Industry Update
Opinion Article29 June 2016

Interviewing the CEO of SHKP Hotels, Sun Hung Kai Properties LTD, Ricco M. DeBlank

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

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Ricco DeBlank was a graduate of the Hotelschool The Hague (1992). He joined Sun Hung Kai Properties (SHKP) in 2009 as the CEO (Chief Executive Officer) of the Company's Hotel Division. Ricco is responsible for 19 top of the line hotels with internationally recognized brand names. Eight more hotels are under construction. These hotels are either partially or wholly-owned by SHKP.

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Before Ricco's appointment at the SHKP, he worked for Disney and then as the GM at various Ritz-Carlton hotels, including The Ritz-Carlton, Tokyo, Japan.

SHKP is one of the largest property companies in the world. Its core business is the development of residential and commercial properties for sale and investment.

INTERVIEW

Would you briefly describe the organizational structure of the SHKP's Hotel Division?

I have an eight-member executive team that includes finance, F&B, marketing & sales, project development, purchasing, asset management, operations, and HR that reports directly to me. In addition to the regular hotel management structure, each hotel --- and we have 19 properties to date --- also has an asset manager who is an owner representative, who makes sure that the owner's interests and functions are properly carried out. In total I have more than 7500 employees working in all our hotel operations.

Is the Hotel Division a profit center; meaning is it managed autonomously and that the Hotel Division is responsible for generating its own revenue, paying its own costs and retaining certain amount of profit?
The Hotel Division generates approximately US$ 1.2 billion revenue and US$330 MM profit per year --- and we better be profitable as this is one of my core responsibilities! SHKP has over 50,000 employees. The SHKP Company empowers its leaders. I report to the Joint Chairmen of the Company. They don't micro-manage me, but of course, you have to earn their trust.

Personally, I also don't micro-manage my employees, but I do try to run an efficient and effective organization.

You were the GM of one of the most amazing hotels in Tokyo, the Ritz-Carlton Tokyo. I am sure you are familiar with the Japanese tradition when greeting guests. For Westerners, who are not used to service personnel lining up in a row and bowing to guests at 90 degrees while saying welcome, it could be overwhelming. As a hotelier, how did you like this custom?

As a Westerner, for me bowing really takes some effort! But having lived and worked in Japan for six years, I do appreciate the gesture in which the Japanese people show respect. It is a part of the Japanese lifestyle. For example, one time I witnessed a minor car accident. Both drivers came out of their car and immediately started bowing and apologizing to each other. As a Westerner, it was unbelievable seeing this! You know, if this had happened in the West, people would have yelled at each other or even started a fight! Japanese learn to respect life, rules and regulations. If you live there, you will appreciate it.

The most elaborate Japanese social custom to me is the ancient ritual of greeting when serving samurai. In modern day Japan, some of the same approach is adopted to serve upscale hotel and restaurant guests. How did you find this custom?

You mean Geisha houses? In Geisha houses, it is very much appreciated; and it is almost normal. Again, you have to adapt to the customers' expectation. In Japan, you learn to be a service professional --- and not just a servant.

Disney is an American company that incorporates a lot of pop culture in its hotel and entertainment services. Comparing to the traditional Japanese approach to service, the difference is considerable and yet, the Disney's style of services is very popular with its guests, especially with the younger generation. You have extensive experiences with both --- and I am going to put you on the spot --- if you were not a hotelier but a hotel guest, which approach would you prefer?

I've seen both worlds. I've seen the hotel side and the entertainment side of Disney. There are three times in your life you must go to Disneyland: when you are a child, when you are a parent and when you are a grandparent. The Disney entertainment tries to cater to all three generations. On the hotel side of the business, Disney - compared to Japanese hotels - is more informal. As a guest, I prefer the way I run my hotels, which is warm and relaxed, yet, refined.

There must be quite an adjustment moving from Disney to The Ritz-Carlton. How did you do it?
In some ways it was very difficult to adjust, but there are similarities. For example, both are American companies. Both are high-quality organizations. Both understand that happy employees will lead to happy guests, and happy guests tend to spend more money.

Traditionally, Singapore and Hong Kong share some similarities as city-states and major business hubs in Asia. At the same time, they are considered rivals. Do you feel that Hong Kong hoteliers must compete with Singapore for business and leisure travelers?

Mainland Chinese are the predominant travelers in Hong Kong. It is just like Holland or any other country, the Tourism Bureau tries to attract people to their country and cities. A number of years ago, Singapore legalized gambling. Hong Kong has not. On the other hand, Macau, which is situated practically next door to Hong Kong, is known for casinos. Therefore, Macau and Singapore are able to attract a certain type of travelers. This helps to generate higher occupancy rate, which pushes up the room rates. But competition is healthy . . . .

"Saving face" is extremely important to Hong Kong Chinese, especially business people. Elaborate dinner parties in expensive hotels and restaurants with an overabundance of food and drinks. Extravaganza is often their way to impress their business associates, colleagues, families and friends and even competitors. As a Dutch person --- frugality and simplicity are known to be a part of the Dutch life style --- how did you adjust to such a different culture?

I am Chinese, well, practically! :) I just have a Dutch passport! When we play soccer, my blood is orange [the color of Dutch National Football Team]. Otherwise, my wife was born in Hong Kong and my children go to school here in Hong Kong. I am very satisfied with the life I lead here. It has been good! I love Holland, but I will live the rest of my life in Hong Kong.

You mentioned in one of your interviews that you make every area in your hotels measurable. What performance measurement metrics do you regularly use? Can you give a few examples?

If you don't set measurement, you cannot make improvement. I learned this early on. You need to know: "Where am I now? Where am I going?" Running a hotel is a process. For example, when a customer checks in, it's a process. Employees must complete the check-in process within a given time. They should not take too long, otherwise, customers will become impatient or do it too quickly because then some parts of the process will not be done or will be done hastily. If measurements are well-defined, every employee knows what is expected of him/her.

How do you measure "quality"?

Quality is a big word. It reminds me of my boss. He asks only one thing from me: "Make it great!" When you talk about quality, first, you must employ the right people, who can deliver quality output, not just occasionally but consistently. Second, you must explain what is expected of the employees, may they be chefs or front office employees. Third, the entire organization must strive for quality and continuous improvement.

Modern technology allows virtual traveling and conferencing. In time, more and more people will utilize technology to substitute actual traveling and attending of meetings and conferences. Will this development affect the hotel business? In your opinion, should hotels make changes to accommodate the new technology?

When I worked in Tokyo, Cisco installed the TelePresence infrastructure (a software that makes virtual conferencing possible) in our hotel. But I feel that there is nothing better than going somewhere, sitting down with people and talking face to face. I don't think the new technology will replace business traveling.

Everyone says, people skill is very important for hoteliers --- but it cannot be the only thing. After all, the world is full of people with good people skill, but very few become successful hotel executives. If you were to bag your success factors, what would they be?
When you are young and inexperienced, if you want to stand out, you must be willing to work hard and for long hours --- and in the hotel business you know you are paid less than what your friends earn. I remember my father told me that I should always volunteer to take on extra tasks. In time, people will notice that you are a team player and you will be valued more. I was willing to sacrifice in order to get what I wanted --- I dreamed of being a GM. But, of course, I loved what I did. I enjoy working in the service industry. Luck, being at the right place at the time, is another factor. Sometimes, you can make your "luck" but it is not always the case.

As the top executive in the Hotel Division of your company, what characteristics would you consider important for a manager?

  • Hardworking: The harder you work, the more you will learn about the hotel business. So, hard working and having knowledge in the hotel industry are two sides of the same coin.
  • Highly intelligent is important, but "smartness" is more important. There is a difference between the two.
  • Loyalty: People cannot rely on you or trust you if they don't feel you are loyal to the company.
  • Visionary: You must be able to communicate to your organization where you are going --- any employee would like to know that and follow your vision.
  • Leadership: A good leader has charisma and people skill, so that people can trust him --- and be willing to follow in his footsteps. Your customers, employees and shareholders all judge you in your leadership ability. You can only do your job better than anyone if they place their trust in you.
  • Management skill: You learn it through hard work and by working along the side of right mentors.

Are there additional characteristics you would like to add to this list?

  • Be humble. Walk with your chin up, but not your nose up. In other words, walk with confidence, but not with arrogance.
  • Never forget where you come from. Give the younger ones a chance. Remember, when you first started, someone gave you a chance.
  • If I hire smart and intelligent people, I create an environment for quality performance.
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Dr. Lily Lin

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