Darren McCulloch CA on turning around Gleneagles and expanding Hoxton hotels
This article was written before the coronavirus pandemic had escalated in the UK, Europe and the USA and first appears in the April 2020 issue of CA magazine.
Ennismore turned around Gleneagles and is expanding its Hoxton hotel brand worldwide. We catch up in New York with its Director of Finance, Darren McCulloch CA to hear how its unique company culture is key to its success.
It has become something of a cliche in modern luxury circles to talk about “paying homage to heritage, but with a modern twist”. But in the wake of Gleneagles’ multi-million-pound overhaul – one which saw revenues pass more than £1m a week for the first time in the middle of last year – few in the hospitality sector would question the merits of marrying preservation and renovation.
The revamp of the hotel and its three golf courses was masterminded by hospitality company Ennismore, the owner of The Hoxton group of boutiques, which purchased it from Diageo in 2015 for a price said to be around £150m.
The firm is also known for applying the Midas touch to vast industrial warehouses, forgotten estates and other such off-the-radar urban properties. One major player in Ennismore’s ongoing operations is Darren McCulloch CA, a Deloitte alumni who has seriously widened his skillset during his short time with the company.
“I was looking after the construction side of things, finance, contracting and forecasting for a year and a half in London,” he says. “I found myself working on all our US builds, so I got the offer to come and help set up finance in the US – and when someone asks you to move to New York, you don’t really say no.”
For Ennismore, modernisation of a property should mean blending with its surrounds. “We never build the same thing twice,” he says. “Our designers explore the area; they understand the neighbourhood we’re moving into and they take design inspiration from the places they visit. So in a room in The Hoxton, Rome, elements such as wooden shutters look authentically Italian and make you feel like you’re in Italy, rather than just another Hoxton.
Same in Los Angeles, where we’ve adapted an old office building – a railway headquarters on the West Coast. Likewise Paris, where we’re in a really old residential building that everyone said we couldn’t develop back into what it was, and yet three years later it’s one of my favourite hotels in our portfolio.”
If you’re a guest agent in Portland, you’re on the same forums as people at Gleneagles or Amsterdam – it’s brought the company together. Each month Sharan does a live chat in Facebook Workplace – anyone can submit questions
One of McCulloch’s favourite spots in Ennismore’s portfolio is the American Bar in Gleneagles (“It harks back to the 1920s and all these roaring parties that used to happen there”), but his enthusiasm doesn’t wane when talking about new-builds such as Hoxton properties in Chicago and Williamsburg. “Our design team are particularly great at contributing to the heritage of an area and a site,” he says.
“For example, The Hoxton, Williamsburg is on the site of the old Rosenwach factory with those water towers you see all over New York on top of the buildings. We’ve taken the site and built a new hotel on it, but kept the heritage. It fits into the local neighbourhood.”
Indeed, the Williamsburg hotel sports two functioning water towers built by Rosenwach.
Ennismore’s wish for its properties to exist ‘in situ’ goes beyond aesthetics: culturally, too, they cater for a new breed of luxury traveller who wants to feel like they are where they are. “People are going more for Airbnb rather than the bigger hotel brands because they want to feel like they’ve actually visited a city as opposed to saying ‘I stayed in one of the big-brand hotels, then went out and did some tourist things’,” he says.
“When we go to neighbourhoods, we curate a list of ‘Hox Friends’ – local artists, influencers, anyone doing something interesting– and they help us curate events as well as the selection of books in each room.
“They leave a little note saying, ‘Here’s who I am, here’s why I’ve chosen these books, enjoy.’ We’ve copied that in a few of our hotels now.” This policy of local interaction operates across the company, but goes into overdrive in its Los Angeles hotel, where the proceeds from its packed events programme – which includes a floral workshop with Amelia Posada of Birch & Bone and water aerobics in the rooftop pool with fitness company Outdoor Voices – go to Good Neighbours, an initiative The Hoxton set up to support local projects such as Skid Row Housing Trust.
Everyone’s empowered to help build our brand. We all feed off of his passion.
Another of Ennismore’s quirkier innovations is Flexy Time, which offers free flexible check-in and check-out for guests who book direct. “Now, when you book into a Hoxton hotel, you pick your checkin and your check-out time – we don’t charge you to do that. You can check in at 8am and you can check out at 8pm when you leave. That’s giving up a revenue stream, but it’s a great perk for guests and it makes your housekeeping much more efficient because you can plan the day around when people are going in and out, rather than just a rigid rule that everyone’s going to leave by 12 and come at 3pm.”
The company culture encourages people at all levels to come forward with innovative notions. “Everyone has a voice at Ennismore,” explains McCulloch. “Anyone in the company can have a great idea and it will be listened to and actioned on if it is a good idea. I don’t work in a finance department as such – it’s more of a development team, which is working directly with the project managers or designers, helping cost our projects, making sure we’re within budget but still deliver really high-quality product.
“That’s an interesting dynamic that we didn’t have at Deloitte, where I was an auditor looking at other people’s financials. Here, you can see the results of what you do, because every day you’re working with a design team to say, ‘Here’s our parameters in terms of the money we have, how do we make the best room possible?’ I’m not designing it but you’re a part of that process, which is interesting from the finance angle. We have a lot of healthy conflict. Being a fastgrowing business, where everyone’s so passionate, everyone wants everything to be the best it can be.
ICAS training: “a really great base to jump off from and do some really interesting things"
“In other companies [the bottom line] is likely to be the number one priority; here, it’s a priority but we don’t give up our amazing designs or creativity in pursuit of profit, which is an interesting balance for someone in finance. It takes a little while [to adjust]…You come from one of the big firms where everything is about how to maximise profit. You’re sitting in your first meeting thinking, ‘Wow? We’re going to spend this much on that?’ You eventually come round to the fact that yes, we are going to spend this much on that, but we’re going to make this amazing product which is going to drive revenues.”
Describing his ICAS training as “a really great base to jump off from and do some really interesting things”, McCulloch attributes the company’s internal culture, one which has proved a huge boon to career development, to its founder, Indian-born British entrepreneur Sharan Pasricha, who purchased the original Hoxton hotel in London in 2012 and set to work building a global empire. “Sharan is a very charismatic leader,” he says.
“He’s our CEO but he’s just part of the team when he’s with us. Everyone feels like they own it a little. Everyone’s empowered to help build our brand. We all feed off of his passion.”
Other innovations include ensuring the company is a global community. “If you’re a guest agent in Portland, you’re on the same forums as people at Gleneagles or Amsterdam – it’s brought the company together,” he says. “Each month Sharan does a live chat in Facebook Workplace – anyone can submit questions.”
The culture appears to be working. In February Ennismore earned a place on The Sunday Times HSBC International Track 200, which ranks privately held British companies by international sales growth, for the fifth consecutive year. Recent openings in Chicago (April 2019) and Southwark (September 2019) are thriving, the Rome outpost – in the off-the-track Salario district – has tongues wagging, and we can be confident a plan to transform the Bank of Scotland HQ in Edinburgh into an urban outpost of Gleneagles is just one of the projects in the pipeline.
It would be folly to put the company’s success down to a single factor: but nailing the old-vs-new dichotomy with perspicacity – indeed, making heritage as hip as possible – is providing a major wind behind Ennismore’s sails.
This article first appeared in the April 2020 issue of CA magazine.