Career Advice Successful High flyers’ story

Breaking through the borders

Published on Friday, 27 Jul 2012

Peter Henley, president and CEO of the Onyx Hospitality Group, came to Hong Kong in the 1990s as a lawyer, but left as something rather different. Born in Venezuela and educated in England from the age of seven, he spent the ’90s working for the Holiday Inn in Hong Kong. He started as one of the company’s in-house lawyers, but over time shifted into its development department, becoming what he calls a “development guy”.

Driven by an ambition to become a dotcom billionaire, he left the hotel sector to study an MBA and became an entrepreneur at the age of 40. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out. Returning to the hotel industry, he joined Raffles Holdings in Singapore, before moving to Morgan Stanley in London to become an investment banker.

In 2008 he was appointed CEO of Onyx with one mission: to take the business to the next level. He explains how in 10 years he plans to turn the Thailand-based company into one of the leading hospitality providers in Asia-Pacific.

What is your mission with Onyx?
Onyx is a privately held company that has been owned by a Thai family for 40 years. For 35 of those years it had the same managing director [Kurt Rufli] and had built up an excellent reputation in Thailand for running very good hotels.

In 2008 I was brought in with a single brief by the family: to take the business to the next level. I spent three months figuring out what the business was right then, and the next five months putting together a plan. The plan was to grow the business from being a Thai-only, single-brand [Amari] company, to become a leading Asian hospitality provider by 2018. We are to grow from a portfolio of 11 properties, all in Thailand, to having 51 properties in nine different countries in the Asia-Pacific region within 10 years.

How will you fulfil the plan?
We need to get five things right. We need to have the right brands; the right properties in the right locations; the right operational standards; the right culture; and the right financial and legal corporate governance. What we have been doing for the last four years is putting in place the building blocks – the people, the systems, the offices and the organisational capability. We are now ready to launch new brands from the Onyx portfolio outside Thailand.

In fact, we now have 32 properties and 10 more will be opening in the next 18 months or so. As I’m ahead of schedule we may end up with 81 properties by 2018.

What is the greatest challenge?
It has been the “people” part. An old instructor of mine used to say: “It’s the people who make the difference in this business.” It truly is and I really live by that. To me, it [the plan] can only be done through the right people. So we have changed a lot of people and brought in a whole lot of new ones with more international skills.

The challenge was blending the new staff with people who had been here for a long time, as well as the foreigners with the locals, and head office with the hotels. Trying to meld all that together has been the most challenging part, but it is also a rewarding part.

As a leader with a legal background, are you very strict on rules?
I am much more like an inclusive leader. I believe very firmly in trying to create a collegial, family-type environment where people are all making a contribution. Ultimately I have to make the final decisions but I want to get other people’s opinions, to use their expertise. But then equally I try to ensure that we don’t get carried away with discussions – you still have to deliver. So it’s about progress by discussion, but implementation by decision.

I believe that’s the way to get the best out of people in the organisation. It’s difficult of course, particularly if you’ve got people from different cultures, but I firmly believe that this results in the best output.

What is a typical day like for you?
I am an early starter. When I’m in Bangkok I go to the gym at 6.30am for an hour, three times a week. I have Thai lessons on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 7.30am. I try to get those two things done in the morning while I’m fresh.

Apart from that, I don’t really have a typical day. Mostly I’m involved with meetings. I will go out for formal lunches twice a week, dinner three times a week, talking to investors, owners, shareholders, whatever it might be. I’m probably in Bangkok two weeks in every four, and then the other two I am travelling.

What is your favourite city?
It’s Hong Kong for me. That particular time [working in Hong Kong in the early 1990s] was the most enjoyable and rewarding for me, both personally and professionally. I came here as an in-house lawyer [for Holiday Inn] and I changed into a development guy. I really enjoyed that transition. It was just an enjoyable time – great work, good people I worked with, a good company. That’s why I’m very proud that Onyx’s first hotel outside of Thailand will be here in Hong Kong.

What are your hobbies?
I’m a big watcher of sports, all types. I play golf when I have time. I’m also a big movie watcher. Right now I also read a lot of 15th-century English history which I find very interesting.