Published On: Tue, Nov 10th, 2015

Face to face with Rudi Jagersbacher

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Charming industry heavy weight, Rudi Jagersbacher, president, Middle East and Africa, Hilton Worldwide talks exclusively to Sophia Soltani about the compelling ups and downs of a 40-year plus career, coming from a small town in Austria and making it big as the regional president for one of the world’s most prestigious hotel groups

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It is extremely likely that you have heard about Rudi Jagersbacher, president, Middle East and Africa, Hilton Worldwide; the larger than life Austrian hotelier with a quick wit and charismatic charm.

Having begun his career in the hospitality industry over 40 years ago; he has more than earned his title as being somewhat of an industry heavyweight champion from being a leader in the industry to building strong roots in the MEA region both on a personal level and on brand development goals for Hilton Worldwide.

Having joined Hilton Worldwide back in 1974 as a corporate trainee, to then moving on to become the youngest general manager to date of Hilton Park lane, Jagersbacher remains as humble as ever despite his remarkable achievements within the industry as he explains: “I came from Innsbruck, a small Austrian town in the mountains to work in London back in 1976, I didn’t speak English too well at all, even native Germans couldn’t really understand me with such a thick accent!

At the time of my studies, every student wanted to go to London to work, and so I started applying and that is when I got accepted for a corporate trainee position with the London Hilton. I lasted for about two years in that role, going through the different departments working on several projects which was real hard work.For example I had to learn about stewarding, not the easiest of tasks.”

Becoming a leader:

Moving on from his role as corporate trainee, Jagersbacher successively progressed into senior management roles within the likes of the Savoy and Claridges London, describing this period of time in his career he explains: “When I look back and I remember perhaps 50 of us beginning that role [corporate trainee] and by the end of it only five or six had lasted, I knew I was in it for the long haul.

“I then went on to meet my future wife, who was just finishing her last year at Trinity College in Dublin and I remember the coming years so clearly, not just for work purposes but personal ones too, I also most probably remember it because Elvis Presley died in 1977.”

He then moved to Munich as a food manager controller, before an assignment to Luzuto, Africa to open a new property in 1979. Despite expectations of “exotic animals and an experience of the African dream”,  that wasn’t what greeted him.

“In the middle of this town we built a hotel and at the time my wife was pregnant and frustrated at my work commitments, so one day she turned around to me and said: ‘Enough is enough, we are going back home.’ Then I had to ask myself,’ where was home for me?

“Knowing the only place I classed as home was Austria we tried to make a go of it there and it really just didn’t work. We had some family businesses and I tried working there for a while but there was so much family politics I ran away from that deciding it wasn’t for me!”

The next stop was a job at the Savoy in London as assistant manager, where Jagersbacher remained for the next four years. He recalls: “I really have to express the great times that I had there, that was my first big step on the ladder which then led me to my next move onto work for Claridges London as assistant general manager.”

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The next big step:

After his brief departure from his initial role with Hilton, Jagersbacher was inclined to return to the company when they put up an offer he couldn’t refuse: opening GM of the Langham Hotel, London and the youngest GM, at the age of 37.  Little did he know, the position would essentially shape the direction of his career for the next 40 years.

“We had an exceptional launch where we created great concepts and I could see progress in front of my very eyes, which gave me the further drive to progress in my career. I was there for a good few years and then I was promoted to work in Park Lane, London Hilton where I became the youngest ever GM at the age of 37.”

Having begun his career so early on, Jagersbacher learnt tactile yet simple methods to engage his staff by emphasisng the need for equality through understanding the importance of engaging with all staff members from board level to senior management positions.

 He explains: “The one thing that I will always remember having first joined Park Lane, was to acknowledge all of the people that still held their current positions as back of house staff, be it bar manager, housekeeper or the dishwasher. So I invited them all to have a big lunch with me to meet and greet everyone and the first thing which I implemented was the introduction of first name culture, I eliminated the whole title game.

“This meant everybody could call me Rudi and this practice was one of the most important game changers in succeeding to bring everyone closer together as a team to be approachable and personable. This is something I have carried with me throughout my whole career and realised the importance of back in London.”

And reflecting on his time as the youngest GM of the Park Lane Hilton, he explains: “I can most definitely look back and say that being the GM of the London Hilton was the making of me and my career, without that I would probably own a small hotel in the middle of Austria with a big belly and be oblivious to the rest of the world.

“Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and looking upon my early career, those roles were more influential to me than being a vice president or someone with a fancy title because those key experiences changed my life and ultimately my career, but success always comes at a price.

“I worked seven days a week, 24 hours a day for about two years to get the London Hilton close to where I wanted it to be and this almost killed my marriage and me. In truth it was in truth extremely difficult to manage my life privately and professionally so this is always going to be one of the downsides of our industry, because as passionate and as devoted as you may be, the more pain you will suffer privately.

Being what I am today is just a succession of what has happened throughout the events in my career. If you have the same type of characteristics that your industry requires such as being charismatic in your line of work, alongside a little bit of luck plus being flexible and open-minded the chances of growing are endless, bearing in mind nothing ever happens instantly.”

Time to grow:

O82A3527 copyHaving held several management roles in high-end hotels, Jagersbacher is an authority when it comes to leadership and career management, but he sees a paradox between the ability to be successful at the GM level and the ability to sustain that success to a regional level.

During his own transition, education was key, attending Cornell University and the London School of Business to graduate from thinking about a single unit to a -unit management mind-frame and structure.  The next most vital element Jagersbacher names is the support of the employing hotel company.

 “If you are a really great host as a general manager then you become solid within this unit and become a leader in your own field, however this can also become a hindrance, as the likelihood of you being successful on a regional level becomes very unlikely.”

He elaborates: “There are still two colleagues of mine who have been with Hilton for over 30 years and are now successful leaders in other areas, and we all went on to do further education to ensure we walked away from the daily drive of ‘is the breakfast good’ ‘is the housekeeping up to par’ to a job where you need to think and analyse situations and outcomes as opposed to managing a hotel by walking around and seeing the problems.

“As a leader you need to make sure that you become the innovator, that you are the one who is giving the inspiration and drive, you are now the creator to lead a team who will work with you and not against you.”

And with team satisfaction a top priority, he continues: “You have to go around and motivate your people and so my motto is really simple, I have an open door policy.  This has created a lot of good will within my teams and with job titles aside the values of being human stand strong.”

A people person:

From strengthening his position in the industry, Jagersbacher quickly learnt that he had the knack for scouting out talent and classes this as one of his greatest achievements throughout the history of his career. His process is simple, even if a little unorthodox; identify people with extraordinary qualities, allow and nourish them to grow within the company, and then invite them to the ski club in order to lead by example.

“We have something for our staff and colleagues called the Hilton Ski Club and these are people with whom I have worked with for years, seen them grow and prosper, and we go skiing for three days every year and talk about the old times before heading back to our day jobs. It is so important that I maintain these relationships because I have been put in a position as leader, and so I have to lead by example.”

But his career has not always been so straight forward.  Jagersbacher faced his fair share of challenges over the course of 40 years, but is adamant that he will learn from them, from a lack of guidance in his early career to the prejudice faced by hospitality workforces.

“People thought that going into the hospitality game meant being a toilet cleaner or a waiter, and I was regularly asked: ‘So what does a waiter actually do?’ Despite not being a waiter. So this highlights the perception of the industry at the time I was working on joining. It didn’t have a great name on-top of long hours and a poor salary people thought that I had chosen to work in this sector because I couldn’t find another job, irrespective of the fact that I had gone to hotel school and studied people’s perceptions remained stubborn.

He adds: “Another big challenge for me was getting to grips with the internal politics of a large brand, coming from a small town in Austria I had no idea about large scale businesses and their day-to-day functionalities. I had to go through this cultural aspect of transitioning from 600 people in my town to finding a way to stand out from the crowd and get recognised.”

The MEA mark:

It was in January 2011 when Jagersbacher was appointed as the president for the MEA region where he has relentlessly grown Hilton Worldwide’s presence in various areas of the Middle East and Africa, he explains how he manages to keep the brands competitive in a marketplace particularly flooded with upscale properties particularly in the Middle East: “We have been in the Middle East for 60 years and we have always been entrepreneurial in sourcing new markets to land our hotels in.

We have a lot of resources and experience in the Middle East and Africa regions but initially we only had the Hilton brand, so we could only offer Hilton.

Over the course of 60 years, the company has developed 12 brands in line with the MEA region’s developmental structure, predominantly echoing aviation trends and new airport developments to guarantee heads in beds.

The next consideration is the economic viability of each Hilton product in the region’s wildly varying territories. The announcement of Hampton by Hilton and Hilton Garden Inn properties was perfectly aligned with the continued effort to broaden tourism offerings, across the GCC at least, and contribute towards the maturation of the market.  It also suited Hilton’s responsive business model, to embark on projects which are capital light and attractive to a new guest profile, as well exploring new markets including Morocco, Doha and Egypt where three new properties will open this year.

He adds: “Take Dubai as an example, as the region is growing and trying to attract 20 million visitors we needed to make room for a different type of offering with our mid-scale brands and collection brands.

It can take up to three years to build a hotel and figure out local legislation, so we were circled the area [Egypt] back in 2011, putting into perspective our analysis that by 2015 the economy would pique interest again.”

Growth Markets:

 

LEAD IMAGE copyAs Hilton Worldwide takes the number one spot for upcoming hotel openings,

Showing no signs of slowing down Jagersbacher explains: “We are building 90 hotels and we already have 80 operating in the region today alone, on average for the next five years we will open a new hotel every month. This isn’t just for Dubai, as we are opening all over the MEA region and to put numbers into perspective, we sign up 20 to 25 new hotels each year. But here is the deal, by the time I have the new 90 hotels operating, I will already have another 90 signed up, this is the wonderful cycle that keeps Hilton Worldwide in a leading position within the market.

“Saudi Arabia is also a key focal area for us and we are building 6,000 rooms there but this wasn’t a decision that we recently made as we decided a few years back that it would be the right time to enter the religious market, it is huge business.”

There is more to the science than simply reaching a point of critical mass. Responding to the hyper-local economic situations of each city with a Hilton chain hotel, Jagersbacher says the knack is to create a cross-portfolio mix of brands to capture a cross section of guest profiles, rather than – figuratively – placing all the eggs in one basket. It’s an approach investors also warm towards, generating more opportunities for revenue generation.

 

Industry insight:

With trends disappearing as quickly as they emerged, Jagersbacher rightly predicts that technology will define and change the industry over the course of the next 12 months.

In response to the trend, Hilton is investing “millions annually” to keep ahead of the curve, as more than one million guests now check in and book online. Hilton International has also developed an app, from which guests can choose their room and confirm the room number, speeding up the check-in process and allowing the guest to feel in control of their experience.

“There is the new craze about the Gen Y traveller who needs accessible Internet connections and the facility to do things at the touch of a button. If we were to make a show about back to the future now then we would see everyone sitting on their iPads and iPhones and experiencing the world through a virtual hub.”

Becoming the president:

Despite his colossal title and responsibilities, behind the corporate jargon Jagersbacher’s inspiration is his grandfather, who founded a newspaper in Austria when Jagersbacher was a child.

Recalling the sight of his grandfather writing and operating the printing machines in the family’s home, today Jagersbacher draws on the same passion to fuel his own professional success.

“He created his own work of art because he was a real journalist at heart. I always admired how he created a business out of nothing all on his own, he wasn’t in it for the money, which was a good job because he hardly made any anyway. But to him, he did something worthwhile that he loved doing. He didn’t get many physical or  notable rewards by other people’s standards but he had a purpose and definition to his life.”

He adds: “Secondly Conrad Hilton has always been a big part of my drive here at Hilton, the man himself built his empire from solid, hard graft and generated his own monopoly. Because of my origins and hometown, when I started my career I had led a somewhat sheltered life with very little life experience so when I read about Hilton, the man himself, and understood his success I would think how much I wanted to be like him, to be a great leader. I wanted to follow on from his principals and the ethos of ‘never worry about the next job always think about the job after’, and for such a long time this drove me crazy as to what I needed to do to be two steps ahead like Conrad Hilton always was.”

 

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