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.

Selim El Zyr founded rotana with Nasser Al Nowais, chairman of the company, in 1992.

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.

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