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‘The brand is all about people’

Published on Friday, 16 Mar 2012
Brian Williams
Managing director, Swire Hotels
Photo: Nora Tam

A veteran of the hospitality sector in Asia, Brian Williams helped set up Swire Hotels in 2006 as a new venture under the parent group’s property arm. As managing director, he has seen the company establish a firm presence in Hong Kong’s luxury and high-end business markets with The Upper House and East. With another property opening in Beijing later this year, and other projects in the pipeline, he stresses the need for innovation and high-quality staff.

What does it take to develop a hotel brand?
It is an evolution that starts with finding your site and building the physical product. You then have to understand that the brand is all about people – not bricks and mortar.

The focus must be on defining your culture and people philosophy, and executing these to the highest degree of consistency.

There are many thousand constituent parts, so the management team must share a vision and keep looking over their shoulders to make sure they haven’t missed anything.

What provided the initial impetus?
When formed, the company had two specific targets. One was to build hotels we would manage and operate to a high degree of profitability. The other was to reinforce, from an asset standpoint, the group’s existing mixed-use developments.

For example, in planning East in Taikoo Shing, we saw that a significant number of office tenants wanted a quality business hotel in the vicinity.

Will this remain the pattern for future expansion?
To date, we have been an owner and developer and operator, and have grown as the property group has expanded. This requires significant levels of capital so you need a very clear strategy.

There may come a time when we will consider working with other developers and operators, which is a model often used once the business has stabilised.

Where do you find ideas for improvements?
We learn a lot from architects, designers, and independent restaurateurs, who run their own businesses with passion and excellence. And we look for examples of special levels of personalised service. For instance, I remember seeing staff at a supermarket in Portugal helping shoppers load their cars – it was something extra and different.

Also, it is important to learn from your employees and to think about how the technology used in other industries can be employed in our business.

Are you a hands-on type of manager?
I do find myself involved in the details, depending on what I think needs my attention.
It might be one hotel or one area of service. I’m always looking for ways to bring down our operating costs, without affecting quality standards, and to increase revenue and market share on a day-to-day basis.

Overall, though, I’m fortunate to have a very talented management group who can take responsibility without daily supervision. This allows me to concentrate on three areas – developing our business to make it more profitable, extracting more value from our real estate, and ensuring shareholders are happy.

What can keep you awake at night? 
I worry about every aspect of the business – because it’s my job to. Paramount for me is the health and safety of customers and staff.

Also, market conditions and even the fundamentals may change in major markets, so it is a matter of making sure you’ve done everything and that everyone knows what is expected of them, especially during the countdown to opening a new hotel. But you can only live with what you’ve got today and not worry too much about tomorrow.

What do you notice about the latest generation of recruits?   
It is marvellous having enthusiastic, interesting young people joining our organisation and industry. Sometimes, though, we have to help them to understand about patience. Learning a business, building a career, and making you feel part of things takes time, but we all come to realise that over the years.

How did you originally get into the hotel sector?
When I was 16 and still studying in the UK, like a lot people, I got part-time jobs in hotels. I found it was an environment I enjoyed enormously – fast-paced, not deskbound, WITH a sense of teamwork and, perhaps, a chance to travel the world. So I applied to a couple of international companies with management training programmes and got a first job as a cook in a hotel in Paris. That led to different roles in Dubai, Malaysia and Hong Kong.

If possible, what facet of modern business would you change?
It won’t happen, but I’d like to find a way to make e-mail disappear forever. I often ask myself, did I join this industry to be a typist?

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