Room for more

With over 35 years of experience in the hospitality industry, Selim El Zyr, president and CEO of Rotana hotels is one of the region’s most admired chief executives. James Bennett unlocks the door on why, as the head of one of the fastest growing businesses in the Middle East, he is unable to leave the business he started

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By  James Bennett Published  May 11, 2006

|~||~||~|Walk into any random Rotana hotel property and speak to any random member of staff, from porter to general manager, and the overriding majority will give you a bright smile in return and proudly proclaim in a purposefully loud voice that they have met ‘Mr El Zyr’. Selim El Zyr, president, co-founder and CEO of Rotana Hotels, is one of the most respected chief executives in the region, and for good measure. Throughout his dedicated 36-year career in the hospitality industry he has forged a hugely successful and ever-expanding hotel empire in just under 15 years, and is leading the charge at the helm of one of the fastest growing companies in the Middle East. The problem, as he freely admits, is that he just can’t let go. “I find it very, very hard to keep away. After so many years you become an addict to operations and just cutting it off after all those years is not easy. I cannot stop myself telling someone to do something to correct the situation, but if I can wait then I will. There are generally three or four people who are there to give instructions so I cannot supersede them, unless I see something they can’t. But my work is a pleasure,” he says with slight disappointment, imagining the day when he ‘has to’ retire and not be able to enter a hotel lobby through the traditional revolving doors, greet his staff and oversee the running of his empire. As soon as he mentions the word retirement, however, he is clearly anxious that the day will come all too soon, but if you listen carefully, the date and time continually change and contradictions continuously slip into the conversation. “My mandate during my time in this position is linked with time, I want to open as many hotels as possible but my mandate is also how long can I keep on working, then in a couple of years I will take it easy. “I hope I don’t have more than two years left. When I feel ready I will leave.” Meanwhile, his public relations manager interrupts the interview to explain that El Zyr has been “repeating the same words for over 20 years”. Even El Zyr can’t convince himself it’ll soon be time to go. “Work for me is like taking a day off. Of course I get tired and want to take a break, but during the day I cannot stop thinking about work, not that I am one of those people who cannot have a break from work, I can go on holiday for ten days but in my subconscious things are still at work.” Although El Zyr says he is able to switch off, you can tell that wherever he is in the day and whatever he is doing, there is always part of him that is attached to his hotels – and 99% of it is just plain ‘fun’, he says. “I have fun in my life doing my job, I have fun in operations and have fun as much as I can – everywhere in everything I do there is part of it that can be a pleasure and enjoyment.” Ever since becoming fascinated with the industry after seeing his friend’s father work in a hotel in the 1960s, El Zyr has mixed a careful blend of devotion, passion and patience with a heaped spoonful of solid business acumen. From graduating from the Ecole Hoteliere Lausanne (EHL), one of the oldest and most respected hotelier schools in the world, to co-founding Rotana in 1992 and ambitiously taking it to a 40-plus strong cross-regional hotel chain in 2008, El Zyr has, and always will, have hospitality running through his Lebanese veins. Serving customers, catering for their every need and seeking perfection, he says, have always been his everyday goals. “We expect every customer that comes to our hotels to leave us with a great experience. This is a big dream that everything has to be perfect. How close you come to that perfection is the question, but if your attitude is that everything has to be right to the best of your ability then if you transmit this and cascade it down to the rest of the company, you can reach the skies.” Success in the hotel industry, however, is far from straightforward, says El Zyr. “Improvement is an ongoing, everyday process. In the service industry everyday is an exam. We deliver thousands of services to customers everyday and part of this service is that you get hot water in your shower, you get the right pressure and that you get the right room temperature – thousands of things. You have to get it right.” And get it right he has. After spending 12 years with Hilton International, establishing a regional fast food chain in Lebanon and working as vice president for Abu Dhabi National Hotels, El Zyr and Nasser Al Nowais co-founded the Rotana Hotel Management Corporation in 1992 – an event he calls both his ‘turning point’ as well as his biggest achievement. El Zyr, however, refuses to reveal the business’s bottomline and says he “can’t remember” his first set of Rotana results, but does admit that he is now hitting revenues that are “50 times higher” than when he first took control. The next phase, he says still dropping in the odd hint that he may or may not be there to see it, is to ‘eventually’ take the management company public – but not for three to four years. “We are not a public company but our dream is to become a public company. But to go public there are preparations that need to be made. Also, the only way to make a company grow is to stay away from family private-owned companies that have a lifespan that cannot live forever. “The reasons we haven’t started the process [of going public] and that we are still a family company is that we are still in the preparation stage.” The process of taking the company public may be taking longer for Rotana than many had predicted, but El Zyr says this is because he wants to “get it right” – no business decision he makes is rash, but is always measured to as close to perfection as possible. The process, however slow, will begin with the business now a private joint stock company and new board members announced next month. The difference between this and a public company, says El Zyr, is that the latter’s shares are traded on the market and anybody can buy and sell them. “The private joint stock company’s shares, however, are not traded and you select a number of investors to join forces with you and your company. “We will have around ten to 12 partners, including owners of hotels and a reputed financial institution. Becoming a private joint stock company means that we will have several strategic partners – carefully selected partners.” El Zyr’s overriding ambition, in his ‘two remaining years’, is to raise an Initial Public Offering (IPO) for even greater future growth. “I want to prepare the company as much as possible for an IPO, make it stronger, have more locations, have a better image, to be more prepared for competition and growth and to handle whatever jobs arise in the future.” His dream could well come true with the signing of ten major agreements for properties worth in excess of AED3 billion (US $816 million) in addition to ten other properties under construction, as well as 21 hotels already in operation. This will bring Rotana Hotels’ portfolio to a staggering 41 properties by 2008 and fits ideally into El Zyr’s mantra – a lesson he learnt when we was a 21-year old student in Lausanne. “You’ve got to keep on moving and give yourself every opportunity to succeed. In this business you have to be very, very patient,” he says in an equally soothing and calming voice. “You must accept differences between you and others and you must be able to measure the expectations of others and your customers in seconds,” he adds. It is mainly for this reason that El Zyr has been in charge for so long and that the senior management team has remained in place since the company’s inception. Not only is El Zyr’s vast experience and wise hotelier head respected throughout the region’s business community, it is also regarded as one of the major draws for investors looking to place their money in a strong and ever expanding Middle Eastern brand. Even he’s not quite sure what the company will do without him. “My opinion will be listened to as long as we are still what we are today. Maybe in six months down the line somebody in the new board will have a different opinion and change plans to what we are today, but I will convince them it’s not in their interests to go against my opinion. “Mind you, I’ve been with the company for a long period of time, and I can’t leave for two years. Part of the agreement and conditions of the sale is that I have to stay. At the end of the day, investors are buying in because of individuals. We are not selling assets, we are not selling buildings or land so they have locked us in for a period of time.” The hotel business has produced some strong characters in the past and El Zyr is no exception, determined to see through his mission. One of his major strengths and one that has made him so popular among employees and investors alike, is being able to assess people as well as property. On the issue of staff turnover at the lower ranked levels of staff, for example, he says: “Turnover is very high in the lower levels because usually we have unskilled people in those positions. Unfortunately unskilled people are those who are very badly affected by everybody else,” he says. “Imagine the person who carries your luggage, everyone shouts at him. Everybody feels they can abuse him. The taxi driver who tells him to take the customer’s luggage shouts at him, the customer shouts at him to take the luggage and then the receptionist gives him orders. The guy gets ordered by everybody.” El Zyr is a chief executive that employees learn from on a daily basis. And he is a man who cares for his staff in the belief that they are all as important as each other in making the business run like clockwork, and grow even faster than the year before. “We cannot pay the best money but people don’t just work for money. They work because they have opportunities, things to learn and chances to grow and because they are comfortable that the business is compassionate and caring and listens to their problems. “It’s not enough to say to a manager that he shouldn’t have made an error paying an employee US $5000 more. You should pay him and give him support, help him to correct his weaknesses, because who doesn’t have weaknesses and shortcomings?” His ‘been there, done that’ approach has got him to where he is today, and whether he departs tomorrow or in two years time, El Zyr will leave behind an everlasting legacy that will long be remembered by not only the regional hospitality industry, but also by the Middle East’s community of existing and aspiring chief executives. “My job is to serve and I do all I can”, he says, eyeing up his 4pm ‘quiet time’ cigar that rests carefully on a glass ashtray. Simple words that continue to go a long way.||**||

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