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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 February 2007, 12:46 GMT
Obituary: Lord Forte
Lord Forte, 1980
Lord Forte served his time in his family's restaurants and cafes
There can be few people in Britain who haven't eaten a Trust House Forte meal, whether in some of the world's grandest hotels, or in a humble motorway service station.

The man who built the hotel and catering empire, Charles Forte, has died at his home in London at the age of 98.

Starting in business before the war with just a few pounds, he developed a company that was worth 1.8bn.

Trust House Forte became the biggest hotel, catering and leisure concern in the world, employing 68,000 people.

'Mr Piccadilly'

Charles Forte was just four when his father, a peasant farmer, arrived from Italy to open a cafe near Edinburgh.

After leaving school, the young Charles served an apprenticeship under various members of the family - many of whom ran restaurants and cafes.

But he was ambitious and branched out on his own in 1935, when he opened a milk bar at which you could also eat - the first establishment of its kind - in Upper Regent Street in London.

By the beginning of the war he controlled seven milk bars in London, and at the end of it he was able to buy the American servicemen's centre in Piccadilly, "Rainbow Corner", which he turned into the biggest milk bar in the country.

Rocco Forte
In 1993 Lord Forte handed control of the company to his son Rocco

Soon the papers were calling him "Mr Piccadilly", because - it was said - a brick thrown in any direction from the Eros statue must go through one of Forte's windows.

After a time, Charles Forte looked for investors and began expanding - buying restaurants, hotels and theatres all over Britain and abroad.

Among the group's most famous London properties were the Criterion and Cafe Royal restaurants, the Waldorf Hotel and the Prince of Wales Theatre.

In 1970 the boards of Forte Holdings and Trust Houses agreed to merge their interests, and, after a prolonged board-room battle, Charles Forte established a controlling interest in the new group.

The company included Little Chef, Happy Eater as well as 230 hotels in Britain and Ireland; nearly 500 in the United States; and luxury hotels in many other countries abroad.

It had a majority stake in the Savoy, although not a controlled interest - much to Charles Forte's disappointment.

End of an era

Lord Forte was a quietly dynamic man who was very proud to describe himself as a hotel-keeper and caterer.

Several times he and the restaurant critic, Egon Ronay, crossed swords about catering standards in motorway restaurants and cafeterias, but Charles Forte insisted they provided excellent value for money.

Although very much the boss, he was not afraid of delegating authority.

"I don't need to be everywhere", he used to say, "Sitting at my desk, I only need to look at the returns to see whether a branch anywhere in England is running properly".

In 1993 he was as good as his word - and gave control of the company he'd built to his son, Rocco.

But just three years later it was seized in a bitter takeover battle by the Granada group.

Charles Forte, who became a life peer in 1982, was dismayed at what was the end of an era.


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