He has the honour of being the first CEO of Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts after its founder KP Ho. Will he be under the huge shadow of Banyan Tree Holdings’ chairman KP, or can Abid Butt be his own man in running the show?
Abid Butt, CEO, Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts, Singapore
What’s the burden of being the first CEO of Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts after founder KP Ho?
I’ll be the guinea pig (laughs). All joking aside, if you are the first in anything, you are somewhat establishing where the bar is. So I have the luxury of being able to do that and that’s exciting.
Where is your bar?
My own bar is high up. I’m told by people I’ve worked with throughout the years that I can be very demanding of myself. Since that’s the case, the colleagues I work with will have to agree with it. We have to be clear in what we are about and run towards the same goal post, which is easier said than done. The larger you are, the harder it becomes.
We’re seeing more Asian chains appointing CEOs for the first time – you, Dillip Rajakarier with Minor Hotel Group, Arthur Kiong with Far East Hospitality – why?
Part of that is to manage the growth that all these brands are experiencing, to make sure that the DNA of the company remains. That’s in our case certainly, I’m here because we’re growing from a relatively small, boutique operator to having 30-odd hotels (in operation) and multiple spas spread out globally. So how do you take what the company started out as and deliver the core of the company across geographical and cultural boundaries?
Does it get critical at 30 hotels, where you could go wrong if you don’t have the right structure/skills in place?
That could happen even if you have two! In some ways, having 30 in multiple markets makes you a far more experienced operator – you can foresee some of the challenges and prepare for them.
I don’t know if the number of hotels plays a part; I think it’s more about making sure you hold true to what the company is about whether you have one, 30 or 100 hotels.
So how does it work with you and KP Ho (founder/chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings) – how much autonomy do you have as CEO?
The vision of Banyan Tree was established a long time ago by KP. It’s the applicability of that vision, i.e. the execution, as the company grows, that has to be done. Clearly that’s what I’m involved in but it’s not like this is what he does, this is what I do. We’re very collaborative. We’re big, but we’re still a small company; we know the people who work in our resorts. It is like a family environment, not the typical hierarchy you would find in mega conglomerates, and that’s a great thing to have.
What strength do you have that KP does not have?
You should ask him that (laughs).
I think my involvement in Banyan Tree 10 years ago – I was involved in the Angsana brand launch and in opening a lot of the hotels then when the organisation was in its infancy (Butt was area GM of Banyan Tree Phuket, then the chain’s VP operations) – and my most recent experience with Host (Hotels US, where he was VP asset management, responsible for enhancing the value of some 15 luxury hotels for owners) gave me a fabulous combination of understanding the operation side of things and the investor’s point of view. You have to be able to look at things from different lenses to get the best results.
KP has that strength as well, so it’s not so much he lacks something or I lack something, it’s a symbiotic relationship.
“It’s not like this is what he (chairman KP Ho) does, this is what I do. We’re very collaborative.”
How has asset management altered your views of operation?
When I was with the ownership group, Host, for example, I recognised that what the ownership wants is the same as what the operator wants. The goals are absolutely aligned, neither party wants the hotel to fail. But sometimes, it is how people look at things; it’s almost like speaking a different language. It’s a totally different mindset when an investor and operator talk about service delivery, capital infusion, repositioning, etc. When you bring both together, that’s when you get the best results. So as long as you can understand each other’s language, you can work through a lot of the issues.
I’m fortunate to have that opportunity to look at it from an investor’s point of view. Now I can represent almost all the stakeholders, whereas a typical hotelier will only look from the operator’s point of view.
Is your passion still in operation or has it changed to asset management?
As they say, you can take a hotelier out of a hotel, but you can’t take the person out. I still like the hospitality side of things, that’s what I enjoy. I’m not into writing reports and sitting in front of a computer monitor. I just happen to be working in an office for a company that operates hotels. But if I want my fix of experiencing the hotels, I go back to them and immediately I’m in the middle of it. That’s the beauty of the position I hold.
This is your first CEO position. Which CEO has inspired you?
Going back to my most recent job, Host, it’s Chris Nassetta (now Hilton Worldwide president & CEO) – a very charismatic, down-to-earth guy running a Fortune 500 company. I really admire how he could talk a different language when he was talking to the investment community or the communities where we operate hotels.
Ed Walter, now the CEO of Host, is much the same way because he is a protege of Nassetta and they grew up together. But Ed is analytical in driving the business; he looks at things from different lenses. So different people have different skill sets they put to work based on what is needed at that time, and I think that’s what makes people successful.
You’ve been back at Banyan Tree about six months now after leaving 10 years ago. Has it changed a lot?
The last hotel we opened when I was with the organisation 10 years ago was in the Seychelles. We had about eight or nine hotels then, now 30. While we could have done things from a centralised way, we can no longer do that because we are offering different destinations across the world, as diverse as Mexico and Lijiang, and the requirements of each of these locations are very different. The company has had to evolve so we can keep up with the growth. So that’s one clear change.
But the core is the same. KP has been actively involved throughout, he’s still here, his vision is still here and lots of colleagues I worked with 10 years ago are still here. So from that point of view, it’s like coming back home.
With 30-odd hotels and two brands that are well defined, surely it’s not too difficult to achieve consistency, compared with a big chain with multiple brands?
Yes and no. Pick a big brand like Hilton or Marriott that is extremely consistent to the point of being a cookie cutter. So whether I’m in Hong Kong or Miami, I would know that it’s a Marriott room.
Our architecture and philosophy, on the other hand, are very different. When you go to Mexico, for instance, you will see very clearly the Mayan influences, and when you go to Hangzhou you will see the Chinese village architecture. It’s a very customised product because we want to deliver a unique experience, so from that point it might be slightly harder in our environment than me delivering you a box.
“It’s a totally different mindset when an investor and operator talk about service delivery, capital infusion, repositioning, etc. When you bring both together, that’s when you get the best results.”
Pick a new market for us, say Vietnam, where (we’ve just opened Banyan Tree Lang Co). How do we deliver what Vietnam is about and stay true to the Banyan Tree experience at the same time? How do we marry the two and make sure there’s consistency in architecture, service delivery, cultural experience delivery, etc?
In Kerala (Banyan Tree Kerala, opening in March next year), again, it’s done in a South Indian way and the team is now working on how we would deliver the authentic Kerala experience. In that culture, people would go into the water on the steps of the temples that go into the Ganges and bathe or splash themselves. We’re going to have a similar section in the hotel where, when the guest arrives, we’ll wash their feet and let them experience what the culture practises. It is an experience that is unique only to the place, which you cannot experience in Frankfurt or Singapore. We always challenge the team to make sure people experience that level of service wherever we operate, whether in Bintan or Kerala.
And your biggest challenge with this?
Developing the human capital, making sure we have the future leaders of our company who can grow with the company, carry the message and not compromise on the core values of our organisation. In any organisation, that would be the issue but especially in our industry, which is labour intensive.
So why are you the right CEO for Banyan Tree at this stage of its history?
(Jokes, laughs) You haven’t figured that out yet?
I thoroughly enjoy the industry, I know the company culture and I’ve stayed in touch with the company, KP and Claire (Chiang) for all of that time. Although I was not physically part of the company, I’ve followed it, so coming back and getting back into it was easy. Operating the hotels – that’s the basic thing, but there are some other typical things you’d look for in the capacity I occupy today, which is being able to carry the message, execute, lead a large team of people (now about 8,000 to 9,000) all around the world. That’s what he (KP) might have been looking for.