Interviewing Thomas Klein - Area Vice President and the GM of the famed Fairmont Hotel San Francisco
By Dr. Lily Lin, Author of "Interviewing Successful Hotel Managers"
and the GM of the famed Fairmont Hotel San Francisco in the US. He is hardworking and a self-proclaimed workaholic. He is personal and approachable.
years and prior to his current position, he has worked for a number of great hotel brands, such as Hyatt, the Ritz-Carlton, and Swissôtels & Resorts. In addition to his job as a hotel executive, he is also active in hotel management education and charity organizations in the local community. His plate is so full that one has the feeling that somehow he manages to capture more than 24 hours a day!
You graduated from the Boston University with a Sociology degree in 1977.Four years later, you became a Hyatt management trainee. What motivated you to work in the hotel industry?
It was less by design and more by default. Originally, I really wanted to be a criminal lawyer but I lost interest after studying law for a short time at the University of New Hampshire (in the US). I didn't really know what to do. I was in Columbus, Ohio (in the US) working as a waiter at the Hyatt Regency. I fell in love with the business in the hospitality industry. They offered me the opportunity to get into their management training program. That was 32 years ago and it was how I started in the hotel industry.
You have worked for a number of well-known international chain hotels. In1989, you became the GM of Ritz-Carlton Sydney in Australia. Did you always want to become a GM?
It was in my DNA that I always wanted to go to the next level. I wanted someday to manage my own hotel and to define the culture of that hotel, as I know that the culture and values are driven from the top. I also knew that I had to work harder than others. Whenever my company needed help, I volunteered. As the result, I moved around a lot with Hyatt and then with Ritz-Carlton, a great company when it comes to service.
In 2006 you received an MBA degree from the Loyola University, Chicago in theUS. At the same time, you were the Regional VP and GM of Swissôtels & Resorts Chicago. Did you find it difficult holding down a full-time job and at the same time became/becoming a student again?
What I received was an MBA certificate. I felt and still feel today that continuing education is important. The experience was worth the effort. It is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day operations. Stepping out of the hospitality environment and into the academic environment gave me a fresh outlook. It was an extremely beneficial experience.
Today, I enjoy being a guest lecturer teaching in various hospitality schools and I also Chair the University of San Francisco Hospitality School program.
You've been the Regional VP and the GM of the landmark and flagship hotel,Fairmont San Francisco since 2008. At the same time, you are very active in the local community. What keeps you motivated?
My wife will tell you that I am crazy. I am a workaholic. In addition to Fairmont San Francisco, I am also responsible for five hotels in the Northern California region. Furthermore, I am the Chairman of the University of San Francisco – Hospitality Advisory Board and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society – Bay Area Chapter. I am also a board member of a number of hotel organizations. I firmly believe that every hotel is a part of the local community and they have to embrace it if they wish to be seen.
When you love and have passion for what you do, the rest is easy!
What are the most challenging issues you are facing on your current position?
There are many levels of challenges. The most important ones are:
- Finding the right people who have genuine inner passion to make a difference for others so that they can deliver service excellence;
- Managing multi-million dollar assets on behalf of the ownership group. You have to have strong business acumen to really get a good balance between managing a day-to- day business and delivering acceptable financial returns. So, reaching a balance between the business and hospitality aspects is another challenging issue.
- The ability to effectively multi-task and remain calm and focused on a consistent basis helps greatly in leading through challenging times. Being responsive and adaptable to change is critical.
What do you do at work that you enjoy so much you actually lose track oftime?
Every morning without fail I walk through the Fairmont Hotel and when I travel I will also walk through other hotels in my region. I chat with my colleagues. I want to see and feel their energy level and passion. This hotel is 105 years old, and I have colleagues who have been with the company 35, 40 and even 50 years and they still have an inner passion to do their job! A housekeeping employee makes 14 beds a day! I can't even make my own bed! Seeing them working motivates me to ensure that we provide them with the right working environment.
Doing things differently and setting higher standards also motivate me.
In 2013 Fairmont Hotels (California collection) was recognized as the BestPlaces to Work in the Bay Area by the SF Business Times. In your opinion, what is the single most important concern for your employees?
Mutual respect, without question, is important to my employees. Also, trust and transparency, and open-lines of communication are also their major concerns.
I hold a casual lunch with 15 to 20 of my colleagues regularly to remove communication barriers, such as fear of reprisal – being fully engaged with the colleagues at every level continues to be critical in gaining their trust and commitment.
Now, I can't shut them up. Whenever someone contacts me, I will respond within 24 hours. They may not like my answer but they deserve to get it.
My employees know that I don't want it to be a job; it's a life style.
In the eyes of your employees, what is the single most important quality youshould have?
Trust and respect are very important. You've got to have integrity! Active listening skills are also important. They know I have passion, and I always try to raise the bar.
Tonga Room in Fairmont San Francisco is probably one of the first themerestaurants in the world. While many well-known theme restaurants have come and gone, Tonga Room remains as popular as ever, even though its basic theme has not changed much since its opening in 1945. What is the secret of its success in a city that has 39.3 restaurants per 10.000 households — which outnumbers every city in America?
I know; it's wonderful, isn't it?! Fairmont Hotel San Francisco is very much an institution and part of the fabric of our great city. From the theme perspective, it hasn't changed much since its opening. The pool in Tonga Room used to be a part of a health club in the 1920s.
We've been always true to the value of Tonga Room. The Tiki Bar concept came andwent but it is coming back again. You know, we have the best Mai Tai1 in the world!
Our business is going strong. Basically, we listen to our customers. The quality of food and the quality of service must be maintained at a certain level. We never become complacent.
1Mai Tai is an alcoholic cocktail based on rum, Curaçao liqueur, and lime juice,associated with Polynesian-style settings
Some people say that a GM is not important to his frontline employees. Doyou agree?
No. Absolutely not! If anyone says it, they need to change the GM. The GM is critical in setting the tune and the culture of the hotel. I can tell right away when I walk into a hotel whether the GM has set the tune. The GM must show his employees his genuine care for them and the passion for his business.
What is your leadership style, and what makes you an effective leader?
You have to ask my employees.
I think you have to be emotionally and physically there. You have to make sure that you stay grounded at all times. I show respect to my employees, guests, owners and bosses. We are nothing if we are without these people.
If you must make a choice, would you do the things right or would you do the rightthings?
I think doing the right thing from your heart will always prevail. It has to be morally and ethically right!
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
I am also disciplined, structured and accountable.
My biggest weakness is getting the right
I move very fast, probably because I am German. I tend to be impatient. I don't accept complacency. If you say you are going to do something, I expect that it will be done.
I think I am doing a better job than I did 10 years ago in achieving a balance in life but it still requires focus!
At work, what puts a smile on your face?
I love to be
When our colleagues deliver service excellence and they do it in a passionate way, i.e., when I hear from guests that our employees did an excellent job, it's those guest stories that put a smile on my face. Anybody can build a hotel but it is the heart and soul of the hotel that will make the difference.
Of course, financial stories also put a smile on my face. Achieving solid business results at every level can certainly put a smile on my face!
What puts a frown on your face?
Complacency and lack of
Who do you admire and why?
A couple of people who
I worked in Africa for eight years and had the opportunity to meet Nelson Mandelaa couple of times. I admire his ability and desire to influence changes in the generations to come in a positive way after he had gone through so much in his life. It is quite remarkable!
What is your greatest fear? How do you overcome it?
If you can only choose one from "wisdom", "wealth" and "fame", what willbe your choice? Why?
Clearly, I would choose wisdom. Everyone likes wealth but it does not define who you are. Wisdom defines who you are.
What advice would you offer to those who are inspired to becomesuccessful in the hotel industry?
Do what you like. Be passionate with the career you choose. Don't settle for just being good. Always try to strive for the next level. Make your mistakes and move on. Don't overcomplicate things. I believe that there are only three true ways to create and sustain superior performance for the long haul. First, take exceptional care of your customers with superior service and superior quality. Second, take exceptional care of your colleagues by challenging and developing them to their full potential and third, constantly innovate – that's it!
Good question! I want to grow personally
Would I like to have my own company someday? Maybe. But this will have to be with the right and like-minded people!
Phone: +31 65 79 41 741