The Big Interview: Stephen Leckie, CEO of Crieff Hydro Family of Hotels

Stephen Leckie is the chief executive of Crieff Hydro Family of Hotels.

The group, which claims to be the oldest trading registered company in Scotland, encompasses a range of Scottish properties such as Peebles Hydro and the newly refurbished Ballachulish Hotel as well as the eponymous jewel in the crown.

Mr Leckie has been a prominent spokesman during the pandemic about the impact of lockdowns on his own business and the wider hospitality ad tourism sector – he is also chair of both the Scottish Tourism Alliance and Tourism Leadership Group, as well as the president of Perthshire Chamber of Commerce, and Lord Lieutenant for Perth and Kinross.

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The hotelier has also been included in Who’s Who this year – one of just 322 names to be added to 2021’s version of the prestigious tome.

Mr Leckie is the fifth generation of his family to run the prominent hotel group. Picture: contributed.

Mr Leckie is the fifth generation of his family to lead Crieff Hydro Family of Hotels, and since taking the helm in 1994 he has marshalled many millions of pounds of investment in the group.

He also said recently that with the family business closed for nearly 240 days over the past 13 months – the first time it closed since World War II – it lost £3 million in the past year when it should have made £4m. He also expressed concern that staff could switch to other industries they perceive as more stable.

The hotel group can trace its roots back to 1867 when a trip to Austria inspired the creation of hydrotherapy hotels back in Scotland.

Mr Leckie – a former Scottish freestyle wrestling champion – says he wants every member of the group to enjoy their job, while he throws everything in to everything he does. “Be the best you can – do it with all your might, whatever your hand finds to do.”

He also says “there's no one person for one single reason that that people like me would look up to, there's lots of people for lots of reasons”. He cites former US President Barack Obama saying nuggets of wisdom you receive don't necessarily come from your advisors, and can “only can be heard if you allow your ears to work” – listening say, on the pavement, in the corridors, the office, the room, the party.

“I try and live by something similar,” Mr Leckie states.

The Crieff Hydro Family of Hotels has recently reopened – can you characterise the impact on the business of the way coronavirus has been handled – and your views on the level of financial help you have had?

Yes, we have lost millions in the last year and the closures have not been our choice. However our governments have had to make some tough decisions and we must honour that – it’s for folk like us to live by the rules, that's the way it is.

Everyone would like to say they should have had more. In my opinion it’s our choice to be in this business and it’s more about the new way of thinking and how we are going to recover from this.

How are you personally feeling about the last year and the the outlook?

I worked out a long time ago to worry only about the things you can make a difference to. Worry is like a rocking horse – it gives you something to do but doesn't get you anywhere. Yes, we've had sleepless nights, and yes, I’ve been terrified of failure. But this isn't anyone's fault. This isn't a management issue, so the biggest thing I could do is help my team by being positive and say we're going to get through this and we will, and are getting through this.

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Rather than worrying about all the bad news and looking at doom and gloom, for me the pot’s half full. We're going to recover, we're in a good position, we have a good balance sheet, we've got the right finance in place... so actually, we're going to be just fine.

We had to cut deep financially after the outbreak of the pandemic – some days we were laying off up to 40 people, and that’s pretty tough. But if we hadn’t made the cuts we did, we would have lost a whole lot more money and maybe jeopardise the company – and I can’t do that.

I wouldn't have done anything differently. We made the right decisions at the time.

You’ve also described the group as a kind of bellwether of all businesses in Scotland – to what extent has that been the case over the last year, and what feedback have you had on this period from fellow firms serving the tourism sector?

Of course this has been harrowing with some challenging stories. I really feel this industry has got together, which has allowed our government to listen to us and take action.

None of us have enjoyed this. None of us are happy in this position. But we now see light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a slow start, but we will get out of this and it will be good when we get out the other side.

One upside of lockdown is that it has enabled the group to improve its properties, for example recently announcing a £1.3m refurb of the Ballachulish Hotel. What is the rationale behind such reinvestment?

We mustn’t let a hiccup along the way interrupt our trajectory for improved quality and performance. It’s so important for all of us to be so proud of everything we do that our people want to work with us and our guests want to stay with us.

The Crieff Hydro Family of Hotels has added several properties in recent years, while your contemporary Gleneagles is opening up a site in Edinburgh this year. Do you have any plans to expand your group?

Yes – through hotels, self-catering, developing our land, adventure centre Action Glen, and our gin.

How would you describe your approach to leadership?

I favour servant leadership principles – listening, empathy, healing, self-awareness, persuasion, conceptualisation, foresight, commitment to the growth of people, and building community – and in Crieff my office is in the front lobby to be easy to reach.

We reinvest in the company – we don't have big holiday houses abroad. We don't have big lavish lifestyles, we don’t go out to the Caribbean with a huge yacht. We just work hard.

We want to be so proud of everything we offer that actually revenue and profit are a by-product of being proud, genuinely proud, of having a quality customer and staff experience. That's the biggest thing to me.

Of course, I am a capitalist – money makes the world go round and without money we’re in trouble. But money is a by-product of doing our job properly.

The sixth generation of your family is now part of the business – do you expect one of your children to eventually take the reins?

Yes. Though wary of nepotism... and there’s also our leadership team to consider.

What has been your most memorable moment as a hotelier?

Being appointed the youngest general manager that Queens Moat House Hotel had ever had – at the age of 25. It was such a pivotal moment for me that someone had faith in me and trusted me to be the boss.

If we look to March 2022, two years after the outbreak of the pandemic, what would you like things to look like at that point?

I hope we’re back to 2019 levels of ambition and busy-ness, plus a bit more. I think the staycation element will be strong this year, but might be more challenging next year. We’ve tidied up the company, we've tidied up our buildings, and I think we’ll be even more proud of what we offer, because we've been very careful about where and how we spend the money.

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