Home >Mint-lounge >Features >Hamish Dodds | Selling rock ‘n’ roll to the world

Being Hamish Dodds, president and CEO of Hard Rock, has its advantages. You could be, as he is, a Pink Floyd fan growing up and find yourself with guitarist, lead singer and songwriter Syd Barrett’s guitar hanging on the wall of your office in Orlando in Florida, US. Barrett’s guitar is the Kohinoor diamond, for Dodds at least, of some 80,000 items of rock memorabilia—everything from the lyrics for Imagine handwritten by John Lennon to a glittery bustier worn by Madonna to Michael Jackson’s red jacket, to Mick Jagger’s cricket bat.

The collection was begun by a gift from Eric Clapton, a regular at the first Hard Rock Cafe in London, UK, in the 1970s; he asked the owners to hang his guitar over his bar stool. Clapton’s gift was followed by a guitar from Pete Townshend, of The Who. “Mine’s as good as his," Townshend wrote.

It’s the buccaneering history from which Hard Rock, a sprawling global corporation, still draws its “authenticity". The café was the idea of two Americans, Peter Morton and Isaac Tigrett, who were marooned in London in 1971 and couldn’t find a place to eat a good burger and, like so many homesick emigrants, decided to start a restaurant to fill that gap. It combined a nostalgia for 1950s-style diners and Americana; the logo designed to resemble a Chevrolet hood ornament, with rock ‘n’ roll. London was a serendipitous place to start, the sort of city where Barrett, Clapton and Townshend might hang out. The sort of city where Paul McCartney and Wings might play a gig at the Hard Rock on a whim, as they did in 1973. The sort of city where the café became so popular, Carole King wrote a song about it.

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
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Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Dodds is an unusual chief executive for a brand so showily devoted to rock ‘n’ roll; there is nothing showy or rock ‘n’ roll about him. We meet in the late afternoon, a few hours before India’s latest Hard Rock Cafe, the country’s eighth (the first opened in Worli, Mumbai, in 2006), is inaugurated in Gurgaon, adjoining New Delhi. The café is being prepared for its unveiling, so we sit in a quiet upstairs bar in the airport-sized The Westin Hotel on MG Road, its fleet of sparkling white BMWs lining the expansive drive to the hotel’s entrance.

Wearing a green Nike golf shirt, Dodds is peeved at not being out on the course on a Saturday afternoon. He plays now off a 14 handicap, “proof that I’m not playing enough", and it cannot be denied that a few hours on the driving range is a better way to spend an afternoon than chatting to a journalist about your private life. “I prefer not to focus so much on me," he says, as a preamble to our conversation, while choosing not to order anything from the extensive list of cocktails and bar snacks at his elbow. Promising start.

It’s not that Dodds is the stereotypical dour Scot, he’s phlegmatic and doesn’t find himself that interesting.

He’s wrong. The details of his life are fascinating; it’s just the way he tells them, all shrugs and sotto voce disclaimers. Here, for instance, is Dodds on growing up in Kenya (where he was born 57 years ago) and Tanzania, where his father was a commercial pilot: “It was just something I did at the time and didn’t really think about it, you’ve got your friends, your life, that’s it." He shrugs when I ask him about the shock of moving to school in Inverness, Scotland, at 14, the first time he’d “really set foot" in the UK: “There was nothing I loved about school in Scotland, you just get through it." Okay, well what about college in Aberdeen, at the well-regarded Robert Gordon University, did he enjoy that? “It was cold. Very robust degree programme. I got through it." He gives me an ironic smile, “You can tell I don’t like talking about the personal stuff, not my gig."

What is his gig is business. For all the stuff about being a Floyd fan as a teenager, it wasn’t music that excited Dodds about working for Hard Rock. “It was the brand," he says, “because that’s where my pedigree came from when I was at Pepsi. It was about growing global brands." This is not rousing or slick but it’s true. Executives are excited by business challenges, not by romantic backstories, excited by how to make money rather than the fact of a pair of Lennon’s glasses hanging in a display case.

Dodds worked at PepsiCo for 13 years in a number of senior roles across the world—in West Asia, Latin America and the US. It’s the job that gave him his tolerance for business travel. Even now he spends up to 60% of his time going from airport to hotel to airport.

The business challenge with Hard Rock was to revitalize a brand that had been drifting for years by the time Dodds was hired in 2004 by the UK-based Rank Group, the then owners. “There was a cookie-cutter approach to the brand," he says, each outlet in each city a faint, smudged facsimile of the original. Under Dodds, Hard Rock turned back to its founding idea—celebrating music. He may be resolutely unsentimental about his own Pink Floyd years but he recognizes that “music is everything, particularly live music from a single guy playing a guitar in Pune to Eric Clapton in Dubai next week."

Hard Rock was bought over in 2007 by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, an autonomous group with six reservations and its own elected leaders, raking in billions of dollars in profit from casinos. Gaming now accounts for two-thirds of Hard Rock’s over $4 billion (around 24,400 crore) revenue. “The big gaming markets of tomorrow," Dodds says, “might be Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Philippines. A lot of Indians gamble too but they go off to Singapore and gamble, so the government needs to figure out that they’re losing a potential income source."

Even without casinos, Dodds is bullish about India. “My partners," he says, referring to Jay Singh and Sanjay Mahtani’s JSM Corp., “tell me there’s room to grow. In the US we have 45 restaurants, so having a total of 12 or 13 in India doesn’t seem out of whack."

And with that promise of a Hard Rock in every Indian city hanging in the air, Dodds trudges towards his room. There’s an opening party he has to attend—yet another obligation in yet another city to endure before he can go home.

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