Tom Fleming speaks to a man who traded the property industry for a role at one of Birmingham’s best-known hotels.
Russell Markou recently took up mountain climbing, which is just as well because since switching careers two months ago – from property developer to hotelier – he’s been on a steep learning curve.
And it’s just become steeper still – for Russell is director of operations at the Radisson Blu Hotel, in Birmingham, and has been standing in for recently-departed general manager Kathrine Ohm Thomas, who recently left the city for South Africa after more than five years in the top job.
Her replacement, Christopher Pike, only arrived in Birmingham this week, so Russell has been at the helm.
Is he fazed by such responsibility so early on in his new career? Not a bit. “I love it,” he says, beaming. “But it helps that I have a really strong team around me who really know what they’re doing.”
It also helps that Russell knows every nook and cranny of the hotel, which takes up the first 18 floors of the 39-storey Beetham Tower in Holloway Circus. In fact, he all but created every nook and cranny. For the 37-year-old used to work for the Beetham Organization – he’s the nephew of Beetham chairman Hugh Frost – and project-managed the construction of the 120-metre glass-sheathed tower from start to finish.
So, as he walks the curved corridors, dines in the restaurant, Filini, and welcomes VIP guests at the reception desk, it’s almost like working from home.
“I fell in love with the hospitality industry whilst working on hotel projects at Beetham,” he explains.
“I was particularly fond of the Radisson in Birmingham because I was involved with every aspect of the build. I saw Beetham Tower rise out of the ground and I stayed with the project until the penthouse apartments were completed – it was always my favourite Beetham property.”
So taken was he with the hospitality industry in general and Birmingham’s Radisson in particular that he decided to quit his high-powered job with Beetham, one of the UK’s leading property investment and development companies to move into the hotel industry.
“During the construction, I became closely involved with the hotel’s pre-opening team and I oversaw the interior design and fit-out of the hotel,” he says. “After that, I became more and more drawn to the hospitality industry – it’s an exciting industry to be in and one that is also very challenging.
"I particularly liked what I saw with Radisson – the family feel of the parent company, Rezidor Group, and how the company encourages you to progress. It is very forward-looking too – which, having worked for a company like Beetham, is very important to me. So after careful consideration I approached Kathrine.
"I knew it would be a massive change for me, but as with property development, hospitality is mainly about communication.”
And communication, he says, is one of the hotel’s strengths – even though its 155 staff are drawn from 55 countries.
“Communication is strong between all the departments and word of mouth agreements hold water between team members. There’s no need for follow-up emails. That is pretty remarkable given that a lot of the staff don’t have English as a first language.”
It seems unusual – remarkable even – for someone to be catapulted into the number two job at such a high profile hotel when they have no experience in hospitality, but Russell fits the Rezidor philosophy perfectly – the group’s ethos is to appoint for attitude rather than skills or experience.
And Russell’s former boss, Kathrine, has said of him: “I believe Russell would succeed whatever he set his mind to achieving in life, because of his drive, ability and attitude towards doing things right the first time.”
He knows he faces plenty of challenges, though. “When I was with Beetham, we used a lot of consultants from whom I could draw expertise. We paid for professionals to advise us. That element is still there in a sense – I have people within Rezidor I can call upon to give advice – but now I find that people come to me more. So my role has switched.
“It’s still early days for me and I have a lot of networking to do to get to know people in the city and maintain all the relationships Kathrine had here. Because Birmingham is actually quite a small city, everyone’s connected in some way, so it’s a good community.”
What Russell is particularly relishing so far is being able to deliver the standards of service that he demands from hotels.
“In my previous career I did a lot of travelling around the world and staying in hotels and the biggest priority for me is always customer service. So it’s great to be able to deliver what I expect myself.
"People want to feel reassured that they are being taken care of and their needs will be met. It’s great to be working with an established team that works well together; I’m getting a lot of support. They know my background isn’t hospitality, but in some ways that’s an advantage – it means I’ve come in with a non-blinkered view and can see opportunities to improve both customer service and the business side of things. “
Russell grew up in Essex, but when he was 14, the family moved to Liverpool. “We have a lot of family on the outskirts of Liverpool and my parents opened a small hotel on the Wirral.”
At 17, Russell moved to Birmingham to work in the building trade. “My dad had his own construction business and I used to help the site engineers out during the summer holidays to earn extra pocket money. I decided I wanted to be a site engineer.”
He took an apprenticeship with Birmingham-based RM Douglas, which shortly afterwards became Tilbury Douglas and is now Interserve, then took a degree in construction engineering and management at the University of Brighton before returning to Tilbury Douglas as a site engineer.
“Over the next few years I worked my way up in the industry and by the time I left my next company, Willmott Dixon, I was site manager,” he said.
In June 2004, Russell joined the family firm. “It was always my intention to work for Beetham, but I wanted to get enough experience in construction before moving into property development so that I could oversee building projects, such as this hotel and the Hilton in Manchester.”
Beetham Organization, which is based in Liverpool, is renowned for its glazed skyscrapers. Manchester’s Beetham Tower stands 168 metres and 47 floors high, making it the tallest residential building in Europe. Beetham’s tallest building yet – 1 Blackfriars Road in London – will rise 173 metres and 52 stories into the sky and, like the other towers, will be a mixed-use development of hotel and apartments. The company secured planning permission for the project last year.
It was, says Russell, “an opportunity of a lifetime” to be involved with the construction of such distinctive and sky-breaking projects.
“It was long working hours and lots of pressure, but very enjoyable and satisfying to oversee every aspect of a whole building and be involved with the interior design and pre-opening activity. I met and mixed with many different people and did a lot of travelling. Property developing is basically applying your construction knowledge, but for a different client.”
With land at a premium in cities, tall buildings are the way of the future, says Russell.
“There is more high-rise development being put forward and getting planning permission now than there used to be, so I don’t think people are deterred too much by the current recession. Because land is so valuable, particularly in cities like London, it makes financial sense to build up rather than out.
“The further high-rise developments planned for Birmingham, such as Arena Central, will be great for the city. There’s a feeling you get when you walk around a city like Chicago and are surrounded by high-rise buildings – it just feels special.”
The fact Russell is now working in one of them is a pinnacle in an already lofty career – though his easy manner and natural modesty belies this. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that he enjoys scaling the heights outside work, too.
“I love mountain biking and I’ve fairly recently started climbing – I use a climbing wall at the moment.”