A CITY entrepreneur who sold up just over a year ago has returned to the Capital’s pub, hotel and leisure sector and wants to create an Oran Mor-style event space in the centre of Edinburgh.
Billy Lowe – who has owned 36 Edinburgh bars in the course of his career – had decided to take a break and try other things, but the buzz of the bar business lured him back sooner than he had expected.
He sold the Le Monde and Angels Share hotels in 2015, announcing he loved the industry but wanted to take stock before making his next move.
Over the next 12 months he played golf, saw his beloved Hibs win the Scottish Cup, walked his two lhasa apso dogs, spent time with his family and even co-wrote a successful play.
But now he is back – and he has big plans.
Mr Lowe, 57, has bought the Links Hotel at Bruntsfield and Malones Irish bar in Forrest Road, which has been renamed McSorley’s.
He intends to refurbish both and believes McSorley’s could become Edinburgh’s answer to Glasgow’s popular Oran Mor.
“We want to make it like a cultural quarter in the heart of Edinburgh,” he said.
“Because it’s such a big venue we can bring some theatre to it – we can have shows, comedians, as well as live music.”
He also plans to transform and rebrand the Links Hotel at a cost of over £1 million and buy other properties in the Capital too.
Mr Lowe, who was brought up in the Inch, started work as a printer with Morrison & Gibb, but worked part-time in a pub and got a taste for the trade.
For five years he was manager of the Centre Court pub in Colinton Road, then got his own bar, Sneaky Pete’s in Cowgate in 1985.
Over the next 12 years he built up a chain of 16 pubs in and around Edinburgh before selling them all in 1997.
“I’ve sold out three times in my career – by coincidence it was every nine years – in 1997, 2006 and then 2015.
“This last time I got an offer I couldn’t refuse from a London company to sell Le Monde and Angel’s Share – I loved those businesses, but I decided I would take that opportunity to have a bit of time and get involved in my other interests, travelling and some property things.”
But he said after a few months he realised he was missing the business life.
And it was chatting to his four adult children – Hannah, 28, Billy junior, 26, Lucy, 24, and David, 21 – that prompted him to stage his comeback.
“My kids were all on a night out and they told me where they had started and finished – and out of the six places they went to, five of them I had previously owned. They met in Maggie Dickson’s, went to Biddy Mulligans, walked up to Espionage, went into Frankenstein. They didn’t even realise I used to own some of them.
“I decided I’d look at buying businesses with potential, but this time I’d buy with a view that I’m not going to sell.”
He bought the Links Hotel in July last year and the revamp is due to start at the end of next month.
“It’s got 22 bedrooms but I’m turning them into suites and fully-serviced apartments above the hotel and we’re going to put in a large gastro pub, where the emphasis is going to be on good quality food.”
The refurbishment of the former Malones bar will be in the summer. “This is the third time I’ve owned it,” he said. “But it was bought from a company that owns the Malones group and I had to change the name withing three months of purchase.
“We’re doing a significant refurb, but not till July. In the interim we’ve changed the name – almost like a holding name – to McSorley’s.”
He is enthusiastic about his ambition to turn the Forrest Road pub into an Oran Mor-style venue.
“Because we’ve got accommodation at the Links we’ll be able to bring different acts, put a bit of theatre in it, make it a really unique venue – not just for the four weeks of the Festival. We want to have it 52 weeks of the year.
“After my involvement with Le Monde and having the Dirty Martini bar, I’ve a real taste for doing the theatre and bringing live acts like Curtis Stigers, Horse and Ian Shaw. We got some of the really big acts there and we want to do the same thing with McSorley’s.
“Both McSorley’s and the Links will work with bringing in great jazz and blues artists to both venues.”
He also wants McSorley’s to be a successful sports bar. “We’ve just put two 20ft screens in there – two of the biggest sports screens anywhere in the country.”
He said they would show the Six Nations, rugby, football and boxing, but also sporting events that a lot of other bars might not. “We’ve got every single sports channel available to us,” he said.
He has named his latest business Caledonia, following the Scottish theme set by his previous ventures, Thistle Inns and Saltire Taverns.
“Once we get these two [the Links Hotel and McSorley’s] established over the next six months we will be looking to add to our portfolio and we’re currently looking at one live theatre venue.
“This time it’s a long-term project, it’s a family project.”
But he is clear he is not going to expand beyond the Capital. “I love Edinburgh – we’re not looking at Glasgow; I’ve had bars in Glasgow and Aberdeen in the past, but I’m just going with Edinburgh.
“This is such a vibrant city, there’s always lots going on for both locals and tourists alike.”
Mr Lowe has three of his four children working with him in his latest venture.
Billy junior is mainly in charge of running the bars, Lucy focuses on marketing and business development and David looks after the accommodation side of the business.
Mr Lowe said: “I’m going to build up what I hope will be iconic institutions over the next five to ten years and enjoy working alongside my family if they want to continue in the trade. If not, I’m cool with that as well.”