From life below the waves to top hotels

PUBLISHED: 09:27 30 March 2011

Bill Heath, managing director of the Arlington hotel group, on a balcony at Hotel Wroxham.; Photo: Bill Smith

Bill Heath, managing director of the Arlington hotel group, on a balcony at Hotel Wroxham.; Photo: Bill Smith

Archant © 2011

As a hotel manager, Bill Heath looks the part.

With a welcoming smile presented in a dapper pin-stripe suit, he cuts a fine figure of a hotel manager, running Arlington Hotel Group’s four hotels in Norfolk and one in Suffolk.

However, he has a past as colourful as some of his customers. It spans from drinking Stella stored in submarine torpedo tubes to running a pizza delivery firm, a pub and an off-licence.

None of which got in the way of returning to his true calling – hospitality and catering – and now running five hotels with nearly 150 beds between them, a boat hire business, conference facilities and restaurants.

It all began when he was 13 when, using his brother’s National Insurance number, he got a job at the Last Drop Inn in the Last Drop Village, a holiday village near his home close to Bolton in Lancashire.

It all went wrong when, leaving school, he was tempted by a career in the navy – the career of his sister’s then boyfriend.

His vision of it as a globetrotting job was quickly put straight when he was selected to become a submariner.

HMS Porpoise, based at Faslane, was his first submarine in 1980, a boat built in the 1950s and since decommissioned and then sunk as target practice off the Scottish coast.

His first post was as a marine engineer going to Bermuda and Florida working with the US Navy, which meant crossing the Atlantic in a massive storm – and having to ride it out on the surface.

“I was in for seven years,” he said. “I hated it. I shouldn’t say that. I met a lot of people. But all you saw was the sea. You could only wash once per week.

“Marine engineering was a good trade but on the submarines all the equipment was so old no one else used it. The final thing for me was the fire in one of the electric motors. That said to me to get out of this.”

As an introduction to the job, older hands liked to show the new recruits the extent to which a submarine is compressed by the mass of water surrounding it by tying a piece of string across the width of the boat – then showing how it sags dramatically as the boat plunges into the depths.

It wasn’t all bad. The crew was occasionally allowed a drink on board, with crates of Stella stored in the coolest place – the torpedo tubes.

However, after serving his notice period of 18 months he was out and had a plan. “We’d been to America and I’d seen pizza delivery taking off,” he said. “So when I finished in the navy a mate and I opened a pizza delivery business in Bolton.

“It was the first in the North West. We had four vans and two great big ovens we could fit 50 12ins pizzas in to at a time.”

Mr Heath made the dough, having been trained by a London pizza maker they found through a friend.

“I was quite happy. I was in catering again,” he said. Sadly his business partner was killed in a crash so the business was sold and Mr Heath moved on.

For a while, with his father, he ran a shop selling everything from videos to pies, alcohol, fresh fruit and vegetables and sandwiches.

But he got bored. He went into the pub trade – and got bored. “It was the same people day in day out,” he said. “The pub trade was the same thing, the same people.”

So he retrained in hotel management at a college in Essex and got a job at Marks Tey Hotel in Essex and then at a Forte hotel in Colchester.

Next he was offered Norwich’s Post House in Ipswich Road and the Ipswich Post House. Twelve months after they went over to Holiday Inn he left. He’d been used to Forte and wanted to move on.

Around the same time David Easter, a former head hunter for banks, had begun building a chain of hotels. He had bought Hotel Wroxham in Wroxham and had just bought The George in Newmarket Road.

And what started out as a short- term contract to help out Mr Easter turned into a long-term partnership.

Mr Heath and Mr Easter went on to buy the George Hotel in Swaffham and carried out a major renovation. Next was the Scarborough Hill Hotel in North Walsham, which was rebranded.

The last addition to the Arlington Hotel Group was Heath Court Hotel in Newmarket.

In the time Mr Heath has been at the Arlington Group, bed numbers have risen from 61 to 146. Turnover has increased from about £1.6m to £4.8m.

“We had every intention of buying 10 properties, that’s what we had looked at. But the credit crunch came,” said Mr Heath.

“We changed everything that we were doing. We moved into the carvery market, reduced prices and fortunately we made the right changes. A lot of places have gone to the wall.

“We survived it and continue to. Top lines are up but everyone’s bottom lines are not. Turnover is up, apart from Wroxham.

“And we are still looking for new hotels, but if we found something now it would have to be leasehold because we can’t buy anything.”

Life isn’t easy for the industry. Although Norwich is bouyant, he and others say it is difficult to get finance from banks. The bottom line is an issue, costs continue to increase, the minimum wage makes staffing, a major overhead, expensive and it is going to go up again in May.

It is also a struggle getting staff.

A bad August last year saw numbers drop at Wroxham so they decided to refurbish the hotel. They’ve put in 3D TV and are running events, live music and karaoke.

Despite it all he loves the job – and the variety.

Buying the Newmarket hotel opened up another world to the chain – the horse racing community.

“I was stunned how far people come,” he said. “From Australia, China, Russia and they do not bat an eye-lid paying full rates for rooms, especially for the bloodstock selling week.

“I still work late nights and early mornings if I need to. I still do pot washing or make the beds if I need to. I’ve cleaned the toilets and cleaned up sick, it is what you have to do.

“I just love entertaining. I love doing weddings at the hotels, even as a general manager. We laugh a lot, we are a strange breed. Hotel Babylon is true.

“The hours are crap, we work when everyone else is on holiday, but we laugh.”

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