Rumour has it that the new CEO of Rotana is a very demanding boss. He doesn’t settle for any idea unless it’s thoroughly researched, reanalysed and nothing short of perfect. He pushes his team to deliver the best they can and doesn’t let them rest on their laurels.
And why should he?
Rotana has plans of operating 100 hotels by 2020, which will nearly double its inventory today to 25,000 hotel rooms. The UAE’s home-grown hotel management company announced the signing of 10 new properties in the UAE, Iran, Tanzania and Sudan in May, fortifying its position as the largest hotel operator on home turf. These hotel signings are in addition to the properties announced earlier in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Qatar.
Juggling with decisions over seven to eight new hotel openings at any given time, Rotana needs a leader who is ferociously committed, while encouraging his subordinates to be the same. British-Iraqi national Omer Kaddouri fills the role of the chief executive and president with a flourish, adding a wicked sense of humour, oodles of charm and personality to the mix.
GROWING UP WITH HOTELS
Kaddouri was born in Baghdad, grew up mostly in the Middle East but had a very interesting childhood culturally, with an English mother and Arabic-Iraqi father, celebrating both Christmas and Eid. “While growing up in Egypt, we experienced a society where entertainment was focused on hotels. If you went out for dinner, wanted to lounge by the pool or fancied a weekend off, you would head towards a hotel. A fair portion of our lives were connected with hotels,” he explains.
There are still some nationalities in the region, however, who are not comfortable planning a career in hospitality, as it is a service-oriented industry. “Yes, there is a stigma in some countries, but it won’t last forever,” says Kaddouri, who took over as President and CEO from Rotana’s co-founder Selim El Zyr in January this year. “For countries like Egypt and Lebanon, hospitality has been the bread and butter for generations, often being the largest industry in the country. In other parts of the region, not so steeped in hotel culture, older members of the family still protest, not keen to see younger members of their family serving people in restaurants and being in an environment where alcohol is served.”
After a thoughtful pause the CEO admits: “My father was the same. When I told him I wanted to go to hotel school, he told me ‘you’re not going to be a waiter’. ‘Well, it’s not about being a waiter, it’s about being a general manager’, I replied.”
“Now we joke about it,” he grins.
“Let’s face it. The hospitality industry employs hundreds of millions of people around the world today. We at Rotana are trying to encourage people to leave their inhibitions behind by showing how their involvement can benefit the industry and their country. It’s a very exciting industry and a very rewarding one too.”
MAKING THE RIGHT CHOICE
What a loss it would have been for the industry if Kaddouri had not been bored of his business books! “It’s a lesser-known fact that I didn’t go to a hotel school first – I went to an American business school in the UK, but I lasted only for a semester. I realised that it just wasn’t for me.”
“I’m a practical guy. I like to do things, talk to people, fix things, have projects and be challenged,” he tells Arabian Knight, waving his hands expressively.
Kaddouri graduated from Les Roches International School of Hotel Management, one of the world’s top three hospitality schools, in 1986. Thirty years on, he is a major stakeholder in the industry, leading the Middle East’s most successful hospitality chain. “Maybe I was just fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time to be recognised by the right people,” he says modestly.
“I’ve always liked to take things one step at a time. If you think too much about your next step, you’re not really digging your feet into your job, are you now? I have spent enough time in each position to collect the ammunition to become a strong leader. I didn’t join hotel school thinking I’d be a CEO. It happened organically.”
Indeed, Kaddouri’s first job after hotel school was as an assistant banquet head waiter at a Hilton hotel in London. “Banqueting is a tough job. It’s about setting things up, then breaking them down, serving people until 2 o’clock in the morning and getting the place ready for a conference starting the next day at 7 am.”
“Very often, we slept in the ballroom under banquet tables. We only had about three hours between back-to-back events,” he recalls.
Kaddouri also admits that during those early days he often wondered if the grass was greener on the other side. “Our industry is very demanding. You have to work very hard to succeed – the hours are long, often times there are no weekends and there’s very little family time, so I reconsidered my decision many times. However, I’m glad I stuck to it despite the second and third thoughts.”
WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN
“If I hadn’t been in hospitality though, I most certainly would have been a real-estate broker,” smiles Kaddouri. “I remember in my early days in London we used to do lavish breakfasts for real-estate companies. They would talk about the millions they made and we would be up and in uniform at 5 am preparing everything for them. I observed these impeccably dressed gods and goddesses of real estate, and thought ‘Wow! I think I’ll go and sell some houses and be a real estate agent’.”
“I still have a little bit of the real estate bug,” he admits.
“But those days in London bring back amazing memories. You’ve got to have the tools in your tool kit to be able to lead people into the future; recall how hard it was to work in those circumstances and inspire and motivate your younger colleagues,” he says. “Hard work is recognised. There are some places where you do work hard and are not acknowledged – these are bad working environments, this is what forces people to leave companies. Rotana is a company where people are recognised for their achievements. Fortunately, since we are also a growing company, there is room for people to grow alongside.”
Indeed, the growing company is set to almost double its people count to 22,000 to open 100 hotels by 2020.
IT'S ALL ABOUT PEOPLE
At every stage of your career, says Kaddouri, there’s always someone who believes in you more than others, who pushes you up the ladder faster, because they believe in you.
“I’ve always said this and I’ll say it again, people are the most important aspect of a business. It’s all about people, about customers, people who work for you, owners... There are so many stakeholders in your life! Nobody gets anywhere without people.”
“It is for this reason that succession planning for Rotana has been put in place for a long time. We know quite a while ahead who’s going to be taking over and why. And since we invest in this strategy, we can ensure that the person who is taking over has all the necessary tools and advice.”
Kaddouri says that El Zyr – who opened his first hotel with Rotana, the Beach Rotana Abu Dhabi, back in 1993 – has been his mentor “for the longest duration” ever since Kaddouri joined the group.
“We make a very good team and I’ve received a lot of good advice from him over the years. Before Rotana, I only spent five years in Hilton. I’ve spent more than three times the time in Rotana. It’s because I believed in the company and also perhaps because they believed in me. This July, I will be in Rotana for 16 years. I’d like to believe that I’m leaving behind a legacy.”
THE ROTANA RELATIONSHIP
Kaddouri became part of the Rotana family in 1998 as Resident Manager of the Al Bustan Rotana in Dubai. In 2000, he was offered the opportunity to manage the Beach Rotana in Abu Dhabi, to prepare for its landmark $68-million expansion.
The years that followed saw Kaddouri take on the roles of Area Vice-President and, in 2008, Senior Vice-President – UAE operations. He became Executive Vice-President and COO of Rotana in 2010, playing an instrumental role in the successful opening of several new properties across the Middle East and Africa.
“We are all in it for a reason,” says Kaddouri. “My driving force is my family.” But perhaps even before his family, what deserves a mention as his raison d’etre is his passion to make a difference.
Feedback collected from colleagues who work closely with him suggests that he’s always focused on making things better; keen to fix things, to improve. He thrives on challenges and, in turn, challenges his teammates to better their performance. Despite a busy schedule, he has time for everything and everyone. “I am one of the first to come to work in the mornings,” he says. “I like to come to work early. It gives me that extra hour before the day starts.”
“A lot of my work day is invested in meetings. I believe face-to-face communication is imperative. We empower people in our company to give ideas and opinions, not just follow orders. When you have a growing company like ours, everybody is a stakeholder, everybody needs to have a voice,” he says.
But regardless of the work-intensive environment at Rotana, there isn’t a meeting that has gone without a laugh. “Joking and laughing in the office is as important as sitting down and having serious projects discussions, project update meetings and revenue reports. It’s important to have a balance in life – work hard, play hard. Whether in good times or bad, you need to have a mood by which you are not intimidating people, both at work and home,” he says.
FUN AND FAMILY
When Kaddouri is not working, he can most likely be found playing golf and tennis, enjoying Italian food or holidaying in southern Europe. He loves driving around in his white Porsche and has a special liking for Rolex watches. “My father gave me a Rolex that I’ve had with me for 40 years now. For me, a Rolex is not just a symbol of quality but also tradition. I’m quite notorious for buying watches in general, I must say: Watches, watch out!” he jokes.
Apples too, are a few of his favourite things: “Big, crunchy ones”.
“My father used to work too hard and he was always so busy that he didn’t have time for vacations,” laments Kaddouri. “While growing up, my mother was my inspiration. She was there for us, and I have learned from her that you really need to sacrifice for your family. If you love your work, don’t channel only into your work, be good at what you do but also have time for your family and friends.”
“A healthy mind and spirit is only achieved when you’re not completely focused on your work. A balanced work-life environment is what makes us successful. If you’re only channelling your energy into work, it is not sustainable.”
“What happens at the end of your work life is that your children have grown up and settled down in their own lives, but their memories are those of having two loving parents, one of whom was never there.”
Ironically, a big part of Kaddouri’s job profile includes travelling, as Rotana charters new territory outside of its comfort zone. The Salalah Rotana Resort, Rotana’s first foray into Oman, opened earlier this year to rave reviews. Jordan’s first Rotana-branded beauty, The Boulevard Arjaan by Rotana in Amman, and the ART Rotana at Amwaj Islands in Bahrain are both scheduled to open later this year.
“I’m on the move, most of the time,” Kaddouri admits. “I’m in Lebanon one minute, Istanbul the next, and Dar Es Salam is scheduled for the week after. Last year, I made some 18 or 19 trips.”
The doting father, however, always makes it a point to spend time with his wife and kids.
HAPPY PROPERTY OWNERS
Even at work, he tries to keep it personal with property owners, a luxury most international hotel chains cannot afford, and what most likely sets Rotana apart, says Kaddouri.
“Our proximity, our availability and our personal touch, the fact that we treat our owners’ properties as our own despite being a management company, gives us that edge. Besides, our owners are our best salesmen; they advertise our products and services for us. A lot of our owners are from the royal family, high-net-worth individuals, prominent businessmen, and a lot of the hotels we have signed today have come as referrals from current owners.”
“Our magnitude will never be like that of the multinationals. We don’t aspire to be as large as them. We are growing, but we want to stay a size where we can be different from the others, be like what we are today,” our Knight of Hospitality concludes.