The Leader in his own clubhouse - Interview with Richard Caring
After making his fortune in the clothing business, Richard Caring,
did exactly what any self-respecting gazzillionaire would do – he
bought a golf club. In his case Wentworth, and it was a decision
that would lead, one way and another, to the 61 year-old Londonborn
tycoon becoming an accidental restaurateur as the acquisition
of a string of London’s finest restaurants (The Ivy, Le Caprice,
J Sheekey, Scott’s) and nightclubs (Annabel’s Soho House) followed.
From a vast and quite fantastic office on the 4th floor of an
otherwise nondescript Fitzrovia office building, the man with an
estimated wealth put at £600 million has his world on speed-dial.
Richard Simmons went to meet him
Gi: Gareth Edwards tells me you were a good
enough player to earn a golf scholarship to Millfield
School in Somerset?
RC: A 10 shillings-a-week golf scholarship, to be
precise – and that was the best four or five years of
my life. I had been expelled from another school,
can’t remember why. I was only 11. My father saw
the Millfield scenario and fixed up an interview for
me. We met with Jack ‘Boss’ Meyer, the founder of
the school and headmaster at the time. He asked
to see my golf swing. He then took us to a shortgame
area, gave me 30 balls and a 7-iron, and said
that if I holed one chip shot from 20 yards or so I
was in. I think it was the 22nd ball I holed. Gareth
and I shared a room for three years. I remember he
came to find me one day and said we were playing
inter-house rugby. He told me I was playing hooker
– I had no idea what he was talking about. I lost all
my front teeth when the scrum collapsed. He still
laughs about it, I didn’t think it was so funny.
Gi: How big a part of your life was golf at that time?
RC: I started playing at 5, and when I arrived at
Millfield I was off good single figures, around 12
years old. I grew up playing golf with a gentleman
called Tony Jacklin – you may remember him?! He
was the assistant pro at Potters Bar Golf Club, in
Hertfordshire. I used to play him on Saturday and
Sunday afternoons and pretty much all week in the
school holidays. I must have played with him a
thousand times. And we have remained good
friends. In fact he came and played with me in the
Chairman’s Day at Wentworth last year and we
won! I played county golf for Middlesex, lowest
handicap I achieved was 1. From Middlesex I went
to Coombe Hill, a fantastic courses where I was a
member for many years. After that, when I properly
immersed myself in the family clothing business
I went to live in the Far East and joined the Royal
Hong Kong Golf Club at Fanling. As business took
over I drifted away from golf and haven’t really
played much since, although I am starting to get
back into it.
Gi: Presumably you took advantage of Millfield’s
location and played regularly at Burnham?
RC: I could talk you through every single hole on
Burnham & Berrow and I want to go back and play
it again. When the wind blows there, you know you
are on a golf course. They were happy days. And
they used to do a great eggs on toast as well.
Gi: Finishing school, what was your career path?
RC: After a spell with a property company I joined
the family clothing business in the late 1960s. This
was as times were changing in the industry and we
needed to innovate. I first went out to Hong Kong
in ’69, and then Shanghai. We developed a worldwide
distribution supplying high street stores in
the United States, Europe and Scandinavia. In those
days it was a vibrant market – I’m not quite sure what’s happened to it today. I’m still involved in
the industry [his company International Clothing
Design employs 250 people and still supplies a
high percentage of volume to the high street]
although not personally. We have various divisions
in that area.
Gi: Talking to Barry Hearn recently he mentioned
that everyone needs a lucky break in business – what was yours?
RC: I totally agree with Barry – you do need that bit
of luck. I cannot pinpoint one specific example or
situation that was a turning point for me but I do
know it was an awful lot of hard work. I think I
was fortunate that I understood clothing from a
young age, it was my father’s business but I had a
real passion for clothes. A good eye. I got very
involved in creating product at the time, which is
very much what I like to do. Gary Player said it
about golf: ‘the harder you practice the luckier you
get’. I believe in that in business, too.
Gi: You bought Wentworth in 2005 – had golf been
on your radar up to that point?
RC: I wasn’t going around thinking that I wanted to
buy a golf club, I simply wanted to do something I
enjoy. I’ve always wanted to go back to playing golf
but never have; you know, if you have played at
low single figures and know what it’s like to hit a
ball properly you just get so upset when you hit it
like crap and ask yourself what you are doing out
there? You don’t enjoy it. Anyway, out of the blue a
friend of mine called me up and asked if I might
be interested in buying Wentworth. I said absolutely
– that has to be the icing on the cake. I can still
remember the first time I ever played golf at
Wentworth in the Wentworth Foursomes when I
was about 12 or 13. I played with the pro from
Potters Bar, an Australian called Bill Shankland,
great character. In the first round Ted Dexter was
one of our opponents – he seemed about 6’ 8” and
I was 3’ 4”! I came up to about his waist. Bill kindly
invited me to take the tee-shot at the first hole....I
didn’t carry the heather.
Gi: Was Loch Lomond one of those?
RC: Yes, I thought about it. And I went up there a
couple of times, but to be very honest with you –
and this will sound ridiculous – when I was there
in August I was bitten to death by the midges. It
really put me off. A beautiful golf course when the
weather is right, but often wet in winter. When we
started looking at the numbers it was difficult.
Didn’t work for us.
Gi: How difficult has it been to implement your
own vision for the Club onto an established membership?
RC: The first AGM was difficult. As you say, it’s a
well established club and has a loyal membership,
and then this character most of them have never
heard of just comes in – for all they know I’m
going to add a race track, build a casino and turn it
into a lap-dancing joint. So they were defensive to
begin with, even though I promised them I would
do my best for the Club. Over the years they have
recognised where I am taking it and a level of trust
has developed. Because we understand what
Wentworth is about and we are very honest about
it. We haven’t tried to look at it as a commercial
investment; it is one of the finest parkland golf
course in the world, and I love it. I think it’s magnificent.
I’m only sorry I don’t get out there any
more than I do.
Gi: For some, tinkering with an original Harry Colt
classic is close to sabotage?
RC: The course changes were tough, but we had no
choice but to do something about the greens. And
I have an obsessive personality, so I couldn’t just
change the greens. If the course is to be closed for
a year why not make some other changes too? The
thing is, if you look back at what the West Course
represented when it was first designed, in 1926, in
its day it was great. And tough. But the modern
game had all but left it behind and I don’t like to
see someone win the PGA Championship on 23
under par. So I was determined to make it more
difficult, which we did. Working alongside Ernie
[Els] was great, even though we had a few disagreements.
Gi: Are you noticing the effects of the downturn in
your other interests – notably the restaurants?
RC: A little bit. We don’t see it that much but you
are aware it’s there. We are fortunate in that in the
calibre of the businesses we run, clubs and restaurants
are generally over subscribed. Even though
the demand might have fallen slightly, we are still
full of the people we want. You’ll never see us
advertise. We are very lucky with that. I’m a big
believer in that if the product’s right, you’ll be OK,
even in a tough market. If you look at the art
world, the best pieces from the finest artists will
never fall in price. It’s that quality. That’s why
brands today are so important. Look at the emerging
economies, Brazil, India or China, they are very
brand conscious. Because they want to buy quality.
How do they know it’s quality? Because they
believe in the brand. Louis Vuitton, Cartier, BMW,
all great brands that will prevail. Hard to convince
people to buy something they don’t know.
Gi: Green fees on the West Course run from £195 to
£360 at the height of the season – how do you justify
that for a round of golf?
RC: My loyalty is to the members. We currently
allow 45 rounds a day. It’s a special course. You
have to look after it. We insist on caddies now as
we don’t want trolleys all over it. It has to be done
the right way. And the West Course is really being
managed the right way by Julian Small and his
team. Our greens are still young, they’ve only been
down 18 months. The BMW PGA is coming up in
May and we want the course to be perfect. So we
protect this golf course. We could actually take a
lot more money on it.
Gi: As a golfer you must be especially proud to host
the BMW PGA Championship – the European Tour’s
RC: It’s a great partnership. The people at BMW are
second to none. Great people, great product and
we feel very honoured to work with them. They are
very understanding. It’s not a question of black
and white with them. They understand the golf
course, they understand our brand, and we understand
their brand. That’s what it’s about – BMW /
Wentworth. It’s a great mix.
Gi: Had it been your intention to turn it into one of
the major events on the social calender?
RC: No, but the way it has developed it has certainly
turned into one of the social events of the season.
Maybe it’s because I’m a heavy drinker and I
invite a lot of people to come and have some fun!
It really came about more by accident than design.
We have some special things planned this year but
exactly what is a secret. We are just finalising the
plans now, but it will be special. We want to put on
a show for the local people, make it a part of the
Gi: The enthusiasm you have for the golf club is self evident – you're clearly having a lot of fun with it?
RC: I become miserable if I ever find myself sitting
around with nothing to do. That’s why I bought
Wentworth in the first place. I’d fired myself from
the day to day running of the clothing business
and needed an outlet. I’ve spent a fortune and its
given me a lot of aggravation. But I get a huge kick
out of it. I used to be very hands on, but over the
years I’ve come to appreciate that you cannot do
everything – the secret is to surround yourself with
good people. Sometimes I look at the picture over
there on the wall [of Wentworth] and it does occur
to me that I own it, and it’s great. When you are
involved in it you see it as an image, you don’t tend
to see all of all the things behind it.
Gi: What’s your favourite course outside the UK?
RC: Pebble Beach. If I could just play one outside
the UK that would be it. I think playing there ranks
among my most fantastic golfing experiences. I hit
the ball straight and the putts went in. That always
helps. I love the sea, too. So if a vacation combines
the both I’m happy.
Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine