The Arc Of A Hotelier: The Life & Times of Ralph Porciani

It was nothing more than a simple plan. A simple plan struck after 30 years of working in five star kitchens, and 10 years of being in various senior roles at Turnberry. Having talked the plan through with his wife, Sally, it was to be their reward for all the hard work. A relatively straightforward idea and yet, neither had bargained on the existential randomness of the everyday. Or, indeed, the Trump Organisation.

“I was leaving here in June or July 2014,” Ralph Porciani, General Manager of Trump Turnberry told Ayrshire Magazine candidly. “My plan was to move away and go and live abroad. (But), the minute Mr Trump came in and asked me to stay there were two things I thought about. I would be really annoyed if I left and came back and Turnberry had had all that investment, and I hadn’t been involved. As a family, we would have kept Ayrshire as our base and we were planning to keep our house in Ayr. How many people get the opportunity, not just to become general manager at Turnberry, but especially at a time when the Trump Organisation are doing great things with it? It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Porciani is talking about the phenomenal £200m investment the Trump Organisation is ploughing into their Ayrshire base at Turnberry. Upgrading buildings and property around the golf resort, while bringing much needed work to the area and boosting the local economy.

The general manager is not claiming, of course, that everything required for such a grand refurbishment has been sourced locally. But, the resort is, nevertheless, essential to the economic well-being of the area and employment opportunities available in Ayrshire.

“You can’t build something like this and pretend that you are buying everything local,” he says about their approach to the changes. “There are things that we need that cannot, and are not, made locally. However, as much as possible the first port of contact to buy is from a local supplier.”

He tells us of his desire for the operation to be community orientated, of being friends with Bill Costley, and how one of Ayrshire’s best known hotel owners often visits and the two of them compare notes and talk business. The uniforms, he tells us, were all made by Kylemark, a local Ayrshire company and the Trump’s themselves have been impressed by the work of Prestwick-born artist Craig Campbell.

“These are amazing paintings,” Porciani says of Craig Campbell’s work. “There was a lovely lighthouse painting in the shop and Eric Trump walked in one day and fell in love with it. We actually purchased it off Craig and we are having 40 to 60 copies reproduced to put into the rooms that can take a big painting.” Having made the decision to stay, Porciani now takes pride in the fact that it is he, as general manager, who has overseen this time of tremendous change and investment in the South Ayrshire business.

“Far too much investment if you ask me,” Ralph Porciani laughs and his eyes twinkle. “Because I’ve got to get a return on the investment! I am joking, it’s brilliant! Outside of London the level of investment the Trump Organisation has put into Turnberry is unprecedented.”

In a relatively short space of time the Trump Organisation, with the help of their general manager, have revolutionised the Turnberry site and its environs, persuading Porciani, in the process, to shelve his travelling plans, stay, and work with them.

“When this project is complete in 2017, we will have finished three golf courses, the lighthouse, the academy, the lodges, the hotel and the spa, all being upgraded. It really is staggering,” he explains. “The only way you can do that is with an owner with that passion and vision. The beauty of the Trump Organisation (is that) they’ve got the knowhow; they’ve got the finance behind them. Our plan here is to make Trump Turnberry a sustainable, standalone business through not only the fabulous new product but through the delivery of service excellence. We will do that by making it the number one golf resort in Europe. As such a big employer, as we are in the area, it is important that we can stand on our own.”

As Porciani surveys this burgeoning empire on Ayrshire’s coast, its refurbishment and development, he also realises that this is some considerable distance from where he started, and his early teenage plans.

At a tender 16, he was already more than capable of running the family fish and chip business, and thought this was what he might do when he finished school. His father, he was quick to learn, had other ideas.

“Getting into hotels was kind of by default,” Porciani admitted. “He (his father) sent me off to hotel school to study hotels because he wanted me to get qualifications… but he didn’t want me going into the fish and chip game because he thought it was too hard a life, too many hours. Then he encouraged me into hotels, which is probably double the hours! The very first day I went into the kitchen and put on a chef’s jacket there was something about it I liked, and I thought… you can specialise in different areas of the hotel, well I’ll focus on the culinary aspects of this industry. I ended up doing it for 30 years.”

Dogged, throughout a successful career, by the hounds of fate playing havoc with his plans, the young Porciani complied with his father’s wishes and started out at Clydebank Technical College. From here he progressed to Glasgow College of Food Technology.

His studies complete, the young hotelier started to apply for employment and landed his first job, an exciting, somewhat exotic gig on a cruise ship sailing out of Miami. With three months to kill before starting his new contract, a restless Porciani travelled to London and another simple plan was torn up.

“I just loved London,” Porciani admitted. “I ended up not going to Miami… I chose London. I did that because London, in the early 80’s, was becoming the right place for food, even the world capital of food in many respects. I ended up in London working around five star hotels in central London. I always said I was a hotelier, I never once said to someone I am a chef because I always knew I would go back to do what I set out to do!”

Situated on one of the most stunning coastlines in Scotland, if not the UK, Ralph Porciani must pinch himself every time he comes to work. Even a man who has worked for the best five star hotels in London, in England and in Scotland, and worked with the best chefs and hoteliers in the business, must wonder at Ayrshire’s natural beauty. So what was so special about the man he decided to stay and work for?

“I do like what they do,” Porciani told me thoughtfully. “I enjoy working with the type of product they are going to give us. I think it suits the hotel. I’ve always wanted the best for the hotel. When Mr Trump comes here he’s got this thing about making you feel like you’re the best at what you do. I think, obviously Mr Trump was looking on me and thinking, ‘he’s the right kind of guy to lead Trump Turnberry’.”

The life and times of Trump Turnberry’s general manager Ralph Porciani, is a lesson for us all about our working lives. A certain unforeseen randomness that can appear from nowhere and change the best thought out plans overnight.

To run the family business, to work for a cruise ship out of Miami, to go travelling, were plans abandoned like sand shifted on a desert wind. That, as Ralph Porciani has discovered, need not necessarily be a bad a thing. A change of plan can often offer new opportunities, the chance to regroup and, in fact, restructure ever changing and metaphoric sand dunes, as new directions emerge.

“I’ve been lucky as well,” Porciani says with some finality and humility. “I think in any industry, especially in hospitality, if you work really, really hard and you work really smart and you align yourself with your bosses, and what they are trying to do, then you will be successful. One of the key things is you’ve got to be adaptable to change. For example, we are now on our third owner in the last ten years, although I would say this owner is in it for the long haul.”

As the sun goes down on this beautiful corner of Ayrshire at Turnberry, Ralph Porciani is left to ponder a career and a life that has not gone exactly to plan. It has been better than that.

Written By, Sergio Burns
Photography, ©KSG Photography