Interviewing the President & CEO of Nordic Choice Hotels, Torgeir Silseth
By Dr. Lily Lin, Author of "Interviewing Successful Hotel Managers"
Torgeir Silseth is the President & CEO of Nordic Choice Hotels. It is the leading hotel chain in Scandinavia, with 184 hotels at more than 100 destinations throughout the region. From 1990 - 2016, Nordic Choice has grown from two to 184 hotels, of which 50 percent are located in Norway. The company has more than 12,000 employees.
Like many top executives, he is direct and pulls no punches. Those who work for him must have a strong self-confidence and be able to roll with the punches.
You graduated from the Norwegian School of Hotel Management in 1988. Did you always want to be an hotelier?
No. I grew up on a farm. Being an hotelier was not on my mind.
When I was 13 or 14 years old, I wanted to be a chef. Later, I worked as a chef in Norway and Hamburg. It was then that I became interested in hotel management. So, I decided to study hotel management and pursue a career in the hotel industry. I must tell you that a good thing happened when I was studying at the Hotel School. I met my future wife there and we are still happily married.
I understand that you are a trained chef. Was the journey of moving from the kitchen to the boardroom a difficult one?
No. It was not a difficult journey. Learning to be a chef gave me a good basic training, which helped me enter the hotel industry. Being a chef, I learned three things that really benefited my career in the hotel industry: (1) good planning, (2) performing under pressure, and (3) instant feedback. For example, when I worked in Hamburg, we had to plan all our meals. Our head chef used a microphone to shout the incoming orders and therefore, we always had to perform under pressure. When the order was ready, he would give us instant feedback whether the food was up to the restaurant's standards.
You've been with Choice Hotels for 25 years since your graduation. Many hoteliers change employers, especially during the early stages of their career. What keeps you working with the same company?
I feel proud that I've been a loyal employee of our company. However, my journey with our company has not been a journey with "a" company. Our company has grown from having two hotels to 170 hotels in 13 years. I am now working with 116 GMs.
Secondly, I was able to team up and work with our owner, Petter Stordalen.
Note: Petter Anker Stordalen is a Norwegian investor, a hotel "tycoon", a property developer and an environmentalist. He has an estimated personal net worth of €910 million to €1.43 billion, stemming from investments in hotels, shopping centers and other properties.
Nordic Choice has grown from two to 170 hotels. It now has almost 12,000 employees. Looking back, what was the biggest obstacle you and your company have managed to overcome?
I think our biggest obstacle has been keeping our company focused while growing at a fast pace. Our owner was able to infuse investment capital required to grow and my main job is keeping operational focus while generating profit.
Do you think that there are some similarities in strategy formulation and brand image between Choice Hotels and the French hotel company, ACCOR?
I definitely see similarities between the two companies. In terms of branding strategy, both companies have brands ranging from economy to luxury hotels. In terms of investment strategy, ACCOR is like many international hotel companies working together, as ACCOR does not focus on investing in hotel properties. On the other hand, we invest in real estate and develop our properties.
Most of your hotels are located in Norway and Sweden. Only 4 percent or 7 seven out of 170 hotels are located outside these two countries. Is there a plan to expand to other Nordic countries?
Yes. At one point time, we invested in 20 hotels in Denmark but we retreated. We are now working very hard to re-enter the market in the near future. We also want to enter the markets in Finland and the Baltic countries. At this point time, we have no plan to invest outside of these regions.
In your opinion, are there differences between managing an economy hotel and a luxury hotel?
I think in principle there is no difference. For example, issues such as guest satisfaction, value for money, distribution and operational issues are basically the same whether we are talking about economy or luxury hotels. But in practice, there are differences. In upscale hotels, keeping hotel guests satisfied involves managing emotional challenges. That is, we need to ensure that complicated operational details are carried out in perfect timing and manner, so that we are able to deliver the promises that stand behind our brand image. On the other hand, an economy hotel has more basic requirements, such as ensuring clean rooms and a reasonable price.
What are the most challenging issues you are facing on your current position?
- Offering reasonable prices while keeping a healthy margin for every hotel is a challenging issue for us.
- Coming up with new, fresh products while facing a lot of competition is another challenge I am facing.
- Distribution is also a challenging issue: who will guests turn to when they need a hotel?
- Hiring the right people, keeping them and encouraging them to grow is a challenge for us.
What do you do at work that you enjoy so much you actually lose track of time?
It gives me great pleasure working with people who are eager to learn, have talent and have a great future. That's rewarding!
What learning from today are you taking into tomorrow?
I've learned to never settle! You can always do better. You can be better today but be great tomorrow. If you stay still, you will lose the competitive edge and innovativeness.
In your opinion, what is the single most important concern for your employees?
If I were an employee, I would want to know whether this company shares my values and whether it has a strong sense of social responsibility, such as doing community work, paying taxes, and generally being a good corporate citizen. In Norway, these are the values in a company that attract young people.
In the eyes of your employees, what is the single most important quality you should have?
I would like to believe that they expect their leader to have the ability to make the right decisions for the future of their company.
If you must make a choice, would you do the things right or would you do the right things?
I definitely would do the right things. In the long run, it would make you more successful.
What is your leadership style, and what makes you an effective leader?
We have a flat organization. In Scandinavia, everyone is equal. My employees are well-informed.
I am honest and straightforward so that people know what they can expect from me. Directness, "telling it as is", is an important and effective way to lead --- even though at times it can be difficult for some people.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
My strengths are being direct and walking the talk.
But not everyone appreciates a straightforward approach and therefore, being direct can be a weakness also.
Another thing, I tend to worry too much. I always want to be prepared for the worst instead of looking at the bright side. I am working on a more balanced approach between being optimistic and being prepared for the worst.
At work, what puts a smile on your face?
Happy guests, that is, no guest complaints, and happy employees will put a smile on my face.
Working for a great company also makes me happy.
What puts a frown on your face?
Just the opposite: don't make promises you can't keep. I hate not being able to live up to the expectations of my employees and guests.
What is your greatest fear?
I have a sinking feeling if I think I am not able to achieve expected growth for our company.
Personally, if I woke up in the morning with no fear, I would go to the top of a mountain and shout out happily and just enjoy life!
What advice would you offer to those who are inspired to become successful in the hotel industry?
I would advise them to learn one discipline really well, may it be revenue management, operations management or sales and marketing. Build a platform and then evolve from that platform. If you know a little bit of everything but nothing in depth, you won't be able to make it.
As you probably have guessed, I am tied to this company for the rest of my working life.
I am looking forward to our successful entry in Denmark and Finland.