,” he says. “That is not what we do – it is about doing something special.”

The company has been going back to its roots with a focus on the music that has spawned the massive memorabilia collection for which Hard Rock is best known. In Glasgow, regular musical events are scheduled to begin in March.

As would be expected across such a sprawling business, trading at the £2.1 billion-turnover Hard Rock empire has been mixed. While venues in the Midwestern part of the United States have struggled, others in locations such as Miami are thriving. Germany and Holland are performing well, but Japan is flat, and so the story goes around the rest of the world.

Although the company doesn’t break out individual results by country, Dodds says the UK is doing “very well”, with Manchester and Edinburgh ahead of last year. London is also up on 2012, when the Olympics suppressed “regular” tourist numbers and thus hampered trade.

“But we don’t expect any negative implications because of the Commonwealth Games here next year,” Dodds adds, the difference being that locals are unlikely to flee the city en masse during the event.

His employer, Florida’s Seminole tribe of Native Americans, inherited Dodds when they bought Hard Rock from Rank Group in 2007. Since then, there has been a focus on gaming and hotels. The group currently has eight casinos and 19 hotels in operation primarily in the US, South America and the Far East. Despite their relatively small number, they account for roughly two-thirds of group revenues. No wonder, then, that Dodds sees this as the “biggest opportunity” for future growth.

The group’s first foray across the Channel – Hard Rock Hotel Ibiza – is scheduled to open in May with 485 rooms, four restaurants, two swimming pools and all the musical trappings for which the brand is famous. Other hotels and gaming venues will follow, as the company is now looking “more aggressively” at Europe. So, might plans be in place for such developments in the UK? “Definitely,” Dodds says. “It is very high on my radar.”

But he refuses to be drawn much further – other than to say “we are working on a number of different projects” – and the conversation turns to music and memorabilia.

A fan of Pink Floyd during his teenage years in Inverness, Dodd’s personal favourite among the roughly 75,000 items in the Hard Rock collection sits in his office in Orlando – Syd Barrett’s guitar. Like all of the rarest pieces – the most valuable being John Lennon’s hand-written lyrics to Imagine – Dodds refuses to reveal what price the insurers have put on it.

However, the head of Hard Rock is not stuck in a time warp. These days he enjoys The Killers, and has more recently taken to the synthpop sound of Scotland’s Chvrches, who are getting plenty of airplay in the US.

“I will be driving to work in Orlando and I am listening to Chvrches from Glasgow – how great is that?”

30-second CV

Born: Nairobi, 1957, moved to Inverness at age 14

Education: Business degree, Robert Gordon University

First job: Picking vegetables on a farm

Ambition while at school: I was ambitionless

Car: Mercedes

Kindle or book? Book

Can’t live without: My golf clubs, play off a 12 handicap

What makes you angry? I don’t like to get angry. It’s not a healthy emotion.

Best thing about your job: Diversity