By our fifties many of us would expect to have reached the pinnacle of our careers, be settled in a secure and rewarding job and perhaps even be looking forward to escaping the rat race in the not so distant future. But at that age, hotelier Francis Brennan was just getting started. It may seem that Francis has been gracing our screens and entertaining us with his signature charm and wit for a long time, but his first TV appearance did not take place until he was 52 and now, at age 60, he shows no sign of stopping.
In the middle of shooting the ninth series of his universally popular show At Your Service, Francis Brennan is busier than ever before and, for fear of disappointment, could scarcely commit to a rare interview given the unpredictability of his schedule. Finally securing a date, the eternally youthful and always engaging Francis was happy to share his story of success, his thoughts on his new found fame and his secrets for happiness.
Growing up as a shopkeeper’s son in Dublin, Francis has been honing his craft serving the public for as long as he can remember and says he had a natural instinct for business. “When I was a kid I ran a babysitting service and I had 40 people working for me at age 14. I took all the phone calls and I told Mary go here, Joe go there, and I took 10% of the takings. I placed 40 baby sitters on a Friday night. But that’s a whole other story!” he says with a mischievous grin.
Already service savvy and with bags of ambition, Francis gained the experience he needed studying hospitality at DIT Cathal Brugha Street. After working in a few notable hotels around Ireland, at just 22 years old Francis was head hunted to be the general manager of the five star Park Hotel Kenmare. When it went into liquidation shortly after that, Francis took on the lease and for two years maintained the shining reputation of hotel, earning a lot of money along the way.
“If you had the money I had in the bank then you’d be delighted with life. I went to the banks with the money which, even today, was a colossal amount of money, over a million pounds, to ask to borrow money to buy The Park. 13 banks said no, you’re too young.”
A former guest, a banker from Switzerland, had seen Francis’ potential though and, overlooking his age, gave him the funds he needed to buy the hotel. “When we opened the hotel first in 1980 I’m sure we looked like leprechauns because the average age was 21, we were only kids. Like I was only 22 and here I was, GM of this hotel.”
In 1989 Francis undertook major renovations, doubling the hotel in size which, along with the stunning setting, an elegant 19th century mansion set at the waterside of Kenmare Bay, has helped the hotel has become one of the most acclaimed hotels in Ireland. Though the essence of the hotel is the hospitality that Francis Brennan has practiced with distinction for over 36 years. His little touches maintain a balance between five stars and an intimate cherished home, a home that many guests find themselves coming back to again and again.
“We get a lot of repeat business, because we give very nice service in a formal way, not overly formal. People feel comfortable there, and come from all over the world,” Francis explains. “We have a group that comes 16 times a year. Backroads, an outdoor pursuit company, that are with me for 30 years and we know everything that they want and we always give them a nutrient bar when they arrive on their bikes, to give them a bit of a kick! They love that, and it’s nothing.”
“Another couple from the US, the Rhoddas, have been they have been coming to me for 30 years. Mrs Rhodda loves wine and brings 12 bottles of wine in a box and her husband doesn’t drink so she shares the bottle of wine with my sommelier Lucas, who’s on duty, and she loves that because they discuss the wine, and he is learning too because she brings cutting edge American wines that could be $200 a bottle.”
Loyalty from guests is not the only thing Francis can count on, with several members of staff with him for over 20 years. “John, my barman, is there 33 years. My gardener is there longer than I am because he was employed by the auctioneer to keep the garden nice when it went into liquidation.” Francis says he is careful about who he brings into this close knit family.
“I’m a really funny interviewer. I say ‘put your hands on the table and tell me what’s in your left hand pocket, now empty it’, because that shows an organised mind. Also I look for work ethic, I look for kids that cut grass, deliver papers, babysit, some element of work. A lot of people we don’t take because they don’t fit into our scheme.”
With carefully chosen staff who are scrupulously trained in the art of discreet personal service, the Park Hotel Kenmare has become a haven for the rich and famous. “These people find Kenmare marvellous to get lost in and we protect their privacy hugely,” says Francis, listing Woody Allen, John Travolta, Kathy Bates and John Cusack among previous guests.
The staff are firmly briefed not to spill a word of detail about the Park’s celebrated clientele. “Even if the Pope was staying with us!” says Francis. “Because everything is so instant nowadays. One photograph and the whole country knows in two minutes.”
With such dedicated and reliable staff, and an action packed agenda, you might expect that Francis’ own time at the front desk is over, but Francis insists he can still be found carrying the bags and checking out guests. “I am in Kenmare 90% of the time, if I’m not filming. But we always make sure either my brother John or I are there.”
“I know that when I’m there it’s a better hotel, not that the staff aren’t great, but there are always people in organisations that lift the organisation. We had a girl who worked with us before, Marie, and when she would come in the morning she was like sparkle dust, she lifts the spirits everywhere she goes.” And does he himself have this illustrious sparkle? “I hate to say that now, but I do, I lift people’s spirits,” he says shyly.
That sparkle comes from a genuine enthusiasm and love for his job. “I love my job, I go to work every morning delighted to be there,” Francis says. He is in the office each day for 8am, and then makes sure he greets each member of staff, from managers to wash up boys. “They are very important, because if you don’t have wash up you have nobody! If I finish at 6 o’clock that’s a half day to me, in the hotel I usually don’t finish until half 10 or 11, so finishing at 6? Sure that’s no work at all!”
Francis’ second career began in 2008 and to Francis’ continual surprise, At Your Service has been entertaining the nation ever since. “Every year I think it’s the end and then they ask me again. It gets terrific figures, it can get up to 650,000, even the Late Late Show can get only 450, or 500,000. We bat way above our average for a very simple show.”
“We transcend markets. A 14 year old won’t watch the Late Late unless Rihanna is on it, but our show from 12-14 year olds to granny and everybody in between watches it.”
On camera Francis seems like a natural born entertainer, though he admits that he is not as confident as he comes across. “I didn’t want to do the show at the start and I know you will laugh when I say this, but I am actually very private, I don’t find public speaking easy and I do it all the time – I’d be worried for a week before I do it. I don’t worry about TV, on camera I am fine, but if you asked me to stand up and talk here now I really don’t like doing that. I prefer to sit in the corner nice and quiet.”
“I have a friend of mine chasing me now, a very well known director, I won’t say who, to do my own one man show. He says, ‘I’m telling you it will sell out’ but I said no, I’m not just quite ready for it yet. I think I’ll faint going on stage maybe!”
While Francis Brennan: the one man show is not yet on the cards, the next series of his other hit show Francis Brennan’s Grand Tour begins in July, this time in India. Another new Irish show is in the pipeline and he was awaiting a phone call the very day we sat down to confirm a new international TV opportunity, but Francis insists he will never let his media obligations take over. “I always say I am an hotelier and I do media.”
You never retire in the hotel business, I don’t think I will ever retire and there are more and more demands in TV all the time.
On top of his TV success, Francis has written two bestselling books. His second book It’s The Little Things shares his philosophy: “if you take care of the small things, the big things will be fine I always say”. A personal code for living that has helped Francis build an extremely successful career and a very happy life, leaving a trail of his signature sparkle dust behind him along the way.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after a brief dalliance with law, she completed a Masters degree in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.