Stamina for Success
A dynamic and strategic thinker and leader, Chief Executive Officer of Ascott Hospitality, Gerald Lee, believes there are no short-cuts to success, but plenty of stamina for improvement and having a sense of accomplishment.
Issue: Jul 2009
Mr Gerald Lee extends a warm welcome to Professor Deborah Rupp, first resident at Citadines Singapore Mount Sophia, which opened this January.
The journey to the top began early for Mr Gerald Lee, CEO of Ascott Hospitality, The Ascott Group Limited (a subsidiary of CapitaLand). As a youth, he was already thinking of how he could take the less conventional path, and set his sights on making his mark in the tourism and hospitality arena, at a time when the industry was still relatively young in Asia.
Today, after clocking in around 20 years of experience in this sector and having spent 10 years outside Singapore in various countries, the 43-year-old is now heading the hospitality management arm of a company with operations in over 60 cities, spread across 22 countries in Asia, Europe and the Gulf region.
The next lap? He would like Ascott to manage twice as many properties as it is doing today, and achieve a service standard synonymous with the best in the travel and hospitality industry.
What motivates and inspires him every day? "A sense of pride and accomplishment. It is definitely not money. I don’t wake up every morning thinking how much money I am going to make today, but instead, what critical mission and tasks I have to accomplish," he says. "There is so much more that we can do, to improve, to grow, to be in more places, and this is what keeps me excited as a professional."
Mr Lee speaking passionately on the launch of Citadines Singapore Mount Sophia
Armed with a hunger to excel and an infectious drive to achieve more, Mr Lee has certainly made many missions possible. He was one of the brains behind the strategic redevelopment of Sentosa in the early 2000’s to help the island attract more visitors.
His stints at the Singapore Tourism Board, the Sentosa Development Corporation and the Ministry of Trade and Industry, as well as his involvement in a number of high-level steering committees allowed him to work closely with industry players including investors, retailers, hoteliers and developers. That helped him to gain some understanding of real estate, and opened his eyes to the exciting prospects in this industry.
After joining CapitaLand, he started out at the corporate head office, and helped set up the Corporate Marketing Department. Shortly after, he concurrently oversaw the marketing function at Ascott. When a senior executive was needed to manage the transition after the Citadines chain in Europe was acquired, Mr Lee was given the reins to lead the team there as Ascott's Chief Executive Officer, Europe in 2006. Although he could not speak French, he was prepared to take on the posting and be based in Paris. He went on to help to win the European staff over, and put in place the company's growth strategies for the region.
"I had to understand the European psyche, and gain their trust and confidence. We have a large team in France, and a sizeable one in the UK. The French need to be convinced of new ideas and like to express their views. They only come on board after a healthy discussion. Once a decision is made, they do a good job following through. They are quite methodical in their planning and execution."
In the two years that Mr Lee lived in Paris, he introduced new ideas and practices to further integrate the team within the company, and grew Ascott’s presence in Europe. He put in place the core business development team, and foraged for new business opportunities in Eastern Europe and Russia. The team had a productive time during that period – it won five management contracts, made two investments, and divested two properties.
Finding Opportunities in Difficult Times
Mr Lee, with Ascott Singapore Raffles Place Assistant Residence Manager Andrew Donadel, often interacts with staff to get their views on enhancing guest experience
Back here in Singapore since late 2007, Mr Lee has ambitious plans to grow the business in Asia Pacific, with China, India and Vietnam as the top priority markets. Ascott has been in China and Vietnam for more than 10 years now, while India is a new market. Ascott has already built up a sizeable presence in China with more than 5,000 units in 26 properties, 17 of which are currently in operation.
Having started with gateway cities in the key markets, the strategy is to move into second tier cities now.
"As long as there is economic growth in Asia, there will be more people travelling for business. The potential for us to provide our services even in far-flung cities is there for us to tap," says Mr Lee with conviction.
"In fact, the current global economic crisis presents opportunities for us to find suitable residential and commercial developments which we can convert to serviced apartments. We’ve been approached by a number of developers to manage their properties as serviced residences."
Passion for Service
Mr Lee, with friends from the media at Ascott's 25th Anniversary celebration event
As one of the relatively younger CEOs in CapitaLand, does he find managing a culturally diverse team spread across 22 countries a daunting challenge? With a soft yet confident smile, Mr Lee says that it is all about giving a vision and "leading by example."
And certainly, he won’t have a problem doing that. Those who know him say he’s warm and sincere; a mark of a man perfectly suited for a hospitality job.
To infuse Ascott staff with the same passion for service, Mr Lee pays extra care and attention to the company’s people development and training programmes. Last year, the company officially opened the Ascott Centre for Excellence, its global training centre in Singapore to equip staff with the expertise to provide excellent service. Ascott also rolled out programmes including one that cross-trains front desk staff and potential residence managers from different countries. In May, a global service campaign around the theme of "Service Begins with Me" was launched to enable staff to recognise the meaning and value of each step they take, big and small, in making guests' stays extra special and memorable.
"When I travel, I always talk to our staff and guests, to get feedback about our service. I want to know where we have done well and how we can take in new ideas to serve our guests better."
Mr Lee believes that this focus on enhancing guest experience has enabled Ascott to grow steadily over the years. To thank customers for their support, Ascott has introduced a series of promotions and rewards as the company celebrates its 25th Anniversary this year.
"Customers can look forward to an unprecedented grand prize of free stays for the next 25 years. They may also enjoy rewards of free stays and 25% off best available rates in participating properties in over 25 cities each month. We hope that the rewards and promotions will give them more reason to choose Ascott."
Formula for Success
In his free time, Mr Lee enjoys long distance running. He has completed a half-marathon and two full marathons so far. The sport, he says, is a constant reminder and reflection of his business and life principles.
"Once you sign up for the race, a commitment is made. To finish a marathon, one has to train properly and consistently. You have to be prepared, and can’t wait till the last minute. Even with training, at certain stretches, especially towards the last 10 km, pain will kick in, and it can be a struggle. Endurance and will power are important in pushing you forward to finish the race."
Mr Lee says the same kind of commitment required for finishing a marathon is applied to his work. He added, "Once a business deal is signed, it is the start of a long journey to get the project ready to the starting point, and then manage it well over the long haul. It is not always easy and plain sailing, and there are many obstacles that can upset and discourage you. We need the stamina and perseverance to carry on - to always look after the welfare and development of the staff, look relentlessly for ways to win customers, and look continuously for opportunities to grow the business."
"In life as in running a marathon, what helps to keep me going is having the end point in my mind, especially during the toughest stretch – forgetting what lies behind and pressing on toward the goal to finish the race."
For the CEO, there are indeed no short-cuts to success, but plenty of stamina and perseverance. This is a leader who firmly believes in going that extra mile for guests, partners, and the company in order to keep Ascott at the top of the serviced residence business.