The managing director of Home House on building a community, representing modern London, and the timeless appeal of ‘civilised hedonism’

Interview: Clare Finney

You came to Home House after years in Hong Kong, where you managed a collection of high-profile restaurants. What was the appeal of a private club in London?
When I returned from Hong Kong in 2002, I got involved with a hotel management company, managing country house hotels, primarily as a trouble shooter for those not performing well. One of the hotels I managed to turn around was owned by the owners of Home House. I got their attention and they invited me to take over Home House as managing director, to reposition and rev it up a bit—it had lost its way a little since it first opened and had turned from a fun members’ club into more of a hotel.

I was relieved to get back to London from the countryside. I missed the energy and excitement of a city: after 10 years in Hong Kong, to end up in an old drawing room so quiet you could hear the grandfather clock tick, I felt like I’d died, to be honest. It was a challenge—particularly in the dark ages of 2008-9—but we managed to turn Home House around and make a success of it.

In Hong Kong you were a chef-patron. Before that you were head chef at the Royal Berkshire Hotel in Ascot. What made you decide not to pursue a career as a chef?
Being a chef is not a job, it’s a lifestyle. The hours are long, the pay is poor, it is physically demanding and skilful, and you need to have the right attitude. You need to be calm and resilient in the heat of battle, and you need to want to be there. If you have that, you’ll progress quickly. I got my first head chef job, at the Royal Berkshire, at the age of 24—and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was exciting, and I was becoming quite recognised. Then I got a call from the agency in London, saying they were looking for an English chef to be chef-patron in Hong Kong, and I took it. I fancied having my own restaurant, and with someone else’s money it was worth a try.

I went from there to operations manager to managing director—and by that point, it was more about business and people management than cooking. It was a steep learning curve, and a lot of fun, and it really prepared me for where I am now. By the time I got here, I had been involved in restaurants, bars, hotels, finance and business—everything that Home House is. That added appeal of a membership club as opposed to a freestanding business, however, is that you are building a community. The members aren’t just your customers, they are your friends.

London has such a huge range of quality bars and restaurants. Why do you think private members’ clubs still have such appeal?
We live in a transient world, in a big city in which no one really meets new people any more. The reason I think members’ clubs have grown in popularity is that they build communities and friendship groups. If you join a club, you know you will meet likeminded people and see them frequently enough to want to invest in a conversation with them. If you meet someone in a bar, you make this subconscious decision that you don’t need to try and get to know them as you will never see them again. It’s a bit like the local pub—or what the local pub used to be. Over time, you build these friendships and they become an extension of your family.

The staff, too, know the members, and they don’t come with a standard operating procedure, like hotel or bar staff do. They behave as they would if they were welcoming you as a friend. If you call yourself a members’ club and you just behave like an expensive bar or restaurant, you never create that sense of community. Your members might as well just go to a bar. That community is what we work hard for here, and I think our members recognise that. I’d say of Home House that the more you go, the more it becomes an extension of your own home.

What distinguishes Home House from other clubs?
The main thing when Home House first opened was the lack of rules. It’s a great leveller. There is no dress code, beyond the open-ended ‘Home House discourages nudity’ rule, and the only thing we really ask is that your behaviour is not offensive to others—entertaining behaviour is totally fine. We live in a society so bound by rules—we don’t need any more. That was the view of the original main investor, who when Home House first became a members’ club told the British director at the time: “I don’t want any stuffy British rules.” Coming from Australia, where there is no hierarchy of working class and aristocracy, he wanted to create a culture in which no one had to pretend to be anything other than who they were. That, and the sense of community we have cultivated here through events and workshops and so on, really marks us out. That is something I regularly hear. 

How have these clubs evolved since the days of male-only dominions full of cigar smoke?
The days when members’ clubs were full of old men in wing-backed chairs falling asleep after their lunch are mythology now, really. We have evolved with how society in London has evolved. Women are here on their own terms, as successful entrepreneurs, business leaders and people who want to socialise. We have a balanced mix in terms of the sexes, and a fair representation of London and society today. No one person is more important than anyone else.

Who, if anyone, is the Home House ‘type’?
We don’t have a type, or a particular industry sector, or a particular age group. We like to have some colourful characters, of course—if you have a room full of grey suits, a theatrical, artistic type will bring some colour and panache to the proceedings—but we are a broad church. We don’t want to target any career. We have people of all ages, from 21 to 81, with the average age being 45. It’s like the perfect wedding, with several generations of people. That leads to some lovely rich discoveries—across ages and across sectors, where each person discovers something they didn’t know and forges a friendship. I don’t think you get that in those clubs that have chosen to focus on a certain type of person, and I think it adds to our family feel.

You have in the past described Home House as facilitating ‘civilised hedonism’. What do you mean by that, and how do you go about facilitating it?
Look, everyone loves a bit of self-indulgence—and I think it is important every so often. Sometimes it is nice to say, “You know what, I’m not going to stop. I am having fun.” Sometimes it takes a bit of alcohol to create those ridiculous conversations. Our view is that if it is legal and not offending anybody, crack on. This house was built by a hedonistic lady, in her sixties. She was twice widowed and very rich, and she wanted to build a palladium where she could entertain royalty and the glitterati of society. She’d take musicians in off the street to entertain her guests—not something that was considered the ‘done’ thing in that time—and she had an eye for the younger gentleman. She even built a secret staircase up to her boudoir. We are the custodians here, and we want to use this house for the purpose for which she built it—to follow on in her example.

What inspired Home Grown, your new venture on Great Cumberland Place?
In the past few years, we have seen some big changes in the way business is done, with more and more meetings and connections taking place informally, in places like Home House. We saw an opportunity to open a club specifically for entrepreneurs; to provide a space where they can unashamedly talk business and network, and share their vulnerabilities in a way they might not be able to in their own company. Of course, this being Marylebone, it is not going to be about young start-ups. They have their incubators in Shoreditch. These are high-growth entrepreneurs who are already making money off their own businesses, together with investors and service providers. We want to create a community of likeminded people who can share the issues and concerns that they face as entrepreneurs. Underpinning this will be a really well-chosen calendar of events, all about facilitating business growth and access to markets, investors, infrastructure and so on. 

What will be on offer at Home Grown, as distinct to Home House?
Home House is all about fun and socialising. People do come and have meetings here, but we’re focused on the social side. Home Grown is all about business and entrepreneurship and helping people on that journey. The DNA will be similar to that of Home House, in terms of creating a laid-back, interesting environment, and the interaction between staff and members will be the same. The staff will know what you do and will be well placed to make introductions, if you are in a similar sector or have similar questions. Essentially, we are creating a physical space to facilitate what is going on anyway at Home House: the pitching, the introductions, the discussions, which all happen subliminally here. We expect a few people to be members of both, but you need to be right for the community. The value of Home Grown will be in the connections and the events, not just as somewhere to go for a meeting.