BY ANABEL INGE
LORD FORTE, the Italian-born entrepreneur who built up a multibillion pound global hotel and restaurant empire, died in his sleep on February 28, 2007. He was 98 and is warmly remembered as a generous benefactor to the Catholic Church.
From modest beginnings, Charles Forte created a corporate portfolio that boasted some of the finest hotels and restaurants around the world, including the Grosvenor House Hotel in London and the legendary George V in Paris, as well as the Café Royal and Quaglino's.
A devout Catholic throughout his life, he was a regular Massgoer at the Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception in Farm Street, Mayfair. His faith inspired him to make generous contributions, such as a donation of about £60,000 towards the library of St Charles Sixth Form College, West London, at the request of Cardinal Basil Hume when he established the school in 1990.
Mgr Vladimir Felzmann, director of All Saints Pastoral Centre in Hertfordshire and a close friend of the Forte family since the mid1980s, described Lord Forte as a man who "took his religion very seriously" and had a great respect for the Church, especially for his friend Cardinal Hume.
"When I was running the Passage centre for the homeless, we needed a cooker," said Mgr Felzmann. One telephone call to Lord Forte's office later and "sure enough, we got a very nice second-hand cooker".
"Faith was an important element for him," added Mgr Felzmann. "He was proud to be a Catholic. He was a man who believed in the importance of living out his faith. We didn't discuss theology. But he certainly believed in actions helping people who were in need."
On another occasion, Lord Forte was the guest of The Catholic Herald at a party marking Otto Herschan's 40 years as managing director. Mr Herschan recalled that, after a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Hume in St Joseph's Church, Bunhill Row, "Charles Forte came up to me to say that to celebrate the occasion he and his wife wanted to give £10,000 to a charity named by the Cardinal and me.
The Converts' Aid Society was the charity of choice — appropriately, since the Mass was attended by the Rt Rev Graham Leonard, former Bishop of London, then on the verge of converting to Rome and now a monsignor.
Lord Forte also had a hand in the appointment of his son, Sir Rocco, as a director of The Catholic Herald in 1980. Over lunch, Mr Herschan told Lord Forte that he was looking for another director. "Not you, we want younger blood," he said. Sir Rocco was later to become chairman of the newspaper, and to this day remains a director and part owner.
Charles Forte was born on November 26, 1908, in Mortale (later Monforte), a small moun tain village between Naples and Rome in the Abruzzi region of Italy. His father Rocco, a farmer, left Italy in 1911 for Scotland to work in the ice-cream and confectionery trade. The family came over to join him there three years later, by which time Rocco Forte had opened the Savoy Café in Alloa, near Stirling.
The eldest of four, Charles was educated at Alloa Academy, where he was head boy, and also boarded at St Joseph's College, Dumfries, before attending the Mamiani School in Rome.
On his return he apprenticed himself under various relatives, including a cousin who owned an ice-cream parlour at Weston-superMare. He transformed the rundown seafront café, the Venetian Lounge, Brighton, when he became manager in 1929. Within a year it was making a profit. But his attention moved to London after a newspaper article about an Australian who opened a milk bar in Fleet Street caught his eye. He approached the owner with a business proposal, but when this was turned down, he resolutely scraped together £500 of his savings, adding £3,000 borrowed from his father and a business contact, to open a milk bar of his own in 1935. The Meadow Bar on Upper Regent Street was the first of its kind, and the acquisition of a further seven in London by 1940 was testament to its success. Soon the papers were dubbing him "the milk bar king".
His plans were interrupted briefly, however, when Italy entered the Second World War as an Axis power in 1940, and the Italian-born businessman was interned for three months on the Isle of Man, despite having applied for British citizenship.
But after his release he was able to resume his business activities, and at the end of the war he became an adviser to the Ministry of Food and bought Rainbow Corner, the American servicemen's centre in Piccadilly, which soon became the biggest milk bar in the country.
In 1951 he won the contract to provide catering facilities at the Festival of Britain. and this was followed by contracts with airlines to supply in-flight food. Profits from the Festival of Britain enabled him to get on the hotel ladder and he acquired the Waldorf Hotel in 1958. Notable purchases included the Criterion in Piccadilly Circus, Café Royal and the Prince of Wales Theatre.
Forte said his boardroom philosophy was to "satisfy our customers, increase our profitability, rear initiative, provide excellent working conditions and act with integrity at all times".
By 1970, Charles Forte owned Britain's biggest hotel chain. That year the Forte group merged with Trust Houses, which ran about 200 hotels. Although he remained active in the running of the company into his 80s, Lord Forte gradually gave way to his son, Rocco, who took over control of the business in 1993. When the group was subject to a takeover bid by Granada, Lord Forte acted as his son's principal adviser. There followed a bitter battle, and Granada took over the company. However, he lived long enough to see Rocco knighted and to build up his own successful group of luxury hotels.
Lord Forte married Irene Chierico, a Venetian, in 1943, and he is survived by her and their son and live daughters, one of whom is the hotelier and interior designer Olga Polizzi, who also became a director of the company.
He was knighted in 1970 for services to the catering industry and charities. At the time, Forte, who stood at just 5ft 4in tall, described himself as "the shortest knight of the year". He accepted a life peerage in 1982. having declined previous offers by leaders of both major political parties. By then the Prime Minister was Margaret Thatcher, who admired His Italian distinctions included Cavaliere del Lavoro and Lavaliere di Gran Croce della Repubblica Italiana. His autobiography, Forte, was published in 1986.