As chief financial officer of Belmond, Martin O’Grady oversees a portfolio of world-famous hotels including the Cipriani in Venice and the Splendido in Portofino. But even before his 18th birthday, he was taking steps to fulfil his two big ambitions: to work in the hospitality industry and to travel the world.
A Saturday job at a Forte Posthouse hotel near his north Birmingham home took care of the former – until he decided to address the latter aspiration by running away to sea.
He says: “I was getting frustrated by sixth form, so I joined the Merchant Navy. At the ripe old age of 17, I flew as an unaccompanied minor to Manila to join a P&O ship and sail around the Med and Asia as a cadet navigating officer. I did it for six months, but decided to go back to college and do my A-levels.”
O’Grady applied to the University of Strathclyde, gaining a place on its well-regarded hotel and catering degree. But before leaving for Glasgow, he went to London in search of summer employment – presenting himself at every hotel from the top to the bottom of Park Lane. “At the very end, the Intercontinental offered me a job as a minibar attendant,” he says. “If I’d started at the bottom of the road, I’d have saved myself a day.”
The Strathclyde course included summer work placements, taking O’Grady to a Sheraton Hotel in Dallas and an oil platform in the North Sea. (“Even though I was the worst-paid person on the rig, it was lucrative,” he recalls. “I left uni having made a profit.”) The degree also obliged him to take three finance courses, and it was these that first steered his thoughts toward accountancy.
He says: “I became determined to become a finance person, as it turned out I had a bit of a bent for maths. I decided the best way to get a good position in a hotel company later on would be to qualify as a chartered accountant. I thought it was the best finance qualification you could get.”
After applying for various firms, O’Grady accepted an offer to train with Price Waterhouse in Birmingham. Qualification as an ACA brought the chance to get involved in staff training, and travel overseas. “I figured the best thing to do would be to try to get on Price Waterhouse’s international exchange programme,” he says. “I thought if I applied to go to Los Angeles, I’d have a good chance of getting audit work in a hotel.
“When I was posted over there, I did have one hotel client – The Beverly Hilton – but most of my time was spent in the entertainment industry, in places like Columbia Tristar Pictures. That was fascinating.”
In the spring of 1992, O’Grady’s final weekend in California coincided with the worst riots ever to hit Los Angeles. Soon after his return to London, better fortune brought the life-changing opportunity to work for Jardine Matheson – the Hong Kong conglomerate that owns Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. “I went down to the shop to get my usual copy of The Times, but none were left so I bought The Telegraph. Inside was this job ad, and I found out afterwards that they only advertised in The Telegraph.”
When he went to Hong Kong for interview, he was struck by a further coincidence. “I was reading Noble House by James Clavell, which is all about a company that’s based on Jardine’s. I’d started it before I knew I’d be applying for a job there – but before I got to the end, I found myself sitting on the 48th floor of Jardine House being interviewed by the tai-pan [senior executive].”
O’Grady spent six years working as a senior finance executive across Jardine Matheson’s interests, including long spells at Mandarin Oriental and at an automotive retail chain in Jakarta – the latter coinciding with the Asian currency crisis. He says: “Our share price dropped from around $1.50 to 10 cents, but we were one of only 10% of Indonesian companies to remain solvent.
“Each morning, my boss would send the staff outside each of the car showrooms, and they’d clear any rocks, so there were none for the rioters to throw”
“We ended up leaving Indonesia when we had the revolution. There had been riots when we left LA, and there were riots when we left Jakarta. Each morning, my boss would send all the staff outside each of the car showrooms, and they’d go up and down the road to clear any rocks, so there were none for the rioters to throw. It worked, as we didn’t lose a single window!”
Back in London again, O’Grady left the hotel industry for a decade. He joined Security Capital Group, an American real-estate investment firm, becoming chief financial officer at a self-storage business it had lately acquired. In 2006, he moved on to Orion Capital Managers, an entrepreneurial property fund with around £2bn in investment capacity.
“That was a great experience, working with three of the smartest investors I’ve ever known,” he says. “But then I was headhunted to be CFO at Orient-Express Hotels.”
Life at the company – renamed Belmond in 2014 – has proved as eventful as every other chapter of his career. The hospitality sector was badly hit by the financial crisis, and O’Grady has had to deal with falling revenues by refinancing more than £2bn of capital and debt, masterminding four equity raises and shedding assets. “We did a pretty good job of fixing all that,” he says. “The balance sheet is looking considerably healthier now.”
So does he hanker after a less exciting life? “Sometimes it feels like you’re juggling balls and spinning plates while sitting on a unicycle, and that unicycle is on a high wire 1,000 feet above a ravine full of sharks. But you can do it if you stay calm, delegate well – it helps if you hire people smarter than yourself – and pace yourself. If you don’t find the time to switch off and recharge, you’ll quickly burn out.”
I like being an ACA because... It has given me a passport to live and work around the world.
I’m happiest when… I use the right side of my brain – when I’m being creative.
My favourite book is… Still Noble House by James Clavell.
The hardest lesson to learn has been… Contrary to what some politicians may think, you do need to rely on experts – but never be afraid to challenge them.
I’d like to be remembered as… Someone who was never afraid to lean in to a new challenge.
The love of my life is… My wife of 30 years, Fiona, and my four children.
My worst habit is… I’m always looking to change my car as soon as I’ve bought it!