Interviewing Michael Levie, founding partner and COO at citizenM
By Dr. Lily Lin, Author of "Interviewing Successful Hotel Managers"
Michael Levie is a hotel executive turned entrepreneur. In fact, he is an entrepreneur through and through. He takes calculated risks and seizes the opportunities to succeed with great gusto. He believes that the desire to be an entrepreneur lives within the individual; one either has it or one doesn't. He thinks that it is very difficult to acquire it. Michael thrives on challenges and draws his energy from the creative process and those who work around him.
CitizenM is a relatively new hotel concept, started in 2008 in Amsterdam. citizenM, a hotel development company, was able to identify a new breed of international travelers. As the result, it created a hotel brand that focuses on providing affordable luxury for those who are the mobile citizens of the world. The Hotel identifies itself so much with its target market, the mobile citizens, that it actually named its hotels after the target market, citizenM. Today, citizenM operates seven hotels in Europe and the US with many more in the pipeline.
How did you get started in the hotel industry?
Well, when the Amsterdam Sonesta Hotel* was built, the CEO of the company was a close friend of my father. He invited my parents and their children to stay in this beautiful hotel for a few days for its opening. As a little boy, I sat with this man and my family for a Sunday brunch. I fell in love with the hotel business and for me it was the start of becoming interested in finding out what hospitality was all about. Eventually, I ended up working for Sonesta for 18 years.
I was fortunate to work and grow up with third generation hoteliers in the family. I opened, renovated and constructed hotels for them. I worked at city properties, resort and convention hotels, and I've seen the US and Middle East operations. Nevertheless, it is a family business and after 18 years, I felt that my potential growth had become stagnate. At the same time, my family and I needed to stop living like gypsies, constantly moving, as hoteliers tend to do. So, 14 years ago, I moved to the Netherlands and settled down here.
*Amsterdam Sonesta Hotel is now the Renaissance Hotel Amsterdam, operated by Marriott International.
You started working in the hotel industry in 1983. You founded citizenM in 2005, 22 years later. What motivated you to change your career path from being a high-ranking hotel executive to an entrepreneur?
I graduated in 1983. Prior to my graduation, I also did a number of summer jobs in the hotel industry. But I started my career after my graduation.
In the years of working in the industry, I had so many opportunities to learn about the business, about various countries and cultures. I had a wonderful career in hotel management but I always wanted to be an entrepreneur, so that I could do something challenging with my creativity. With my education and work experience as the foundation, I was well prepared to participate in the creation process. So, I decided to give it a try! It has not always been easy, especially in the beginning, but I am very happy I took the chance to become an entrepreneur.
I normally send a list of interview questions a couple of days before the interview, but I also tell the interviewee that I prefer spontaneous answers. You are one of the very few who opted not to receive the interview questions beforehand. It indicated to me that you are a risk-taker. Do you see yourself as one?
I think the word "risk" has many interpretations. When you do an interview, you should answer the questions spontaneously. Otherwise, it would seem like you are following a script. I don't like that.
To me "risk" often means that we do not dare to try anything new. Without risk we do not create.
Of course, taking a risk just for taking a risk's sake is also not very smart.
I once attended a conference, where the author of the book "Blue Ocean", Professor Kim, started his presentation by asking the 1,700 participants, who were there for an innovation day, whether innovation is good and 1,699 hands went up and said yes. I said that innovation is not always good. Innovation often fails, because one is not smart enough with the risks involved, or one does not understand the implications of the risks involved.
I think "risk" is not a blank thing. Risk is something you work on a lot. There is a certain amount of diligence, a certain amount of knowledge and understanding and a certain amount of experience needed. And then you are in a position to take a calculated risk.
I saw your video on YouTube. You seem to naturally think from the customers' perspective, which is the fundamental concept in marketing. This mentality is easy to understand intellectually, but very few people can actually do it. Why do you think you are able to do it?
Well, ultimately, everything we do is for our guests. Only through the measurement of guest satisfaction are we able to continue with improving this effort. It is important to understand that ultimately, the guests are the ones who pay for everything. Without them, you will have an empty hotel. There is not one hotel organization that will survive without guests. With that understanding in mind, my thinking takes on the guest-centric approach. Guests are the very reason of our existence.
I also believe that guest satisfaction has many components and that if the entire organization does not work together towards achieving guest satisfaction and structuring the organization to support it, sooner or later, other components (i.e. structure) of the business will become more important and begin to lead the organization. So, the success of guest satisfaction is basically the measure of how we work. We have two rules in our company:
- If our employees – and this includes people from finance as well as someone who works on branding – are not busy everyday thinking whether there is a better way to achieve guest satisfaction, then we are not doing it right.
Some people say that employees come first. Do you agree?
Guests and employees interact. So, of course employees are important. In our organization, the frontline staff is positioned at the top of the organization because they are closest to our guests. Everyone else supports them. Our employees are fundamentally important, but make no mistake, guests are the ultimate measure of success.
I am sure you will agree that citizenM Hotels breaks away from the traditional hotel concept. It's not easy to be a trailblazer. Will you ever start a hotel brand that is more in line with the traditional luxury or economy hotel concept?
citizenM is taking up all my time and energy; I am not sure I will ever get to start another hotel brand again. We didn't create citizenM to buck the trend; we created citizenM for a niche market, the midmarket frequent travelers within the broad travel market.
Do you see yourself as:
- A visionary leader
- An innovator
- An entrepreneur
- A manager
- A business executive
- A hotelier
I had hoped that you would have another category; "Other", because I see my role mostly as stewardship. I guide people to direct their passion to excel and to be more productive.
- As for "a visionary leader", I understand that leaders inspire others, but I hesitate to claim that I am a leader, because it implies that I have followers. I don't want followers; I want originals. I coach people to be originals, to genuinely be themselves.
- Innovation is the willingness to rearrange past circumstances and services in a new way. You need mental freedom in order to create the new way. But it is not about us; it is about all those people whom you innovate with; it is about paving the road and making it happen.
- Being an entrepreneur is the most complicated role, because it includes so many different dimensions. Also, the desire to be an entrepreneur lives within you; you either have it or you don't. It is very difficult to acquire it somehow.
- Being an effective manager who is able to organize and to structure is very important for the organization.
- I think sometimes business executives are busier with themselves than with the business.
- I am a hotelier by trade. It is something I am proud of.
Would you ever go back and work for a hotel company again?
citizenM is the company that flows through my veins. So, I won't change any time soon. But I do believe that there are many companies that would like to participate in supporting our effort. So, I am not only focusing on citizenM; I have a wider view.
What motivates you to keep moving ahead?
We are doing this interview while I am working in the living room of our hotel in Rotterdam (the Netherlands). I often go to our hotel and just observe. I see how people enjoy what we have created and how it suits their lifestyle. I see how everything comes together and it all works. This gives me a huge amount of satisfaction. I have to say that we have a wonderful team that consists of many specialists. Together, we create the reality of citizenM. So, for me there are plenty of things to draw energy from.
So far, what has been the biggest challenge you have had to face?
I think when you start a company, you are up against the rest of the world with a certain window of opportunity you've created. That window of opportunity deals with the development of your concept and product, determining physical project location, planning and carrying out the construction, and generating sufficient success in a relative short period of time. The pressure of making a success of that window of opportunity lies in the fact that during the process, you are not always in full control of every aspect. The challenging part is when things are not under your control and yet, you still need to perform; that is, you must stay focused and guide your energy to make it happen.
Fear is a survival instinct. For some people, the more they are afraid, the more determinedly they want to overcome their fear. Have you ever been afraid? How do you overcome fear?
Thank God, I've never been governed by fear! If you are scared and let fear take over, you will end up losing one half of the battle, because fear breeds insecurity. If you feel insecure, some people will instinctively take advantage of you. So, we should conquer fear. I've not seen many people win with fear in their eyes.
On the other hand, there is a very nice word, "ambiguity". The feeling of ambiguity is very close to the feeling of fear in the sense that in both cases, you feel that you do not know what is to come and you feel butterflies in your stomach. But ambiguity keeps you focused, alert and assertive. From an early stage in my career, I figured out that you should not run away from the state of ambiguity, instead, you should lean into it. However, in the beginning, I felt very uncomfortable having to face ambiguity. But I've since learned to deal with it, and now, if I don't face ambiguity, I don't feel alive!
I believe that if a hotel is to be cool, hoteliers should also be cool. So why are most hoteliers who work for a big brand hotel discouraged from being cool in the public's eyes?
I think 99.9% hoteliers try to be business executives. True hospitality is about connecting with people. There is no protocol for that. At our citizenM hotels, we do have uniforms, but we want our employees' own character to come through. We want them to be individuals.
I m not sure about being cool, maybe it is better to just be yourself.
Not all entrepreneurs are able to come up with a brilliant idea that is also marketable. At the same time, even a potentially marketable idea may face great difficulties and repeated failures. In your opinion, is there a "right" time to quit?
The answer is "Yes". I think you should put your energy, your effort, time and money into your dream. But most innovations are not successful. Just because you are innovative, it does not mean that you are right or you will succeed.
Through critical analysis, you get to see the positives and negatives of your innovation. You should recognize the time to quit because you do not want to put other people at risk and injure yourself in the process.
When given a choice, would you do the right things or do the things right?
Do the things right! Doing things right allows us to complete the 20 or 30 tasks at hand so that you get to start new tasks. Otherwise, you may spin out of control. Doing the right thing does not always give you a free pass.
What's something you know you do differently than most people?
I find it difficult to say that about myself, how I compare to others. But there are two things that I think are important: One is being passionate; that is, being energetic and willing to set an example for others.
The other is being compassionate; that is, understanding how everybody contributes to what we do and having the willingness to create an energy that allows others to participate in their own way and at their own pace.
What qualities are you looking for in the person you are hoping to hire?
First, they need to be a nice and warm person with a warm smile and a pure heart;
Second, I believe that in our industry, there are too many generalists. We need to hire more specialists. If you are a great specialist, that is step one, but you still need to be nice or you won't get in.
To what degree have you actually controlled the course your life has taken?
I think there have been moments when I've made some pretty bold decisions; for example, after working at Sonesta for many years, of which I enjoyed every moment, I decided to choose my family and move out of the company to provide the stability of location. If you evaluate your assets, your strengths and your guidance before you make a decision, you will always be in charge.
What is one unfulfilled dream you still have?
I still feel that I have not filled my bucket yet. I truly believe in the good of people. I think it's very important to know your own strengths. If you don't, it can become your weakness. I love working with students in crafting our business and I like coaching young people, sharing what I know so that they would be better able to make their decisions. So, there is still plenty to dream about. Being with citizenM, I am living that dream!
Life is too short to tolerate ____________________?
I would say that life is too short to tolerate people who are not interested in my energy and in what I am trying to achieve, which is perfectly fine by me. I simply smile and move on.
What impact do you want to leave on the world?
I am very happy if I can play a role in supporting what's around me.
I am enjoying the ride and I haven't reached the end yet!