At 63, Apex Hotels founder Norman Springford says he's taking more of a back seat role as he 'oversees' a new £144m investment drive Profile
Apex Hotels founder Norman Springford admits he finds a certain comfort in hockey - a game he still enjoys playing competitively at the age of 63.
Even though he regularly plays in an over 60s team he is still considered to be a junior member of the squad.
But taking his cue from his more experienced teammates, Springford has no desire to take it easy in business or leisure.
He said: "My main love is hockey. I've been playing for over 50 years and I'm still playing.
"As well as playing for my Edinburgh club, I'm also a member of the over 60s team.
"Our goalkeeper in that team played for Britain in the 1948 Olympics, and he's 83 now, but we do have a younger keeper who can step in who is only 76," he laughs.
"We had a new guy who joined our team, and he was on the left wing and he shouted across, 'dad, dad, give me the ball' and this guy is the same age as me - he's 63 - and his dad is 89 and he's in the same team.
"So when you see guys playing outfield at 89, you have to hope I have a few good years left in me yet."
Springford claims he is taking a lesser role in the Apex Hotel chain he and his wife built from a single renovation project in Edinburgh's Grassmarket into a multi-million pound company.
However, overseeing a new s144million investment drive can hardly be seen as a back seat.
Springford has always enjoyed keeping himself busy with what he calls "wee side projects".
"I don't have an office any more and I don't have a phone, and I'm very rarely in the hotels these days so I'm taking more of a back seat, but I do like to spend my time getting the new projects underway," he says.
The ambitious plans will see a new flagship hotel in Edinburgh's Waterloo Place, with two further hotels to be opened in London over the next two years.
A property adjacent to Apex's current City of London hotel will be transformed into an executive wing.
Despite having those new projects in the pipeline Springford admits frustration at the lack of funding available from the banks as investment opportunities are plentiful in the present financial climate.
He said: "We won't be buying any more properties now for a while due to the large amount of capital investment we have entered into, both in London and Edinburgh. And to be blunt, we've got nae cash left," he laughs.
"This is the frustrating part of doing business in this credit crunch.
"There are great opportunities out there just now, particularly in London, and I'm sure we could expand quite quickly by bringing in an equity partner somewhere down the line.
"But unless we are forced into it - which I can't see to be honest - I think this will always be a family business and we would resist bringing in equity partners.
"Although you end up with a bigger cake, and a good sized piece of it, I think we would much rather retain the ability to make our own decisions as to how we want to expand rather than be constrained by an equity partner.
"They tend to come in with the view of having a three-to-five year window to make a lot of money and get out again, and that's not for us because we look on this as a long-term business."
All three of the Springford children are now directly involved with the business.
His eldest son Ian is the company's architect, with younger son David in charge of graphic design and photography.
Daughter Jo's drive to make the chain the most environmentally friendly in Scotland has brought numerous awards in recognition of initiatives such as energy-efficient lifts and boilers, and fixing flow regulators on showerheads.
Three of its hotels have been credited with reducing energy consumption per room by more than 20 per cent since 2006.
"Environmentally, my daughter Jo has always been a champion and very keen on the subject, and of course in order to transcend that enthusiasm into a business you need to have that level of passion and a firm belief in implementing those beliefs," says Springford.
"We have saved a considerable sum just changing our light bulbs over to LED lamps and that one thing alone has saved us somewhere in the region of s150,000 a year in utility costs.
"I look at it in a different way to Jo in that she looks at it in a 'let's save the world' kind of way, and I look at it from an accountant's point of view and ask myself 'does it make commercial sense?' and it most certainly does."
The Apex chain began life as yet another entrepreneurial idea touted by Springford to his wife Dorothy.
"Dorothy realised many years ago that there is no point in grumping about my ventures and it's probably just best to let me get on with it," he said.
"To be fair, she has always been very supportive, and she and I were the two partners who started this venture and that's the way it has remained."
Before entering into the hotel trade, Springford already had a successful private accountancy practice, as well as a string of pubs and clubs in and around Edinburgh.
The jewel in the crown of his previous incarnation as licensed trade magnate was the Playhouse Theatre he bought from Edinburgh Council. But the long hours finally took their toll, and Springford decided to sell up and try something new.
He said: "I started on my own by opening my private accountancy practice in Edinburgh, but I was always keen on doing other little things too. I managed to bring together a couple of guys, but I always wore two hats in those days, running the accountancy business and acquiring pubs, then a bingo hall and in the 1980s we bought Edinburgh Playhouse."
Taking over the Playhouse was to be a pivotal decision in Springford's career, and inadvertently paved the way for his next venture as hotelier.
He said: "It was an exciting time, but the downside was that I didn't see that much of the kids so I decided that wasn't really how I wanted to live my life any more and we sold the Playhouse to Apollo.
"By the mid-1990s I was beginning to see a general decline in the licensed trade too, so we sold out of the pub game and my wife and I decided to move in to the hotel trade, which seemed like a good idea at the time."
Apex opened two hotels in fairly quick succession in Edinburgh, another in Dundee followed.
But it was the opening of their first hotel in London that proved to be the turning point for the chain.
Springford said: "In 2003, we were able to look at the London market as it had suffered its usual cyclical decline.
"We tramped the streets a bit, found a good agent and we acquired a property which no one else had recognised as an opportunity to convert into a hotel, which we duly did and we opened in November 2005.
"That transformed the company, because it gave us a presence in London and when our sales team went to larger companies they would say 'ah, you have a presence in London now, well, we'll give you our Edinburgh business as well, or our Dundee business'.
"In September 2006 we sold and leased back the International plus the city hotels for about s55m. That allowed us to clear all of our debts, but then allowed us more importantly to be able to leverage all of the remaining assets to acquire abigger pot of capital.
"The sale allowed us to buy several properties in London and Edinburgh - including the new Waterloo place property."
The focus on maintaining the business as a family concern is clearly a priority for Springford but he hints his children will be making the bulk of the decisions in the future.
"It's not really up to me what the future plans are for the company because the decisions for the future are made by the family, and our three children in particular who all have an active role in the company," he says.
"So it's really their decision as to where the business goes next, but the intention is not to build an empire for the sake of it."