In the first of a series uncovering the hidden talents of Britain's college managers. Estelle Maxwell meets Eddie McIntyre , once a chef at the Dorchester.
By his own admission Eddie McIntyre is a canny character. A compulsive planner and a gambler who takes calculated risks - he would not be out of place on the stage. He is also a damned good cook. His Sabatier knives flash with the frightening efficiency he employs to run the most financially successful college in the country.
Within minutes he has produced a mouthwatering dish for our lunch: "Supremes stuffed with ricotta cheese and spinach. is that all right?" he asks.
As the cookery demonstration proceeds in the sweltering kitchens of Birmingham College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies, it becomes apparent that while relishing his role as its principal, Eddie McIntyre has lost none of his zest for working with food.
Dressed in spotless whites, the 49-year-old who once wanted to be a professional golfer while working as a chef in the Dorchester Hotel, creates lunch - taking in the needs of the photographer - like a natural performer.
Throughout he explains how he is preparing the chicken breasts - "supremes" - removing them from the carcass with a surgeon's precision, pan frying them in butter, simultaneously making a tomato compote, his conversation liberally sprinkled with an interrogative "Got the idea?" Presenting the finished product within 12 minutes to the photographer he asks: "Is that all right?". When told it looks excellent he dismisses the compliment saying: "If it had taken me that long at the Dorchester I would have got the sack.
"The chef here says he'd give me 8 out of 10 for that - he says it only because it's me. If I were a student he would have given me 6.
"Actually I enjoyed that. It's the first time I've ever cooked anything in the college kitchens since I came here. It beats poring over budgets and contracts. "
Twenty-five years have passed since he left the Dorchester for teacher training - "I wanted to spend more time on the golf course and aimed to be a professional."
Born in Kirkintilloch near Glasgow, where his father worked as a miner and steel worker and his mother a school cook, he has never forgotten his early street survival skills. "You learned how to run or fight."
Food in the McIntyre household was "definitely not exotic"; his mother was a good but plain cook. "Plenty of fresh vegetables, meat, pies and lots of soups. We never ate anything which came from a tin."
After leaving school at 16 with three O-levels - physics, chemistry and arithmetic (he failed maths) - he started working in hotels in Scotland and playing golf in his spare time before moving to Yorkshire and then London.
While in teacher training he supplemented his grant working as a croupier and a bookie's cashier. Shrewd by nature, the experience proved to be one of the most valuable of his working life. "People always want to cheat the bookies and casinos. I learned never to take anything on face value and always to read the fine print."
To illustrate his point he tells of the widely-publicised court case which began in 1993 when Birmingham City Council demanded the return of Pounds 900,000 he placed in a college bank account, something which the authority forbid at the time. "Everyone, including our solicitor, thought we did not have a chance and that it was illegal," he explains with relish. "But under paragraph 11 of document 9210 from the Further Education Funding Council, it was stated that colleges were entitled to open up bank accounts for the benefit of the new corporation.
"Most people thought these accounts were for transitional funding and most colleges had about Pounds 40,000. But it did not say the account should be for transitional money specifically - rather that it should be for the benefit of the corporation.
"So I invoiced Pounds 900,000 from student fees from other local authorities not surprisingly the city council wanted this back. It was the most brilliant but legal scheme I learned it from working in the casino and betting shops. "
He says his life was disrupted for about a year "I was not prepared to accept the council's decision and, backed by my governing body, I launched our legal challenge." It took three years and ended in the High Court case.
Throughout lunch in the college's Brasserie restaurant - one of four highly-profitable outlets open to the public - Mr McIntyre talks frankly and guardedly in equal measure. Happy to talk about his background in general, he resolutely refuses to give details about his salary, while admitting his lifestyle is comfortable.
He set about becoming a college principal when he got his golf handicap down to 1. "It was not good enough to be professional." Today it stands at a creditable 6.
Thirteen years after taking the helm at the college with a BA in sociology and an MSc under his belt, his management style is efficient but definitely not open door. "I have to run the college like a business; tough decisions have to be made and that does not leave much room for democracy. I have a senior management team of six. Apart from them the other members of staff do not see me. It is a policy that everything is directed through line managers."
Though still a member of the lecturers' union NATFHE and once a union branch secretary, he describes his relationship with the organisation since incorporation as "having its fair share of difficulties".
"I remember the miners' strike of 1984 sitting in a pub with the men and asking them why they were still out when it was obvious they could not budge Thatcher," he says. "They said they were loyal to the union. I have never wanted to have other people making decisions for me."
Within the college, where 95 per cent of all staff are on the CEF contracts, he has few illusions about his popularity. "A lot of college principals want to be liked by their staff. But running a college is not a popularity contest or the students suffer.
"I am not paid to be liked, I am paid to do a job and this occasionally entails getting people to do things they might prefer to avoid. If I do the job well we will continue to grow and flourish."
Edited by Ian Nash