Interview: Rotana's Selim El Zyr

It’s all change at Rotana this year, with co-founder Selim El Zyr stepping down from his role as CEO after 21 years. Here, he reflects on a lifetime dedicated to hospitality, how he’s signed close to 100 hotels and why his successor has the drive, energy and fairness to follow in his footsteps
Selim El Zyr founded rotana with Nasser Al Nowais, chairman of the company, in 1992.
By Louise Oakley
Tue 14 Jan 2014 03:55 PM

Selim El Zyr told me several years ago that in pursuing a career in hotels, he has always sought to follow his father’s advice: “you can be anything you want, but be the best at your chosen profession”. Driven by passionate ambition and a vision to succeed, tempered by a patient nature and the willingness to learn from mistakes, as the co-founder, president and CEO of Rotana Hotel Management Corporation PJSC, El Zyr has ridden out economic storms and regional crises to sign close to 100 hotels. He’s taken the Abu Dhabi-based hotel group throughout the Middle East and entered Africa, South Asia and Eastern Europe, proving that local management can operate at international standards.

El Zyr was the first ever hotelier to score the top spot in the Hotelier Middle East Power 50 in 2009 and since then he has remained in one of the top six positions — in the esteemed company of peers with the backing of large international hotel institutions. El Zyr has always been on top of trends, focusing on offering a diversified brand portfolio when global companies are still yet to bring much-needed midscale and budget hotels to the market, and targeting a broad range of guests with both business-oriented city hotels and leisure resorts. He’s taken the brand to emerging markets, launched a loyalty programme, made in-roads with online and mobile bookings, focused on accessible, authentic and entertaining F&B options and most recently, in 2013, launched Rotana Earth, a full-scale sustainability drive. It’s fair to assume that he made his father proud.

But now, at the very peak of his career, El Zyr has made the bold decision to step down as CEO. With executive vice president  and chief operating officer Omer Kaddouri waiting in the wings and ready to take the mantle on January 1, the company is in safe hands, but there is no question that this is the end of an era for Rotana. Colleagues I’ve spoken with have expressed their sadness at the departure and while El Zyr will still sit on the board, there will be a new decision maker in the hot seat. But with all endings comes a new chapter and as El Zyr prepares to start his new year with gusto, I paid a visit to Rotana’s new HQ in Abu Dhabi’s Capital Centre to look back on two decades of learning and a dream delivered — and find out why 2014 is the time for change.

Starting small

One reason El Zyr inspires so many is because of his background holding hands-on roles in operations. A Lebanese national, he says he knew he wanted to be a hotelier since he first stepped into a hotel in 1964. He started his first job as a chief steward at the Waldorf-Astoria New York. In 1973 he came to Abu Dhabi with just a couple of thousand dirhams to his name, inspired by Ahmad Nahas who was the area vice president at that time for Hilton. A 12-year career with Hilton ensued, followed by a brief stint founding fast food chain Juicy Burger in Lebanon in 1982, before returning to the UAE with Abu Dhabi National Hotels. While successful working with others, El Zyr was aware there was a significant gap in the Middle East hotel market; one that he felt compelled to fill.

“I discovered that there is a gap between global companies — what they promise and what they deliver. And the gap was with the developers, who did not understand what to expect from a management company. There was a cultural gap, there was an expectation gap, there was a communications gap,” he recalls.

With life-long friend Nasser Al Nowais, chairman of Rotana, El Zyr created Rotana to bridge this gap and align the expectations of developer and operator, a principle that remains core to the company today. Even at the outset, the “initial agenda” was to compete with international operators, and so great time and care was taken to create, write and record thousands of policies. Nothing was copied or compiled from the expertise of others.

“One person had to write everything, do everything,” says El Zyr. “Our objective was to build an institution. There has been bumps and barriers but from day one, we started putting one brick in every day to build this wall.

Article continued on next page...

“Now of course what you can do is you can start a hotel management company today by hiring 10 or 20 people — put them comfortably in an office and you start writing policies and procedures and then you go out shopping and bidding for companies. Now this is one way, and the other way is the way we started. So we started the tough way, brick-by-brick. We have hand-built this company.”

The turning point came when Rotana started to amass operating hotels, with portfolio targets shifting upwards each time another 10 or so properties joined the fold. El Zyr says he remained realistic, setting achievable targets and only pinpointing the magic number of 100 hotels by 2020 in recent years.

“We are very close to 100. I told myself and I told the future CEO that in two years I’ll give you 100 hotels and go. So he will have 100 in the system, of course,” asserts El Zyr.

Currently, the announced total portfolio stands at 85 hotels, but El Zyr says that actually there are around “96 or 97, although this number can change every minute”.

He’s confident that the 100-target will be met before 2020 and this in part will be achieved through expansion beyond the Middle East, although he admits there is still a lot to learn beyond the core base.

“The attitude of investors towards hotels is completely different. I don’t want to say we are in a learning process because learning is an endless process. We are still learning in Abu Dhabi today; if there is a project, we go and learn about it. So, we have passed the learning process in some countries like Turkey, like India. But learning does not mean successful projects. Learning means acquiring the knowledge and starting to understand,” he explains, adding that Africa is the next place to discover.

Just as the company was built organically, expansion overseas will follow the same model. El Zyr is adamant Rotana will not force expansion by opening offices intended purely to sign deals in markets the company does not yet understand.

“The growth of Rotana in the Middle East now is almost mature and completed. I mean, you cannot go anymore into cities where you have three, four or five hotels or more sometimes. So you have to go either to secondary cities or to grow overseas. So our natural course will be going overseas.

“But it is not a forced growth. I mean, forced growth is to go and open an office in China and in Russia and then this office will look for opportunities. That is really a forced growth. What we are doing is completely different; we are going naturally, we are taking it step-by-step, we are still servicing these hotels that we have taken overseas from this office in order to avoid the mistakes that were made by major companies. I have seen many, many companies grow to a certain dimension then all of a sudden they grow so much that they have to chop heads,” he laments, explaining that Rotana’s approach is less risky in this element.

Creating a culture

Having touched on the all-important issue of human resources, I am curious as to how El Zyr selected the people to help him deliver his vision 20 years ago and how now, he ensures the company culture he fostered at the beginning filters through the team of 10,000-plus.

Article continued on next page...

He says the philosophy is the same at it has always been: to seek out people with ambition, and the intelligence and patience to deliver on this. The challenge is then to keep ambitious people motivated, by offering them the chance to grow and develop.

“In this respect I think Rotana has been very successful. Intelligent people that are motivated, career-driven; we have many of them here. We have had maybe one or two changes in the corporate office in the last 15-20 years. And all of these people have grown with me; I mean I have also grown. When I started this company, my professional abilities, my commercial, negotiating abilities were not as they are today; I was not as mature as I am,” he admits.

“Knowledge you can acquire but ambition is something you are born with, I mean you cannot teach someone to be ambitious. If he is not ambitious, he is not ambitious.

“Young people have to understand that it’s an investment,” he says of a career in hospitality, complaining that today candidates are often too concerned with salary.

“Anybody, to succeed, needs to be educated. This doesn’t mean going to the best university in the world; education is also a process, you can be educated while performing your duties, as you are starting your family, growing,” he observes. “Number two, is patience. Many people failed in their lives because of their lack of patience, they want everything when they need it, whereas, in reality, things will come to you when it is right, at the right time. The third thing is ambition, one must have big ambition, big dreams. Fourth, learn from mistakes. There are people that don’t make a decision because they cannot tolerate the idea of making a wrong decision but if you don’t learn from your mistakes, you don’t learn at all. It’s not the end of the world. Turn the page and restart.

“Finally, structure your career. If you want to become a general manager, you have to know at what time and when. I have a piece of paper that I wrote on maybe 20 years ago. When do I want to retire? When is my son getting married? When is he graduating? I wrote it out. Believe me. And sure enough... it’s maybe 80% near reality,” reveals El Zyr.

“Plan your future. Don’t think that you can become a chief executive or a general manager overnight. I am, today, a different chief executive than I was 20 years ago. It is because of the process of learning, education and patience,” he reflects.

Handing over the reins

With that in mind, it’s clear that El Zyr has known for some time that he will be stepping down in 2014. But still, handing over the reins after 21 years leading a business is quite an undertaking — particularly when it’s a business one has started.

The transition will be fairly gradual, with El Zyr sitting on the board and essentially acting as coach and consultant to Kaddouri.

“I’m going to be here to answer any questions he wants. And I’m going to probably look at unconventional deals that the company makes with third parties,” he says. “I want to spend four to five hours a day [with Rotana] for the next couple of years until things are smooth.”

Article continued on next page...

He’s confident of course that Kaddouri has the character to continue in his footsteps despite some personality differences.

“I discovered my successor maybe 10 years ago. I discovered in him the drive and the energy, the intelligence and the fairness one needs; he was fair, he was correct. I saw that this guy has got a future; the way he talked, the way he behaved, the way he performed his duties; I saw that this is a promising individual. And I said to myself and I even shared it with some of my partners and colleagues here that this is a winning bet. He has not disappointed me yet,” says El Zyr, proudly.

But he adds that in some ways, the pair are very different.

“Our colleagues in the company are going to find differences. Dealing with him is completely different to dealing with me. I am probably tougher than him,” laughs El Zyr.

Kaddouri too, will notice a big change, he adds. “It’s a very big shift. Because you know, being answerable for every question, every problem in the company is different from having an umbrella — he’s now sitting on the roof and sometimes it’s lonely to be on top. But he is lucky because he will have me for a couple of years yet!

“It can be good; it can be bad that he has me,” he adds, realistically. “He can rely on me. I know that it’s not easy for him, I know it’s not easy for me if I see something that is not done the way I like it to be done; I may be irritated but I will learn that, okay, as long as it doesn’t harm the company,  it doesn’t harm him, I’ll let him do it,” says El Zyr.

For himself though, El Zyr says the time is definitely right to move on. He’s at the summit of his career, with the potential to still achieve much more in other areas.

“In the future, I will be busier than I am today; I know how to be busy anyway. I will be doing a lot of things that I had no time to do in the past,” he says, referring to pro bono work and speaker opportunities with universities, as well as spending more time with his children and grand children.

“I think that I still have the energy to do something else. It’s not that I want to start a career again or I want to open a fashion factory, no. There is still time for me to do significant things and to be useful, to the company and to myself.

“It is very challenging for the company — to find the right person to take off and hit the ground running,” he says of the change in leadership. “Of course, there are plenty of people who can be chief executives but would they react the same way we do? Would they think the same way we do? Would they understand our culture? Is there a period of trial and error? What are the probabilities of success?

“So that’s why I said ‘okay Omer is almost ready, it’s the right time to put him to test’. As I told you high flyers will go, they will be poached, somebody is going to come and take them. So rather than wait until he is demotivated and wait until I am too old, let’s make the move,” he says confidently. “I said I want to go when I’m still able to be delivering at the optimum of my career and I’m there.”

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.