SOME will quote you Clausewitz, or Sun Tzu on the Art of War. Others will talk about drive, focus and the rest of the MBA lexicon. The certain spark which lets some reach the top of the tree while others thrash about in the lower branches comes in many guises.

In the case of Norman Springford, it appears to be quite simple - fun.

In a career which ranged from chasing tax-dodging sailors in Leith Docks, through hobnobbing with the Kirov Ballet and Status Quo in his own theatre, to owning one of Scotland's freshest portfolio of hotels, there has been one constant. If it wasn't fun, he didn't do it.

The fact that the chairman of Apex Hotels was still enjoying himself was evident as he stumbled over stacked paintings and photographs in his tiny office in the flagship Apex in Edinburgh's Grassmarket.

''Sorry about this,'' he said. ''We're just arranging a new exhibition and taking down the last one. These photographs are excellent, but don't even look at that Kandinsky - it's Ikea art.''

Art is at the heart of the Apex offering. Its public spaces are employed as art galleries, Richard de Marco's unique collection of Festival photographs adorn the bedrooms, and the hotels have hosted more than 400 theatre and jazz performances. Graduate students and foreign artists get their own exhibitions, and the hotels commission their own installations.

But it was not a primary topic at home when Springford was growing up in Leith. His mother worked in the old Co-op to support the family after Springford's father died. He won glittering grades at the local schools but had to watch as his friends went off to a university education his family could not afford.

''I joined the Inland Revenue,'' he said, '' and was immediately sent to the collection branch. I was out chapping doors trying to get people to pay their tax, and I remember being sent down to Leith to chase up sailors who owed the Revenue money. It was fun, and I didn't think about the danger.''

He stuck the Inspector's office for only a short while before deciding it was no way to become rich, and signed up with an accounting firm.

He became certified through a correspondence course, and began to take an interest in pub liquidations, becoming involved in running some of them. ''I have always worn more than one hat, and I enjoyed being an accountant on one hand and a publican on the other.''

Springford set up on his own and, by the time he started Apex Hotels in 1996, had a portfolio of 25 pubs.

Along the road, he heard that the council-run Edinburgh Playhouse, the largest theatre in the city, was up for sale and decided that would be ''fun'' too.

Fun it may have been, but it demanded 20-hour days to, as he put it, ''inject an element of commercial sense'' into it.

He said: ''We started with small things such as, instead of letting the balcony people in the front door, we routed them up a side stair where they had to pass a bar. And there were logistical nightmares, such as chasing the Kirov Ballet audience out so that we could stage a Status Quo concert the same night. Then there was a disco until 3am.''

Springford called this his ''selfish period'', when there was a choice between work and family, and he chose work.

It couldn't last, and after three years he sold out of the theatre at ''a small profit''.

He gave up accountancy in 1991 - his partner gave him a plastic watch - and concentrated on building the pub portfolio, funding each acquisition from his own resources.

In 1996 he was attracted by the potential of the old Heriot-Watt Mountbatten College in the noisy Grassmarket and, because he thought hotels would be fun as well, sold out of the pubs and took the gamble of buying the building without planning permission.

''The plan was to run it like a Travelodge,'' said Springford, ''and we did for a while. But then I missed out on an opportunity to buy a chain of hotels and that was the catalyst to turn Apex into something different.''

The ''something different'' was a smart, sophisticated, European-style hotel, with contemporary styling and design.

It was followed by the Apex City, in the old Uberior House in the Grassmarket - a (pounds) 12m investment - and the Apex European in Haymarket. Apex City Quay has just opened in Dundee.

The group posted turnover of (pounds) 15m in the year to April, with Ebidta profits of (pounds) 5m. Springford is eyeing sites in Aberdeen and Newcastle, but is biding his time on Glasgow, which he feels is over-bedded at the moment.

He has absolutely no plans to retire, but he is spending more time with his other passion, as director of Partick Thistle football club.

Why Thistle? ''If you support an Edinburgh team, you alienate one half of the city or the other. And besides, Thistle are fun.''

fact file

Best moment: Seeing Partick Thistle regain promotion to the Premier League in 2002.

Worst moment: Seeing Partick Thistle dropping down the divisions like a lead balloon a few years ago.

What drives you?: A desire to take on fresh challenges and to see the business grow - maybe it's just called greed.

What do you drive?: The family will say that I drive them mad. As for me, it's a Mercedes - a lazy man's car. I sit there like a cabbage and it does all the work for me.

Favourite book: Jeffrey Archer's As The Crow Flies. I read it every few months and I know the story backwards.

What music are you listening to just now?: I'm tempted to reply Perry Como to keep up appearances - but I'm playing Avril Lavigne.

As a child what did you want to be?: I can't remember.

Greatest achievement: I haven't really achieved anything of note. As an accountant, I need to maintain the stereotype of being boring and uninteresting.

Biggest disappointment: None really - I'm a contented wee soul.