A CEO and a gentleman

Selim El Zyr, president and CEO of Rotana Hotels, talks to SHAFQUAT ALI about how he’s shaped the Middle East’s fastest-growing hotel chain
Selim El Zyr … ‘the secret of the Rotana’s success is that we hire the right people’

HE WAS barely 18 years old when he learnt his first lesson. A very painful lesson.

But the experience taught Selim El Zyr, president and CEO of Rotana Hotels, Suites & Resorts, something that no hotel training school in the world could have.
As part of his management studies at L'Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne, Switzerland, El Zyr was sent for six months practical training in the service department of one of Geneva’s best restaurants but things hardly turned out the way the young lad expected. “All the service staff there were Italian and I couldn’t speak their language – I only knew French and English at that time – and they ignored me by speaking only in their mother tongue,” he recalls. “But that’s not all. They even refused to allow me to come close to them and kept ordering me to clear the plates and the crockery whenever I approached them.
“Difficult as it was, I kept trying to communicate with them and then when I was standing next to the head waiter one day, he got annoyed that I was so close to him and shooed me away to get a platter of potato with cream. I shot off and, eager to please him, grabbed the silver platter he had kept on top of the heater without realising how hot it was. It was so hot that I dropped it and the whole restaurant, with over 100 people, turned towards me. Embarrassed, I ran to the kitchen without looking back.
“But before I could realise it, the head waiter came right after me. Without saying anything, he gave me a kick. A kick so hard that I almost fell on the floor. I picked myself up and I went straight to the restaurant owner’s office and told him that I didn’t think I was cut out for the job. “I cannot make it here.”
“He heard me out and then told me the head waiter was wrong and that he would get him to apologise to me. But there was a lesson in this for me. ‘Never be

violent, never lose your temper. This man lost his temper because you have embarrassed the whole restaurant but that doesn’t mean he can hit anybody,” he told me.
As it followed, El Zyr was given the day off and he spent the evening attending to his injured back and bruised ego. At daybreak, the head waiter knocked on his door. “He explained that I was his son’s age and that I should please accept his apology and come back to work,” he recalls. And El Zyr did just that.
“Besides the lesson in humility,” he says, “here was another. That you should not run away if you are abused in one way or the other. It’s all part of the learning process that you have to go through.” Clearly, these are lessons that have held El Zyr in good stead through his long hotel career.
After completing his formal education – from Lausanne he went on to do his post-graduate qualifications in hotel administration from the Ivy League Cornell University at Ithaca, New York – he landed his first job at the Waldorf restaurant in New York as assistant chief steward in charge of dishwashers in 1970. “Today, when I look back, I think it was a great beginning,” he says. “I was young; I had to deal with people who were rough and difficult to motivate being in the lowest grade in the hotel industry. But I told myself I would take any job regardless of the position. I was not after titles, I just wanted to prove to myself that I could handle any job. If I could communicate with the most lowly-paid staff and motivate them, that was the biggest challenge for me personally.”
With such steely determination and a never-say-die attitude, it was hardly surprising that his talent came in for early recognition. He started climbing the ladder at Hilton International Properties and travelled extensively, working in their properties in Germany, Spain, Egypt, Canada, Kuwait and the UAE. When El Zyr left the international hotel chain in 1982, he held the position of regional director. He went on to set up a leading fast food chain in Lebanon before returning to the UAE to join the Abu Dhabi National Hotels Company, where he managed their portfolio of properties located both in the UAE as well as overseas and, additionally, was vice-president of the Palmarvia and Diar Hotels groups.
With years of experience behind him, he moved on to take up the challenge of co-founding Rotana Hotels – the first regional Arab hotel chain – in September, 1992. “This was the biggest breakthrough in my career,” he recalls. “Before becoming co-founder of Rotana I was always working for other people. It was very different being a shareholder. There was a change in feeling… It was an amazing experience.”
Clearly, it was a risk worth taking. Over the last 12 years, El Zyr has taken Rotanta from a start-up company to the current-day management of 17 properties with a further ten properties under development in the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt (see box). Thanks to several new and successful strategic initiatives, El Zyr has significantly consolidated the group’s reputation as the Middle East region’s fastest-growing hotel chain and established itself as a household brand name.
Thanks to his humble beginning, it has been easy for El Zyr to understand the difficulty and concerns of the most lowly-paid staff. “Besides,” he adds, “I can understand the importance of their job and appreciate the fact that the man in lowest-paid job is often the most important for the success of the hotel.” He couldn’t be more right. You can go to the best hotel in the world but if the glass is not clean or if your plate is not polished properly or, for that matter, if the bell boy who opens the door is not as friendly as the manager, then you may not exactly want to head there again.
“The guest is not in touch with the top management unfortunately; he sees them accidentally,” adds El Zyr. “The guest is in touch with young people who relay the image of the management to the guest. They deliver the message of the hotel, not us. After all, a small thing like a hair left in the bathtub can spoil the whole guest experience and ruin the image of a five-star hotel.”
Not surprising then, that it is firmly entrenched in the culture of Rotana to look after the junior staff members or junior family members.
Often, in the glitzy world of hotels, it’s not just the glass and steel that matters. It’s the people who make all the diffference. “The secret of the Rotana’s success,” adds El Zyr, “is that we hire the right people – people who want to service.” And with someone like El Zyr at the helm of affairs, people in all departments are not only trusted but they are given the freedom to take decisions.
What’s more, Rotana has been able to introduce a unique blend of tried-and-tested Western concepts and traditional Middle East hospitality. It is the chain’s unique knowledge of local culture that has taken it from strength to strength.
“People respect us because we stick to our word, we don’t play dirty tricks and we don’t undercut,” he explains. “And we have proven we are people to be taken seriously. Initially, it was difficult to convince people that we could deliver but now that we have so many well-managed properties in our portfolio, they speak for themselves. We are also more economical than international chains. And most importantly, being a small company, we are always in touch with the owners of properties that we manage and share a one-to-one rapport with them. This is something they can’t expect from international companies which manage hundreds of properties around the world.”
Among other things, the Rotana chain is known for its wide range of food and beverage outlets. To his credit, El Zyr has some of the best international franchises like Benihana,  Trader Vic’s and Blue Elephant. “Many of my hotelier friends, who manage their own restaurants, asked why I was importing a concept,” he says. “My answer was simple: they are people who know more than us or are more focused in their work.” No wonder, then, that the company’s restaurants have always come in for praise. In April 2002, for instance, Rotana’s restaurants bagged an unprecedented 11 awards of the What’s On Awards and nominations for restaurants in the UAE.
So what’s the secret of his success? “Hard work, hard work and more hard work,” says El Zyr, who won the Horeca Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Hospitality Industry in 2003 and shared the honours for the Middle East CEO of the Year Award in the Business Sector with director-general of the Dubai World Trade Centre Mubarak bin Fahad last month. “Besides, people find it easy to trust me because I am straightforward and honest.” It also helps that El Zyr has rarely  lost his temper.