Having made her mark as CEO of Thaicom Plc, Suphajee Suthumpun, the new group CEO of Dusit International, is someone to watch in this industry
Why did you decide to leave Thaicom and join the hotel industry and Dusit?
Originally, I felt I had completed my mission in bringing Thaicom to the world. I was ready to retire from full-time work, and wanted to create more impact by supporting organisations and universities, and by doing executive coaching (she had attended an intensive bootcamp for established leaders at Berkeley Executive Coaching Institute).
I joined Dusit as board member last October and discovered that its passion and vision are exactly the same as mine, i.e. bringing a Thai brand to the world, and developing hospitality education, both of which are impactful. I’m happy and honoured to join that mission, so I accepted the role as group CEO on January 1.
You brought the Thai satellite operator from nowhere to eighth in the world and increased its market capitalisation five to six times in the four-plus years you ran the company. Can we expect that kind of growth at Dusit?
I’m not looking at just number of hotels, more schools to open or to increase the size of company. My goal is first, for each of our 4,000 employees – and this will grow to 12,000 as we open more hotels in the next few years – to be proud of being a part of Dusit and to believe in our mission. Ultimately, for Dusit to be seen as the homegrown asset of the country which all Thais can be proud of.
You’re the third CEO in the company’s 67-year history and the first from outside the founding family. Do you mark a new era for Dusit?
I’d say a new chapter, not new era – that’s too big; I’m not that significant. I’m joining the company when it is already in a tremendous growth phase with both its lines of businesses – hotels and hospitality education – and so my priority will be to strengthen its foundation to support this growth.
Some say founding lady Thanpuying Chanut Piyaoui still ‘controls’ Dusit as advisor to the board. Is Dusit still more family-run than corporate even with your appointment?
We’re public-listed and governed by a board of directors. The former CEO (Chanin Donavanik) has (retired, but is chairman of the executive committee) and now has me as a professional to run the business. They (mother and son) are still part of the board but there is no family intervention. Khun Chanin has been kind, open and respectful of my team and I. Besides, their vision is the same as mine; it’s ingrained in the whole company: We would like to bring Thai hospitality to the world and help strengthen the education system not just for us, but the whole industry.
What challenges does being a woman and coming from outside the industry pose?
At Thaicom, and at IBM, there were no women (at the top)!
Gender is not an issue. When you get to a certain level, it’s gender neutral. It’s about your professionalism in approaching challenges, how you respect individuals, share your vision and objectives, and so on.
The obstacle many women have is a doubt in themselves.
As for coming from a different industry, I also believe that at this level, content is less important than context. You have to hire capable people who have more knowledge than you. My managing director of education has more than 20 years of experience. Such people bring in the content. You have to understand the context and make use of it wisely.
In fact, coming from a different industry is an advantage. You look at things with fresh eyes; you don’t have paradigms.
You’re leading Dusit at a time of huge growth and I notice hotels are opening from Asia to Africa.
Yes, we need to ensure we can support this growth at the quality level. We operate 29 properties and in the pipeline are over 40 signed contracts that will be operational in the next three to five years. A majority are new-builds and, yes, they are across Asia, the Middle East and Africa. This year, we are targeting to sign another 20 hotels.
How will you strengthen Dusit’s foundation to support this much growth?
For quality growth, I’m looking at five areas: people, process, property & branding, technology and financial capability.
First, people. As our staff size will grow from 4,000 to 12,000 in the next three to five years, we must ensure we have the right competencies and organisation structure to support this growth. We also need to build a strong culture and career paths for our people. While we keep our legacy and core values, we need to adapt to the current environment and ensure that we remain relevant to the new generation.
People are the heart of everything and this is why we must have the right foundation for it.
Second, we need efficient and consistent processes. If I were to pick two or three, it would be to tighten up our customer relations (owners & guests) process es, and our internal and external communications processes.
Third, property & branding. As hotel owners, we need to look at each of our property. For example, do we have the facilities for the market we’re after? Our asset in Phuket is targeting MICE; we need to invest in a conference hall to support the drive.
It’s not only about renovations but how to optimise the value of the property. We have a big land next to our property in Hua Hin, should we invest in a mixed-used or residential development?
We’re also starting a branding exercise to look at our four brands (Dusit Thani, Dusit D2, Dusit Deverana and Princess). and evaluate if each brand promise is clear.
Fourth is technology, which is closest to my heart. How can we use technology to strengthen our processes, also to increase direct bookings to our website while providing convenient and relevant information to customers?
Last but not least, financial capabilities. To do all of the above, we need financial capabilities. Our group will eventually hire a chief investment officer, which it has never done before, to explore the various investment instruments to support our plans.