Banyan Tree’s chain of world-famous spa and luxury resorts is recognized as one of the most visible and fastest-growing brands in Asia. But it grew out of some unlikely circumstances. Its founder, Ho Kwon Ping, always considered himself a bit of a rebel and an accidental hotelier. During the time he was trying to shift away from a traditional manufacturing and import-export business in the1980s, Kwon Ping stumbled upon an old, abandoned tin mine, which eventually became the vision for Laguna Phuket. Created in 1987, it is now Asia’s largest integrated resort. In 1994, drawing from Kwon Ping’s lifelong passion for adventure and romance, Banyan Tree was born with its first hotel in Phuket. In the last 20 years, it has grown to become one of the leading independent hotel chains in the world, with more than 35 resorts in more than 15 different countries. The Banyan Tree brand is known for its commitment to being a “Sanctuary for the Senses,” combining exceptional experiences for its guests with a deep and genuine concern for its environment.
Today, Kwon Ping’s eldest son, Ho Ren Hua, or Ren, is in charge of Banyan Tree in China and working hard on building his “team for the future” in this high-priority market. Ren joined us in Kuala Lumpur at our inaugural DM 100 meeting; he and I have kept up a meaty e-mail dialog about founder stories ever since our conversations there.
Ren is an ardent student of business and leadership and very committed to his role as a “next-generation founder,” trying to balance the work of keeping the Founder’s MentalitySM alive while also helping to further professionalize and scale his company. He is very conscious and aware of the 80/20 rule: 80% of the time keep to what a first-professional would do in terms of adhering to systems and processes, but 20% of the time, celebrate the sense of chaos and rule-breaking insurgency that founders naturally carry.
Let me play back our most recent conversation for you. Ren had just finished a full-day training workshop for 40 high-potential junior managers from 10 hotels across China. Most were in their 20s or 30s, and about two to three levels below the general manager (GM). “If the GMs are the kings in our court, these guys are our knights fighting and jostling each day. After all, a king can only fight as strong as his knights are,” said Ren. “They are our real front line, and touch our customer. Added together, they have tremendous influence on impacting how our guests feel about the Banyan Tree experience.” In running this workshop, he was determined to embed a sense of Founder’s Mentality with this team.
Here were his three main lessons:
1. Give every knight your personal voice. Ren’s part of the workshop was only one full day, but he made an effort to reach out to every young manager during that time. “A young junior manager couldn’t care less about grand strategy, talking fancy analytical numbers or new business development, but just want to be heard with authenticity. They want emotional leadership, and [to know] who their leader is,” he says. “So I spent five to 10 minutes one-on-one with each to listen, to deeply listen, suspending judgment. I then could talk to them about our founding vision and what we stand for. I told them I do not have all the answers, but we have a plan. When they hear my voice on these topics, I know it has a multiplier effect back at the hotel: one speaks to five, and five speak to 20. It took time, but I learned a huge amount, and know they will take key messages forward. There is absolutely no shortcut to listening to the front line.”
Ren now carries a small notebook specifically so that he can jot down the names of each person he talks to and record their stories. This notebook contains the stories and voices of the front line, what the people who create the Banyan Tree experience touch and feel every day. This is similar to the practice of the best CEOs I know. They keep a laminated sheet with them that has a one-page version of strategy on one side and a list of their top 100 knights on the other, with the knights’ mobile numbers and date of last contact. They make it a point to personally connect with each one four times a year to talk through the strategy and also to listen.
2. Let the knights flourish and create their future. Here’s Ren: “These managers have been here an average of two or three years, far less than our old kings [general managers] who have been here more than 10 years, since their founding mission from the 1990s, so [the new managers’] sense of legacy and heritage is still quite limited and young. Their challenges are different, their turnover rate potentially higher. They are the millennial generation that was born when the firm was born, so I couldn’t repeat nor bore them with too many grandfather stories.” That said, Ren still reinforced the company’s core values, such as Passion. (“We deliver exceptional experiences to our guests,” Ren explains) and Teamwork “I want them to create new foundational stories based on these values,” Ren says. “My goal has to be to empower creativity from the roots so we can maintain our sense of insurgency. I want them to feel that they can speak up, create their own ideas and allow a bit of healthy chaos. I would love these knights to feel that they own their own future, and they have their stories to tell in time to come.” He couldn’t help adding: “The entire workshop was such a rousing success that at the end of it (dancing Gangnam Style at the graduation dinner!), in itself, it became a foundational story for this new generation of leaders. One day, these knights will become a king.”
3. Commit to precise, simple follow-up actions; collectively, they all add up to a culture strategy. Ren has committed to set aside time to listen to these frontline managers, or even conduct mini-workshops, on each of his hotel trips. He makes listening to the front line his personal mission, which includes visiting different parts of the hotel, walking around the grounds and eating at the staff canteen, and leading with authenticity, passion and purpose. Going forward, he is committed to mentoring and developing career paths for associates even two to three levels below him. Ren also spends a disproportionate amount of time recruiting new talent.
The benefits of the last workshop will live on through an online chat group he created to post the stories of the 40 he met with. Small steps like these, along with his ever-present notebook, “will force me not just to worry about strategy and business planning, but also the voice of the customer and the voice of the front line,” Ren says. His biggest takeaway is that building culture is a daily mindset of behavior, leadership and influence. He gets tremendous inspiration from his father who, as chairman of the company, still spends his time talking and interacting with staff, walking all around the hotel, and making it his philosophy to make every associate feel like they belong to a larger global family.
As founder-led companies gain scale and scope, there is a risk that the leaders become so absorbed with high-level discussion of strategy and business planning that they forget it is the kings and knights working every day with customers that truly create the future.
Ren is fighting this threat every day with his little Founder Mentality notebook, capturing the daily stories of his knights and making them available to the full team. With this simple tool, he is empowering them to write the next chapters of Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts, where knights will inevitably become kings one day. And so the insurgency continues.