Industry Update
Opinion Article30 June 2015

Interviewing the CDO of Marriott International, Laurent de Kousemaeker

By Dr. Lily Lin, Author of "Interviewing Successful Hotel Managers"

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Laurent de Kousemaeker is the Chief Development Officer of the Caribbean, Latin American Region at the Marriott International. He is an ambitious but charming business executive.

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Instead of going through the traditional hotel management career path and work his way up to be the GM of a flagship hotel in a major city, he took the route to become an asset development and management senior executive for Marriott International. Making such a career detour in order to be true to one's inner calls took considerable courage and determination. The fact that Laurent does not hesitate to face life's challenges tells us that his success is predictable and well-earned.

INTERVIEW

You graduated from the Hotelschool the Hague in the Netherlands. D id you become interested in hotel management at a young age?

Because of my stepfather's work, throughout my childhood we travelled. We stayed in hotels for months at a time. I have memories of running around in the back of the house my sister and I helping out the staff preparing room service. So, hotels have always felt familiar to me. Also, a good friend of mine was the son of the GM of the InterContinental in Lahore. I recall seeing his father walking around on the property, having drinks and playing tennis with guests, preparing great events, etc. And I remember thinking that "that's a cool job!" Then, during high school, I would work in weekends and in the summer to make extra money. I worked as a bellboy, a waiter and as a cook in hotels. So, when I finished high school I had to make a choice. Hotel management seemed like a natural one.

Like some of my other interviewees, you were one of my students at the Hotelschool The Hague. People always say that they remember me the most, just out of curiosity, how did you find my teaching? (You are no longer my student, you can be honest :) .)

You were a tough cookie! Provocative and demanding. This was a class where we had to come prepared and pay attention. Or we would run the risk of being embarrassed. I am not sure if that worked for all, but that worked for me. I have to say that I also loved the subject. I loved the strategic marketing and consumer behavior classes. I love the psychological element that drives human behavior.

What was your first job in the hotel industry and how did you like it?

As an adult, my first job was in banqueting in a top, beautiful and historical hotel in Geneva. The management was very much focused on the past. I hated that every time I would suggest an idea for improvement, I would hear: "we've been doing this for 100 years and it worked very well for us". It was not a work environment which I was attracted to, but I learned a lot. I learned that a stuffy traditional hotel, focused on the past, is just not for me. I like to challenge the status quo; I like to bring in new ideas and have the opportunity to implement them.

You spent a lot of time working in Spain and Spanish-speaking countries. Are you particularly fond of Spanish culture and people?

I grew up in various countries in Asia and Africa, where the people were very warm, hospitable, and generous. When I went back to Holland, I missed that. I remember the first time I was in Spain in 1992 for holidays. I recognized the climate, the warmth of the people, and even some of the folklores felt familiar. There was just one problem. I didn't speak Spanish. I remember being frustrated with not being able to communicate. So I made it my challenge. I took Spanish lessons back in Holland. Then I took six months off from my school to work in Spain. I found a small apart-hotel and worked in the reception. I learned the language the natural way, which was basically trying to speak and making a fool of myself until the locals stopped laughing.

Your career path looks like a fast-track. What are your success factors?
Luck . . . but I am a strong believer that you make your luck in life.

I worked in hotel operations for six years until one day I realized that being a hotel GM is not my ambition --- although I love the hotel business. So I consciously took a sharp turn to hotel finance and consulting; I went to work for HVS. They trained me and sent me to London office where I began my career in finance and business consulting. In the six years I was with HVS I must have underwritten hundreds of hotels and projects. Combined with my operations experience, I was able to look at a hotel and its potential from all angles, even putting a price tag on it. I think that experience was the backbone of my career.

If I need to summarize it, my success factors are:

  • Taking responsibility of my own career.
  • Facing my fears and taking them on as challenges.
  • Always stretch my knowledge and ability.

How do you handle fear?

I think it's natural to have fear. You have two choices: You avoid it, and for the rest of your life you would be avoiding that area. And I think it will restrict your ability to grow. Or you take the bull by the horns and dive in, despite your doubts. In the end, it will make you stronger. For me, this has always worked.

Probably the biggest fear I would have is to look back and see that everything I've worked for, professionally and personally, is meaningless.

You joined Marriott in 2005 and your career focus is asset development. What is the most challenging aspect of asset development?

Marriott has an asset-light business model, which means that we rely on third-party capital to develop and build hotels for us to brand and operate, and that's important to understand. So, the key to success in my world is not "location, location and location", rather, "owner, owner and owner". We need to partner with the right owner. We need an owner who has access to the right market. We need an owner who can build a quality product. We need an owner, who has the interest in the long-term success. Finding and selecting the right owners is our biggest challenges and opportunity.

What are the most challenging issues you are facing on your current job?

Making sure that our team is focused on the right project and right partners so that we are able to grow quickly, but also steadily.

What do you expect from your employees? What pleases you the most?

What I expect from them is integrity, hard work and sharing the passion for the mission of the group.

What pleases me is that when I see them stretching themselves, facing their fears and overcoming them and growing; and when I see them progress in their careers.

What displeases you the most?

When I see someone has potential but don't allow themselves to maximize their effort because of laziness and complacency.

In your opinion, what do your employees expect from you?

I think they expect me to provide them with a strategic perspective. What we do in development is very forward-looking. We are negotiating new hotels that typically open three to four years later. So, having a vision and having a strategy is very important. I think they also expect me to develop them, challenge them and make sure that they are able to perform the best they can, so that they can move forward in their careers.

If you must make a choice, would you do the things right or would you do the right things?
Knowing myself, I would probably focus on doing the right things. However, you have to make sure that they get done right, too.

What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?

My team and colleagues tell me that I am demanding and impatient, and that I could do a better job balancing getting the results and consideration of people's feelings. I am too focused on getting the results. Also, I am, at times, too quick in judging.

In terms of strengths they tell me that I am a strategic thinker, that I am result and action orientated, and that I am passionate about what I do. Also, I think I have the courage to challenge the company to improve, even if it's unpopular action for some.

Looking back, what is the most notable change in you since your first job in the hotel industry?

I've worked in a number of disciplines and in different continents. I think that's provided me with a more holistic view of the hotel business. Although I am still impatient, I've learned to pick my battles.

What keeps you motivated?

It is not about the job security; it is not about the pay check. It's not about looking good in front of my boss, and it's not about getting my boss' job. For me it's the satisfaction of creating jobs, contributing to economies, and influencing communities in a positive way. It sounds a little cheesy but that's how it is. There is no bigger satisfaction for me than seeing all those hotels being built and operating. Everyone is an active engine that will contribute for decades to come . . . and feeling that this was partly my contribution gives me full satisfaction. That's why I get up in the morning every day.

Life is too short to tolerate:

Arrogance. I think humility is so much more power.

What one thing have you not yet done that you really want to do?

One of the things that I have not done is exploring much of the ancient Maya civilization in South America.

What advice would you offer to those who aspire to become a successful hotelier?

That you may be brilliant but you won't succeed if you can't work with people.

What's next?
We have 94 hotels opened in my region. Clearly, we still have a lot of work to do and to grow. I guess I will focus on what is next when I get comfortable with what I do now :).

Dr. Lily Lin

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