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Charles Forte and attention to detail

Summary:
Charles Forte exemplified a typical 'Italian boy makes good' story. He was born on November 26th, 1908, in an Italian mountain village where his family had lived for centuries. He was the eldest of four children and remained, throughout his life, very proud of his family and his background. Seeking to climb out of poverty to a better life, his father went to Scotland in 1911, opened the Savoy café in Alloa, and sent for his family, including young Charles, three years later. Although he subsequently became a British citizen, Charles always described himself as Scottish Italian. When he was 21, Charles entered the catering trade by managing the Venetian Lounge in Brighton for a cousin. He struck out independently by opening a milk bar in London's Regent Street, helped by his father, but

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Charles Forte exemplified a typical 'Italian boy makes good' story. He was born on November 26th, 1908, in an Italian mountain village where his family had lived for centuries. He was the eldest of four children and remained, throughout his life, very proud of his family and his background. Seeking to climb out of poverty to a better life, his father went to Scotland in 1911, opened the Savoy café in Alloa, and sent for his family, including young Charles, three years later. Although he subsequently became a British citizen, Charles always described himself as Scottish Italian.

When he was 21, Charles entered the catering trade by managing the Venetian Lounge in Brighton for a cousin. He struck out independently by opening a milk bar in London's Regent Street, helped by his father, but proving even then his skill at researching a project and raising the finance for it. He soon expanded into the hotel and catering business.

When World War II broke out, he was interned as an Italian citizen, having applied for, but not yet completed, his British citizenship, but was released after three months. After the war he went from strength to strength with his company, now called Forte Holdings, and bought the Café Royal in 1954. He was very much a pioneer, opening the first catering facility at Heathrow Airport, and the first motorway service station.

Through mergers his company became Trust House Forte, a multi-billion-pound company, and included household names such as Little Chef, Happy Eater, Crest and Travelodge, as well as holding a stake in London's Savoy Hotel, and owning establishments in Paris and New York. Throughout his career he had to face snobbery from business leaders who regarded him as an upstart, and by rival hoteliers who disdained his mixed holdings of the classy and the popular. He had a meticulous attention to detail and made sure he knew every aspect of his different establishments. It was part of the reason for his success.

He was modest, despite his obvious talents. When knighted, at 5ft 4in he described himself as "the shortest knight of the year." He declined the offer of a peerage from the Labour Leader, Hugh Gaitskell, saying he could never vote with the Labour side of the House, but accepted one later from Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

My colleague, Eamonn Butler, tells a revealing story about meeting Charles Forte and telling him that his uncle had once been one of his employees. "Frank Butler?" asked Forte, "He was my 11th employee. He retired to somewhere in Buckinghamshire, Milton Keynes, I think. How is he getting on?" He'd given Frank a gold lighter at his retirement dinner, and Frank was astonished to discover later that the leather pouch it came in alone cost £5 (£70 at today's values).

Charles Forte was an immigrant without wealth or high birth, yet he made good because of his character and talent. It speaks well of Britain that he succeeded. The hope and determination must be that the country can make it even easier for people with similarly humble backgrounds to prosper themselves and, like Charles Forte, create jobs for tens of thousands in the process of doing so. Our tax and incentives system must be geared to encourage, not discourage, those who aspire to follow in such footsteps.

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