The founder and chairman of the Hastings Hotels Group, Sir William Hastings, has been a stalwart of Northern Ireland’s business landscape for over six decades. Here he discusses pride, the Troubles and handing control to the next generation
In business I’m one of the lucky guys. I’m a second-generation man, born into a business family. I absorbed the business instinct from my father, William, who was a publican in the licensed trade. He died when I was 12 years old and my brother, Roy, then 17, took over the running of the business.
I had no notable education. I left school at 16 and went into the timber trade as a junior apprentice where I would have remained had my brother not called me to help run the family business two years later. We worked together for seven years until, aged 30, he died of a kidney disease.
I was the boss but I was young and dependent on senior staff teaching me how to get things done. They had been working in an established public-house business for many years. You had to be smart to keep ahead of everything. I learnt a manager’s job is to solve complaints not create them.
My move into hotels was gradual. The licensed trade had monopolies and restrictive licensing laws. I bought my first hotel, the Adair Arms in Ballymena, in 1964 because it had a large licensed section and hotels had better licensing hours than pubs.
During the Troubles the publican in me came to the fore. Internment in Northern Ireland began months after I made my big move to become a hotelier, with the purchase of six Northern Ireland railway hotels from Grand Metropolitan in May 1971. The tourist trade disappeared so I focused the hotels on discotheques, weddings and events. It wasn’t true hotel-keeping but it was a question of survival.
There were setbacks but there were happy times. Tourism had gone off a cliff edge but I was a young married man, to my wife Joy, with a job to do. On one hand there was no tourist trade here, but on the other hand I was the only person in the whole of Northern Ireland with any rooms or hotels left, so if anyone visited they had to stay with me.
The Seventies and Eighties were crucial years. I survived and I was able to restore the hotel sector. By 1990, Belfast city centre was dead as far as hotels were concerned, but I got a feeling that people were starting to live there again. I bought the Europa hotel [once described as “the most bombed hotel in the world”] when no one else would touch it. I spent a lot of money on it and it’s now a highly successful hotel. Today I exclusively trade in four- and five-star hotels.
My children are the third generation of the business. I wouldn’t say I’m the referee – that would be too strong – but as chairman I am the co-ordinating influence. The business has 1,000 staff. My son, Howard, is managing director and my daughters Julie, Allyson and Aileen have independent [director] roles.
I am 86 and I no longer have the stomach for risk but I wouldn’t want to stop my children taking on the risk for new deals. As chairman I’ve got to learn to let them manage. I don’t want to put the brake on their ambitions.
The greatest difficulty is to sit back, when you’ve been in total control. I said I’d take the back seat and my daughter laughed, ‘Yes and you’ll probably take the steering wheel’.
I can’t give you a ridiculous answer about what motivates me. A gin and tonic at night is a nice motivation, playing golf is a nice motivation… but working together with my family in the business – that’s pride.
I’ve retired from a lot of functions. I used to know 90 per cent of people at banquets and conferences. Now 90 per cent of the room is [made up of] young guys. They don’t know me and I don’t know them. I no longer take the same pleasure in going to those functions as I did once upon a time. That’s just a phase of life that you go through.
What advice could I possibly give young people? They don’t come into business the same way I did. They come in through educated avenues and courses. They learn rules. I’m left behind in the computerised world. I’m still an old-fashioned businessman and I’m happy to relax in that respect. I can’t give advice to the modern generation, they’d laugh at me.
My work has given me an enormous sense of pride. I always worked for the betterment, growth and enjoyment of business. Nobody credits you for having worked hard and done it; they say you’re lucky. I guess I’m lucky.
Sir William Hastings was chair of IoD Northern Ireland from 1982 to 1985
Education Royal Belfast Academical Institution
Licensed premises Between 1951 and 1960 Sir William Hastings owned 17 pubs and bars.
Hastings Hotels Established in 1968 after Hastings purchased the Stormont and Adair Arms hotels, the group has a collection of six four- and five-star hotels in Northern Ireland.
Honours and awards Received a knighthood in 2009 having already been awarded the CBE and OBE. The University of Ulster awarded him an honorary Doctor of Letters in 1998.
Did you know? Of the six former railway hotels Hastings bought in 1971, only the Slieve Donard in Newcastle, County Down, remains in the group. The others were sold, closed, bombed or destroyed in the Troubles.