Siblings: Francis & John Brennan

 

Francis Brennan took on the Park Hotel in Kenmare, Co Kerry in 1980, in conjunction with a Swiss consortium and, taking ownership six years later, had turned a neglected property overlooking the Beara estuary into a five-star hotel with a distinctly Irish character, wonderful food and long-serving staff.

He remained resolute that it would not become a multi-functional hotel, but one where service - and peace and quiet - are optimum ("If you are preoccupied with keeping the right brides with the right grooms all day, it definitely detracts from the other guests' experience.")

There were only five or so five-star hotels in Ireland at the time; now there are 18 and four of those are within a 16-mile radius of the Park. Against such competition and a changing touristic climate, his brother John was given the task in 2002 of adding Sámas, a €5 million spa to the hotel, which was recently named as one of Conde Nast Traveller's top 10 European resorts.

The Brennan brothers, who both talk a mile a minute, are 11 years apart. They are the eldest and youngest of five children of a former grocer from Stepaside, Co Dublin. The family moved to their mother's homeplace in Sligo when their father was diagnosed with emphysema.

FRANCIS
I am the brother who writes all the cheques.

There is quite a substantial difference in age between us - 11 years. John was nine or so when I finished college, so I never really knew him well in those years, and then mum and dad moved with him to Sligo. My father was an invalid, with emphysema, so it was difficult enough.

Years later John was working in the hotel business in Sligo as a manager. There was talk about investing in a hotel as an asset, but you know, assets don't mean anything, money doesn't mean anything. I'm not interested in cars or yachts or planes. Instead, he came down to me in 1990/91, although it wasn't as easy as that. His wife, Gwen, is from Sligo and you couldn't be sure she'd take to Kerry - you have to look out for all those things. Anyway, the first night Gwen arrived there was a ferocious row in a local restaurant and it was the talk of the place, and I thought, Gwen won't want to come here. But come they did - and it was the best thing that ever happened. Their children, Adam and Ruth, are now seven and five and they are at the Black Valley School. Everyone in the country should have a school like that for their children.

John has done a fantastic job. The spa was his brainchild. I had looked at the idea of having a medical spa - with a doctor here all the time - and was well down the road with a Swiss company, but after a lot of discussion about treatments with syringes and so on, I just couldn't do it. We had to look at the profile of our guests. Our ideal guest had always been the 55-year-old with a good book, but 20 years later they were all getting on in years, so it was time for a change! John had a file the width of 55 phone books full of ideas. We knew the day we met Susan Harmsworth, the founder of Espa, that it was the right collaboration. She has designed spas in exotic locations all around the world. She agreed to come to Kenmare, and within hours of our meeting, she and John agreed on a plan. And then he set to work with Michelle Sweeney of Dublin architects, Oppermann Associates.

My plan is to retire at 55 - I will be out of the Park in five years' time. I ran a good show and I think I was a good employer, even though I am a nightmare to work with because I don't really like change and I put myself and everyone under very exacting standards. For me, a board meeting means looking in the mirror - I guess that makes me a despot, but I don't think they mind. John has made a great success of the spa and I am thrilled for him - I always mean to say it and I haven't said it yet ...

JOHN

Francis is hugely independent, and the Park is his baby. It's what he is all about. For 16 hours a day for the past 24 years, it's what he has done. He has always been absolutely clear about what he wants it to be. The first week or two after I arrived, he ate the head off me - if you survive a year, you're good for life. You'll be able to work the world over. If you deliver, there is no one better, which is why we've people who have been working in the hotel for 18 years.

He gave me total freedom to develop the spa and that was a huge vote of confidence. It helped me greatly. Now we have a product to sell, it adds a new dimension to the property. We work wonderfully together, even if we pull in different directions from time to time. There are no tiers, no secretaries. We run our lives ourselves.

As brothers, it has been great for us both. I moved to a new part of the country and have a life that I would not have had without him. He now has family nearby, a house to call to for dinner a couple of nights a week, and our children adore him. He has always been generous to all the family - I remember him getting special gadgets for my father when he was ill. He took all his nieces and nephews to Orlando for two weeks. His bags are always full of things for them when he returns from his travels.

It will be interesting to see what he does next. If, like Feargal Quinn, he gets a good offer - if the deal is right - he could even sell. It is 100 per cent his. Travel is one of his great passions and he has spent the past 24 years on the road marketing the Park, so he knows people all over the world. Not long ago, he chaired the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group. But he also likes nothing better than to go to the cinema or watch a movie at home by the fire. I remember a night when a group of hoteliers had gone to the famous French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley and he went to the pictures instead. He doesn't drink - never has - so a night like that wouldn't be his scene. He is used to eating dinner at his desk.

He is a superb friend, a great storyteller. He goes on the Diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes every year and helps in the kitchen. He'd never want anyone to miss Mass on account of work. He is very conscious of the vulnerability of young staff, away from home for the first time, being in an environment with 25 others, so the training and supervision is very rigorous.

He's hugely good natured and few things get him down. You have to watch out when he gets back from his trips abroad, though. If there is a lampshade broken in one of the 46 rooms, he'll be sure to spot it right away. It takes him a while to settle back. Drives us all mad. I try to take the day off.

In conversation with Patsey Murphy