Barry Phillips Meets... Bill Wolsey OBEPosted in : Podcasts on 21 May 2018 Issues covered:
By any stretch of the imagination Bill Wolsey OBE is a remarkable man. Born to staunch socialist parents in Belfast in the 50s Bill borrowed all the money his parents had to start his first pub in Bangor. He now has a portfolio of pubs, restaurants and hotels including of course, the five star Merchant Hotel in Belfast.
“Give people a product or service your staff are proud of and you’ll keep both your staff and your customers” he claims.
This podcast reveals Bill’s amazing journey and a man that hasn’t forgotten where he came from. He’s clearly, someone who believes in the importance of good parenting and helping people that didn’t have the start he had in life.
When he bought the dilapidated building that was to become The Merchant Hotel, the Tourist Board advised him that Belfast wasn’t ready for a hotel of such splendour. Now, it’s championed as one of the great hotels of the world….
"I found Bill to be contrarian in his thinking, irreverent, a maverick and a thoroughly beautiful human being."Barry Phillips
Please note this episode contains some bad language. If you are easily offended you are advised not to proceed.
Barry: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Barry Phillips Meets. My name is Barry Phillips. My guest today is Bill Wolsey OBE. Bill was born in Belfast in the early '50s and was scouted to play for Arsenal and began training at Highbury. Age 20, he was diagnosed with myasthenia, forcing him to give up a promising football career.
Having gained valuable experience working at a Pizza Hut, a Holiday Inn, and a Queens Moat House hotel, he convinced his parents to loan him their life savings of £8,000 to buy his first pub in Bangor. Today, his portfolio of business interests includes over 40 pubs, the Little Wing pizzeria train, the Bullitt Hotel, and of course, The Merchant Hotel, Northern Ireland's most prestigious city-based five-star hotel, built in an old bank left empty for years in a cathedral quarter, a hotel that proved many wrong who believed it was too early, too expensive, and too tasteful for Belfast in the noughties.
He now lives in Hollywood with his second wife, Petra, and their daughter. Bill was awarded an OBE for services to businesses and hospitality in 2014 and works tirelessly for two charities, Start360, a charity for at-risk youth, and Myaware, to raise awareness of myasthenia.
So, Bill, welcome to the podcast.
Barry: Bill, could you start off by saying something about your early years in the '50s and '60s? Were you from a close family? Have you largely positive memories of your childhood in Northern Ireland?
Bill: Yeah. I was born in—the first years of my life were spent in Ballysillan in North Belfast, two loving parents, two brothers. Probably the difference between our family and the other families in the area were my parents. They were both very strong socialists, which was unusual in the area where I come from.
A quick appraisal would be my mother didn't believe in nationalities. She believed it was one world we lived in. She would quite often say to us at the dinner table, "How come you can have food? What do you think about other people on the other side of the world who can't eat?" As a kid, I would be wanting to eat my food. My father used to complain bitterly about the political representation.
I didn't understand what he was talking about then, but he would come home when he had work and put his toolkit down and talk about if you stick 12 monkeys in the Union Jack, they'll get elected. He would always say to the three of us, "Never ever give your vote to anybody who waves a flag." He thought that all forms of nationalism were complete treachery to the human race. It was an unusual background.
But the older I get, the more I realise I owe my parents a great debt. They gave me my moral compass. While education, was not my strong point, I was hopeless. My two brothers were much better. My mother, no matter how bad I was—believe you me, I was bad at the various schools—she always thought there was something more in me. She was encouraging.
I can tell you one funny story is that when the 11+ results came through, I was sitting in our house and my dad, my mom and I there. My father said that he would open it. Still, to this day, I remember him saying, "Bloody hell, you passed."
Barry: He was surprised. Were you surprised?
Bill: I was surprised, yeah. I wasn't one bit concerned. It wasn't a big build-up. This pressure came because I passed. I did not want to go to grammar under any circumstances because I wanted to play football and they only played rugby, plus nobody went to grammar where I came from. My mother, she was proud of me. "You should go." My father eventually said, "Let the boy do whatever he wants."
Barry: Yeah. Your parents, did they have any connection with hospitality?
[00:05:00]Bill: Oh, god. No. My father was a maintenance fitter. He worked in shorts and Mackie's. My mother did menial jobs, from cleaning to the odd bit of office work. My mother didn't drink. They were both Methodists. My mom had four sisters, none of them touched a drop of alcohol. Her life was the family, whereas my father, he did enjoy a drink and he enjoyed his union and he enjoyed the Labour Party. But out of the first 15 years of my life, my dad had probably been away 11 of them, 10 of them because there was no work. He went over and lived in North London and sent the money home. I would see him three weeks a year.
Barry: You mentioned that you wanted to be a footballer. That was a career or aspiration that looked like it was going to happen for you. You went to Arsenal and you trialled at Highbury.
Bill: Yeah. I did well. Then I started to think I was feeling a weakness in my left foot and I was very definitely getting double vision. That put an end to the whole football career. From there, my father was determined I would get an apprenticeship. At the end, I'd get my papers. My brother was a journalist. He got me a start as a compositor, which is involved in the printing industry.
Barry: And did you enjoy that?
Bill: No, I hated it. I hated college. I hated school. I hated working for somebody else. I can remember on the first day—we had moved to England at the time and I worked briefly in Northern Ireland. I was able to transfer. The whole family moved. I asked a journeyman who's a qualified craftsman how do you do something or other and he said to me, "Don't ever ask me a question on your tea break. You'll be doing this for the rest of your life. Ask me something the rest of the day." I hated it.
Barry: So, your parents weren't in hospitality,what was it that called you into hospitality? Was it by accident?
Bill: I haven't a bloody clue. I knew I didn't want to be in printing. I was mucking around and worked the same I did in school. I think I was about 19 and I saw an advert that said there was a course at Westminster College in the night course. I thought, "I quite like talking to people, maybe I'll do that." I hadn't even worked in a bar. I hadn't done anything.
I went to this, sort of finished work. We started to get finished at 5, drove across London, went to the catering college. That went from 7:00 to 12:00 or 1:00 in the morning, finished that, drove back across London. I really didn't like that either. I was back in college and I wasn't enjoying it. I thought I'll stick at it. They told us we were going on a block release and then three weeks working in the industry and that was it.
An epiphany took place. I thought this is something I could do and enjoy doing. So, from then on, I knew I wanted to be in the hospitality industry.
Barry: Did you manage to clock up work experience?
Bill: Yeah. I worked from Holiday Inns, Queens Moat Houses, worked for the people who make in their social club. I became hungry for knowledge, so I would go somewhere. The moment I learned something and thought a person can't teach me, I would ask, "Could I get transferred to somewhere else?" I know it sounds immodest, but I was a sort of quick learner.
Barry: Were you doing all of that with a view to thinking, "I can do this myself and I'd like to . . . ?"
Bill: Not initially. I was still doing the printing job. On the day I qualified, I was given my papers and I resigned, which was unheard of.
My father was unheard of that I would actually want to go and work for the likes of Pizza Hut. It's way below what a skilled tradesman should do. My initial thoughts were to get into this industry and do a job I liked. It wasn't self-employment having come in at that stage.
Barry: At what point did you think, "Okay, I want to make a change here. I don't want to work for somebody else. I will take this experience and put it into a business of my own." What happened? Where did that come from?
[00:10:00] Bill: I was working for somebody—he asked me to come and leave where I was working and come to work for him. He'd been one of the people I'd been on block release with and he liked me. I went along and worked for him. I was with him about three months and he told me, "We're going bankrupt, but I own 12 premises. There are four managers. I'm going to offer you the opportunity to make some money."
What he said to me was if you head over a certain turnover, I'll let you keep 10% of everything you make. Now, the sting in the tail was he cut my wages by half. He was able to go to the bank and say, "I've cut these wages. These people will be hugely motivated." That was a sort of lifeline. I worked in a [inaudible 00:10:20] just outside Kensington, very posh and totally crap. I had previously witnessed how carvery operated. Now, in 2018, that doesn't very exciting, but over 40 years ago, it was revolutionary in the food industry.
I said to him, "Can I change this restaurant around, turn it into carvery?" He said, "I don't care what you do, but I have no money to back you. I trust your judgement. If you want to do that, I don't know what you're going to talk about, but go ahead."
The chef and I, we took out a light bulb and put in a heat map and it dangled over beef and vegetables and potatoes. It was truly dreadful because one heat light for three products. You'll never get away with it today. What I know now and didn't know then was I was going against the grain. Everybody was swimming in one direction. I was offering something that was totally new in an area that was totally monied. We were offering sort of almost meal for the people, and it absolutely flew.
Now, I have good, talented people around me. We assess markets and understand what product, what the level of service should be, what the décor should be, what newspapers they may have read, what programs. We understand our market inside out. Then that judgement helped me run a successful business and give me a taste of success. So, not only did I make my wages back, I sort of tripled it.
On the back of that, my mother and father lent me their life savings, if I you can imagine. I was 22, looked 12. My parents gave me every single penny they owned to come back and buy a premises here.
Barry: How did that make you feel? Talk about pressure on you for your first business. If that had gone wrong, that would have been you bankrupt and your parents down with you.
Barry: What was your feeling when you went into that?
Bill: Well, the weight of burden of borrowing every penny my parents had meant I couldn't feel—it didn't even come into my mind. I was too young and too stupid to understand that you can feel. There had been a pub for sale for £150,000, and it had dropped and dropped, and it was then £50,000, sort of £9,000, £10,000. I had fantastic references from the bloke whose business I operated.
The bank took a chance on me and lent me the money. Then followed the toughest period in my life because what I had inherited and what I was too stupid to ask about was that let's just call them the boys had taken over the bar and driven the other owner out. My dad and I were taking all these people we should bar because they belonged to one organisation or another or they were drug dealers or they'd killed people.
So, I'd previously been in London. It was terrifying. My dad is a wee bit smaller than me and I'm not very tall. He boxed for Ireland. He was an utterly fearless man, but without prejudice in any way. They tell you great stories of him in London, how he was so far ahead of his time. We made the decision that we would let everybody in and not bar them because we knew they belonged in organisations, or they'd done this or done that.
We'd bar them for our rules. That seems sensible in 2018. But you've got to remember the early '70s. Sometimes the police didn't come out of the station. There were all sorts of strikes going on. Thugs ran the country, aided and abetted by politicians who have all the foresight of Blind Bart. But these people come in and we treated everybody with respect. Even if we knew, we would treat with respect.
My dad would quite often get involved in conversations and say, "This is all absolute bollocks. It's health, education, jobs. The slums are the same, both sides of this community." A lot of them engaged with him and were respectful of him, and others didn't. They were thugs. I ended up being stabbed in the bar one night.
[00:15:00] It was a tough time. What we did was we put money into football clubs, boxing clubs. An elderly lady was robbed and beaten, and we ran a fundraiser for her. What happened there is what happens now, just in a different way. We put back into the community, and the community appreciated what we were doing. They thought we were a bit strange, maybe, but it was an empathy. The paramilitaries backed off. We were able to make the business successful.
Barry: Did they completely back off, or did you still have to have an understanding with the paramilitaries, any particular relationships?
Bill: They did back off, yes. Yeah. I have employed ex-paramilitaries throughout my career. I would be honest in my approach. Quite often, they come from disadvantaged areas where they've never had a chance themselves. And they're indoctrinated either through politics or the weight of history or they fuck you up, your mom and dad. They may not mean to. There's a bit of that.
I find if you give respect and are honest that it comes back to you. Some of the people we employed had served their time. They remain my most loyal employees. Occasionally, it's backfired. I have pubs in both sides of the community, and I treat everybody the same, my own way. I think our company, we've tried to put back and move us forward as a united society.
Barry: When I listen to you about your early experience of running your first bar, most people would think, "Okay, I've learned my lesson here. I'm out of here. If I can sell this pub, either to cut my losses here or make a small profit, I'm going and I'll try something else."
But that was the first of you've now got a portfolio of £40 and more, so how come you weren't put off by your early experiences?
Bill: I wasn't put off by my early experiences because I couldn't be. My mother's and father's money—I had borrowed money. If I had bailed when the going got tough, I would never have recouped any of the money we put in. That was one thing. The second thing is while it was tough, a bar is a great microcosm of what happens in Northern Ireland. The vast majority of people are lovely. I meet people who have come from really disadvantaged areas I'm humbled by some of the things they say to me.
So, while you can be a liberal and sit and pontificate in Islington while you drink some red wine and eat a croissant or whatever, I meet people in Northern Ireland who have been through the mill, absolutely refused to budge from their dislike of sectarianism. Those people I find inspiring. I always knew that there are far more good people in this world than misguided.
Barry: There came a point then with this first pub, presumably, that you thought, "Okay, it's working." Did you ever think, "Let's repeat this model?" And is that you started building your portfolio?
Bill: What happened was my dream was to work for myself. That was it, one pub. That was a lot to take on. If I make a success of this, pay my parents back, that would be me. Then I thought I've spotted a few gaps in the market and we're doing well. There was a pub up the road from us, the lady who did the cleaning left the keys in the back of the door, and her husband came up. She separated from him. He locked the door and poured petrol over them both and set fire to them both and killed them both. It was a terrible thing. No one would touch that pub. I thought it can't be any worse than what I've taken on.
So, I took on that pub. I had really good people working with me. My younger brother had come in the business, and he was completely capable. He stayed in our first pub, and I moved up to the second pub. Some of the people who had been with us moved up to the second pub. We made a success of that thing. You sort of gain confidence.
[00:20:00] You've got good people working with you. They have dreams. Some of them are ambitious. Some of them, thank goodness, want to stay in a role where we give them the utmost respect if they were to stay as a store man or barman, glass collector for the rest of their life. They get every bit as much praise as someone who wants to climb the pole. I thought of a really simple solution to expansion. I would buy a pub, renovate it, and whatever the total cost was, I would charge an ambition person in my business 10% of that.
What I would say to them—this is what I think it will do turnover wise. If it hits that, then you take on the lease and you pay me. If it goes above that, your rent will be the same we've agreed. If it falls below that, that's my mistake because we haven't got the pub right. You just keep managing it. With that, the banks understood it was pretty simple.
Barry: And that was pretty much the model that you went with?
Bill: That was it. Yeah.
Barry: You just kept repeating it.
Bill: We moved on on that basis.
Barry: Hospitality though is an industry that is notorious for staffing difficulties. You have staff who steal, perhaps declare profits, hands in the till, and so on. How did you manage this side of the industry?
Bill: Well, the industry is difficult for lots of reasons. The two main ones is highest failure rate of any startup business. Staffing is the biggest problem. It was the biggest problem 40 years ago and is an even bigger problem now. So we start off—the culture within my company is we like to believe that nobody's stealing from us. There has to be that element of trust.
We obviously back that up with professionalism. We have stock takes. We have weekly percentages we must hit. There's a business discipline behind it, as most people have when they expand. I think the difference between other large operators in hospitality and maybe smaller operators in the hospitality industry, we have a fairly flat management system. We're respectful of ideas that come from any area.
We have weekly meetings on any of the premises that we run. They understand that as you get to maybe managers and assistant managers, there will be bonuses for them. This does not get soaked up by someone who swans around. We employ a lot of people. We try to inspire a lot of people. We let them understand that this can be a path to progress for themselves. This is an industry and we are a company that can give them a job for life.
Barry: I read somewhere that two of the three employees that you first employed all those years ago are still with you.
Barry: What do you think is the key to retaining good staff and motivating staff?
Bill: Well, I think everything I said in the first answer is key to it. Clear lines of communication, understanding that there is a management that works hard and that we're all in this together. We can move forward together. If you give staff and if you give customers the exact same thing, which is a product that you can be proud of, then you get retention from both the staff and the customer.
Barry: I want to ask you about The Merchant Hotel, that's where we're sitting right now in your office here. You opened this hotel in 2006. When did the idea come to you to create a five-star hotel? When did it first come into your mind?
Bill: We had a relatively large business that was mostly drink-driven. We knew that after smoking, drink would be the next thing there would be reforms on. If not legal reforms, there would be social reforms. People will understand that drinking can endanger your health. We wanted to diversify. We had already gotten into food. I didn't need any political agreement or I didn't need any politician to tell me we had come to peace. It was sort of difficult back 15-18 years ago. If you found an American walking around in the city, you sort of brought them home and showed them off. And say, "Look at that."
[00:25:00] Barry: "Look what I found."
Bill: "Look, found them around the city, a tourist." We could see them coming. We thought that there was an opportunity to open a five-star hotel that spoke to the city. There were other great hotels, but we thought that we knew that Belfast was one of the youngest cities in Europe, highly educated, and just as I've said to you that very first pub I took on that if we could get a hotel that people were proud of and we could get a staff that were really, really well-trained and a décor that couldn't be copied because piggybacking is a great thing, the second most gets the cheese and all that sort of thing.
We knew no one could copy this business. We stepped out of our comfort zone. We got a lucky break, as you quite often do when you do that. The managing director of [Claridge's, the Connaught, Berkley and Savoy] was from Northern Ireland. She graciously let us send people over to shadow some of her people. We did that. We learned a lot from them. We came back. We've always felt that the attitude that in Ireland, people are incredibly friendly and pretty often sloppy. We wanted to keep the friendliness but put professionalism in. That's worked out well. In fact, some of the places we went for mentoring in the early days send their staff to us now for cocktail training.
Barry: Wow. That says a lot, doesn't it?
Bill: We've come a long way in a short period of time.
Barry: Bill, you keep using we. Can I ask you who the we is? So, before you make a decision like to [Bullitt], The Merchant Hotel, who are you talking to? Who's involved in that decision?
Bill: Well, I have five people who I work very closely with. They would be my two sons, who work in the business. I have a niece who's been with me forever. She left university and came to work for me and is still here. Then I have a finance director, and we have outside director. The Merchant was sort of my idea and a bit of a combined idea. You sit around, you talk, "What areas can we get into? What is the opposition like? Can we offer something better? If not better, something different?"
That was the we. There was a group of us. We traipsed along the tourist board and bounced the idea off them. As I'm doing in this podcast and in fact, as I did in the speech this morning, I've never let them forget the fact they told me it would never work. They told me it was too ambitious. The rates we were charging, nobody would ever pay.
We listened to that. It was a fairly short and reasonably abrupt meeting between us. We went on to open, I think, one of the best hotels in the world.
Barry: I agree with you.
Bill: I'm proud of this hotel. I'm proud of the staff. Quite often, the word we, when I say it, I think of all aspects, from the manager to the person who cleans the rooms to the store man. They all contribute mightily to the progress of this hotel. Without them having enthusiasm and understanding who the business is aimed for and what it can do for them, we wouldn't have a great hotel.
Barry: It's interesting that there's a lot of big strategy going on in a decision, or was in the decision to buy and create this hotel. You identified that the drink side might be under threat. You're then looking at a hotel that can't be copied. So, there's a lot at a very high level that you're thinking about. Were there also a lot of Excel sheets on the table, a lot of forecasts in terms of what the hotel would have to do, what it would have to take and so on?
Bill: Not really, I'm sorry to say. I hope to god no bankers listen to this. We operate with gut feelings. If there's an enthusiasm among all of us that this can work, then you pull together figures and say what can you do, where can you go. The decision is made, we will open a five-star hotel. We will open a Little Wing Pizzeria. We will open a bar, The Dirty Onion. The decision is made. Then it's up to the finance—we have a finance director who will pull together figures. [00:30:00]
It's up to him if he feels it's necessary to dissuade us because this can never work. This is why people in the hospitality industry fail so much. We have this in our heart as well. We're operators. A real operator, what they really want to do is—what they shouldn't want to do is drive a BMW five-star and wear a Ralph Lauren shirt and go off and play golf because they feel they've arrived.
What they should have at heart is to give a customer the very best experience they can. When someone walks out saying, "That was fantastic. I enjoyed the night, the music, the food, the stay." That is what drives an operator. But what drives failure, and this is something we are definitely good at, is to have the discipline of finances behind you.
So, we know what we need to charge to make this successful. This has only happened when we introduced a really strong finance department. So, quite often, there's tension between the two, but once we come together to make a decision to go for it, then everybody's on board.
Barry: Can I ask how good you are at finances? Would you say it's a strength of yours?
Bill: I understand that we need to make money. I've probably been guilty in the past of the desire to be the very best and forgetting about profitability. But as I get older, I understand that there needs to be discipline. I wouldn't say it's a strength. To be honest, board meetings really are boring meetings. They bore the tits of me. But I endure them because I know they're sensible, and I know good decisions. But my character is a little bit different to that.
Barry:And now that you've created a hotel that 12 years later hasn't been copied, it's unique and it's special and it's fantastic, how do you feel when you walk in?
Bill: I'm asked that question quite a lot. The answer is I don't feel anything. I maybe feel it's not real. When I set up a business and it goes forward and it's successful, I sort of understand completely that you need to look after that business, but I appoint the very best people to do that. I then am moving on to another venture. We opened Bullitt, which took a lot of time and effort. That has been proven hugely successful, more successful than we ever dreamt. When I opened the Bullitt in Dublin, there's sort of three of the team working on that.
So, when I go into a business, I'm delighted the businesses are doing well, but I never walk about and think wow, it doesn't cross my mind.
Barry: Do you think it ever will when you retire?
Barry: Think about your legacy and what you've done for people?
Bill: No. I never think about my legacy. I have no attachment to buildings at all. If I sold The Merchant Hotel or I have sold places, I never set foot in them.
Bill: I have no emotional—it's a building. I have attachments to people I love and people I care for. This is a building. It's hard for people to understand that, but those who know me know it's absolutely true. Maybe it goes back to my childhood. We moved. I was in five different primary schools. Maybe it goes right back to those days, I don't know.
Barry: When you walk in The Merchant, you feel this is somebody's personal touch. You've given this place your personal touch, but you feel no emotional attachment to it?
Bill: I would be lying that I didn't say that I'm glad that people in some way like the taste. We bought all the furniture, all the art. We did the lot. It's complete. We did everything. So, I'm glad that it works in Bullitt and all the other places that we run. But honestly, what would make me sad is if I—and I have sold places—is the staff—making sure the staff. I told them what my concerns were about the staff and immediately said for six months, nobody can leave us to go and work for you. Bang on six months, we had an exodus of people who came to work for us. [00:35:00] That, to me, is something to be hugely proud of. So, that would always give me concern.
Barry: Finally, this area, Bill, I just wanted to ask about you as an entrepreneur. I've heard about your journey, but when you look back now, I see somebody who was struggling to find their niche in life but when they found it, you took off. Do you think you have always been an entrepreneur? Were there early signs of you wheeling and dealing?
Bill: No. Again, when I was younger, I was good at football. I was captain of the football team. In school, you were voted by your classmates Form Captain. I did that loads of years. I remember leading a little crafty gang of us to set fire to a big bonfire before the 12th. That took great planning for a 13-year old.
When I was a printer, a compositor, it was a three-day week, Margaret Thatcher. We were told we had to work 14 hours a day. I took advice from my father and the unions and I told the leader of our union we weren't doing this and we didn't have to do this and we should be paid.
I was probably 17, 18. That was the apprentices up to 20, 21. There were 18 of them. I was their leader, maybe. So, there were maybe signs, but never to make money. I wasn't like one of these—I often hear entrepreneurs saying they went out, bought things at school and sold them.
Barry: I want to ask you now about your charity work, Start360. You work as an ambassador for this charity. It's helping young people at risk. What is it about this charity in particular that compels you to work so hard for it?
Bill: Well, it's young people and disadvantaged adults. I worked for them in their previous incarnations. When you go into Hydebank, for instance, and you give a talk, there are so many people in there who come from areas that I come from but didn't have the advantages I had, which was parents who really cared. Some of those people haven't had a chance in life. Some have done really bad things. But I have found that when you talk to them—I usually do a talk to say not how clever I am, but how ordinary I am. If you work and you show you enthusiasm, you will get a break.
I'm honest with them and say yours is going to be tougher because of where you are and you have to admit to that, but you will find a break will come at some stage. Then you get a break. It may be one out of 40, maybe one out of 400 who will come back and say, "I'm doing this," or whatever. That is the best thing I do. That makes me feel good about me.
The good thing about Start360 is I know myself. It's an advantage I have over some people. I do not like going on boards. I'm asked regularly to go on a board of this or that. That's just not me. But being out, interacting with people, then we work with another prison charity to take people from prison into employment and that has worked very well for us.
Barry: And that's into your own businesses?
Bill: Yeah, my own businesses. Occasionally, we can't take them and I'll do my darndest to place them. Just as I have given opportunities to people who were involved in the dark days of our past, I give these people an opportunity. Occasionally, it backfires spectacularly, but in general, they turn into your most loyal employees.
Barry: There's a great contrast there, isn't it? Here you are the owner of the most fabulous hotel and yet, there you are also helping the wee man and the wee woman to come up and make a life for themselves and a career and so on and to give them an opportunity in this business or in a related business. Is that deliberate?
Bill: No. It simply goes back to my parents and giving yourself a moral compass. [00:40:02] That is within my company. I have so many people who work for me who give off themselves. As an individual, it makes me feel better. As a company, I feel proud of what we do and what we can achieve. If you think that—there's a saying about 1968 that the middle classes went out to play golf and they never returned. There absolutely is some truth in that.
We have such a low opinion of our politicians and politics that there's so many talented people that stay outside that, professional people. I am not one of those talented professional people, but I run a business. I think that I can put something back, whether it's schools or colleges or the prisons. I do that for me as well. I get the biggest buzz out of that.
Barry: What do you get out of the other charity that you support, which is Myaware?
Bill: Well, I do talks. I suffer from myasthenia gravis. So, I've done a couple of talks for them and promotional things. What I get out of that is people know who have this illness, which can be devastating, it's up there with MS. MG can be just as devastating. You can live with it. The message I try to get out is myasthenia gravis isn't my friend, but it changed the direction that I had to go and sometimes that can be more rewarding.
Barry: I'm sure many disability groups would see you as something of a trailblazer and a role model for people with disability. Would you see yourself like that as well?
Bill: No. I never really think of it. I do the work for Myaware. My door has not been knocked down by people. I would be absolutely delighted to do it. I don't really think of myself as a . . .
Barry: We've reached this point in the podcast in which I have a few what we call rapid fire questions to ask you.
Barry: The first one is this—if you could hang a banner from one Harland and Wolff crane to another for a whole year, what would it say?
Bill: I wrote above the Garrick, I have a saying. I would put it on the crane that a nation that keeps one eye on the past is wise, two eyes on the past is blind.
Barry: Wow. That's a great answer. Thank you for that. Next question, do you have a favourite business quote that you're actually quite irritated by? It's more clever than true?
Bill: I never pay any attention to any business quotes. I hardly ever listen to—it sounds arrogant, but I never listen to any business men. They bore the tits off me. I was once asked by a business college to give a bit of advice. The only thing I'd come up with is never stroke a burning dog. That was it. You know, that's it.
Barry: Okay. And I read somewhere—I'm really curious about this—is it true that you've only ever read one book in your life, "Tarka the Otter"?
Bill: You can learn a lot from "Tarka the Otter," yeah.
Barry: That is true?
Bill: Sort of. I've also read "The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists." Yeah. That's about it.
Barry: What did you learn from "Tarka the Otter?" I remember the film. I never read the book.
Bill: I don't know if I learned anything. It was just a smart answer to somebody who asked me a question. If you start to analyse Tarka before his death, he fought long and hard against oppressive forces. That's not a bad thing to learn.
Barry: Is it also true that here at The Merchant you sell a cocktail which is £750?
Bill: We did, yes. We bought a special bottle of rum, which there was only one of its type in the world. It cost us a fortune. We sold a £750 cocktail. It was a great marketing tool. We sold it out like lightning fast. One man bought four in one night. So, yeah.
Barry: And where was this bottle kept? Was it kept in the safe?
Bill: Kept under my bed. No, it was kept in a locked cupboard. It was brought out.
Barry: What's next for you, Bill? What's left to go after? What's still out there to be achieved?
Bill: Dublin, Dublin Bullitt [00:45:00] in a great A listed building in a part of Dublin, which is medieval. We're trying to put up the hotel, and there's two other listed buildings beside it and a 150-meter laneway, which has been shut to the public for over 100 years. We're restoring this all and putting in a very modern Bullitt Hotel. I think the juxtaposition between the new hotel and what goes on below from medieval times right through to Victoria will be spectacular. That's presently what we're doing. The Little Wing will be increasing again.
Barry: Is there an opening date for the Dublin Bullitt?
Bill: It depends on planners. We're submitting in the next two weeks. That could take five months or it could take a year and five months. The moment we get planning, we'll be on site working.
Barry: Finally, Bill, can I just ask you this— how do you feel about the future of Northern Ireland? Are you generally positive about it? What's your gut feeling on Northern Ireland?
Bill: I have come through the really bad days. I'm an optimist, but I have to say lately I've been thoroughly depressed at the politicians of this country. The people of this country turned out year after year, decade after decade and put their X on the spot for the political party they believed in. They did not vote for those people to go back up the Stormont and put forward the negative sectarian views of their individual parties. That debt to the people has to be repaid. If that is not repaid, I worry we might slide.
Because peace has been hard-won after two sides slugged it out in a horrible, nasty little sectarian war costs the lives of thousands of people and affected hundreds of thousands more. That should not be forgotten.
I think the city that I'm in now, Belfast, is one of the youngest cities in Europe. The population, the younger people, I don't think they'll put up with this crap anymore. They're socially forward-looking. They want to have employment. They want all the things that—they want a good health system. They want to show that progress can be made. I think quite often in business, your biggest threat is not from outside. It's from within. You need to keep analysing and analysing what you're doing wrong.
I think that both of our parties and probably one in particular has not done that. The people who they thought would have been without . . . would have stuck an X on there like some Pavlovian dog, they are no longer there. I think that if the politicians don't put forward more modern views and don't come together, there will be a whole section of the population totally disenfranchised with politics. That is a worrying thing. On a scale of one to ten, one I'm completely pessimistic and ten, I'm over the moon, drug-fuelled optimistic. I'm at about a six and a half. That's as honest as I can be.
Barry: Bill, you've been fantastically honest this afternoon. I've learned a huge amount. I really have enjoyed chatting to you. Thank you so much for your time. I know how busy you are. Thank you. Good luck.
Bill: It's a pleasure.
Barry: Thank you.
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