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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 flagship event?
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 community life.

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

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