In person: Robert Cook, Chief executive - Malmaison, Hotel du Vin

The Malmaison office in London is a cosy affair, with deep carpets, a purple colour scheme and high-brow magazines scattered across expensive tables. CEO Robert Cook is sitting with a coffee on a leather sofa big enough for six, and seems very much at home. "I'd say I have the best job in the hotel industry," he says. "Malmaison is my life. Hotel du Vin is my life. I love my business."

Not many hotel group CEOs have yet to hit 40, but then not many were literally born into the profession. Cook came into the world in the Swallow Palace Hotel in Aberdeenshire, and spent the first 18 years of his life living in room 114, which was not without its perks. "We had a 300-seat ballroom with a wooden floor and my mates used to come and play football," he says, with an accent belying his Highlands roots. "I was really quite a popular kid."

His parents owned and ran the hotel, and there was little doubt in his mind about what he'd end up doing. "Once I found out I was colour blind and couldn't be a pilot, that was it," he laughs. "I loved the whole industry. I did some portering, I helped in the kitchen, the restaurant and the bar. Dad wanted me to work in a bank - he was pretty angry when I put myself into hotel school."

But this self-proclaimed "maverick streak" proved to be a blessing, and despite a habit of picking arguments with lecturers over hotel protocol, he landed a three-year graduate placement at Holiday Inn in London. His knack of impressing the right people at the right time saw this position followed up by an invitation to become conference sales manager at the Balmoral in Edinburgh.

"That was fantastic, and it really helped to put me on the map," he says matter of factly. Successful stints at Glasgow and Manchester followed, before he was cherry-picked to front the new Malmaison in Newcastle. This laid down his long-term affinity to "Mal", which he refers to like a favoured child. However, he still found time for a move to Monaco and a post at David Coulthard's Columbus Hotel before becoming managing director of Columbus and Dakota Hotel Group.

"It was an amazing time," he reflects. "A guy from Aberdeen working for a Formula One driver in Monte Carlo in an edgy boutique hotel with people like Bono popping in - happy days. But then I got a call last year out of the blue from Mal, and that was it."

His remit also includes Hotel du Vin since the October takeover by Malmaison's parent company, a challenge that was met head-on. "The merging of the two cultures has been great," he says. "Hotel du Vin has what I call a great fan base and we're ready to really expand the business. When I took over and met the staff, there was a look in their eyes that said 'We don't just work here, we're disciples, we're believers' and I love that."

And there's no over-stating his determination. "I'm very, very tough on my sales and marketing team," he says. "The power of brands such as ours is the PR we get. The traditional sales function only works in the larger groups."

He's outspoken too when it comes to training. "The industry and the hotel schools need to work closer together - there's a big void between the qualification and the reality. There are pockets of fantastic people in the industry, but it's largely bereft of talent."

Cook's style of leadership will continue to be individual. One of his first initiatives at Malmaison was to pipe Eddie Izzard concerts into toilet cubicles - and his employers will doubtless be delighted to hear his lack of interest in the mass global chains.

"Those people don't think the same way as I think," he says, concluding the interview with just a hint of playfulness. "They're too far gone. I look down a different end of the telescope to them - they wouldn't get me, and I wouldn't get them. We'd probably end up beating each other up." ROBERT ON ...

... his ideal holiday destination

"My wife and I like to find something new and different that no one's talking about, but my absolute favourite place to go is a villa in Umbria that we visit with friends. We eat fantastic local food, I do the wine run and we sit by the pool. It's a lot of fun."

... his perfect meal

"I believe you should get the best food and not bastardise it. I like simple meals - don't give me rosettes of lamb stuffed with this, adorned with that, covered with juniper berries and with helicopter labels hanging out."

... sport

"I'm a football fanatic. I call myself a born-again Geordie and support Newcastle United. The North East is a fantastic place and, by God, that team deserves success. I like rugby too, and Sunday evenings in front of the telly watching golf with a bottle of Rioja."

... his ideal drinking partners

"I'd love to have met Winston Churchill, and Billy Connolly would be a hell of a lot of fun. Nelson Mandela as well, and maybe Peter Kay too - I think he's outstanding. That would be some night out!"

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

2004-present: chief executive, Hotel du Vin and Malmaison

2000-2004: managing director, Columbus and Dakota Hotel Group

1998-2000: regional operations director, Malmaison

1996-1998: general manager, Malmaison Newcastle

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