Humble beginnings: Hospitality CEOs who got their start in entry-level jobs
Everyone’s got to start somewhere, including hotel CEOs. Gone are the days when most hotel companies were family-run operations led by executives who grew up in the business. Today, most hotel heads are proud business school graduates with backgrounds in finance that eventually led to running multi-million or –billion dollar hospitality conglomerate. Nevertheless, some these distinguished executives got a humble start in hotels, igniting what would eventually become a professional passion for the industry. Here, Hcareers takes a look at the less-than-glamorous beginnings that set several hotel chiefs onto a successful path into hospitality.
Despite spilling a drink on a guest during his first day as a busboy at London’s Grosvenor Hotel when he was 15, Craig Reid went on to become a management trainee with The Savoy Group after earning a hotel administration degree from Westminster College, London. Reid enjoyed a long career with Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts before Auberge Resorts named him CEO in 2014. He also earned a $20 tip from the American guest who was the unfortunate victim of Reid’s novice attempts at wait service.
David Kong, president and CEO of Best Western International, moved from his native Hong Kong to Hawaii in 1970 to study at the University of Hawaii. While working on his degree, he also took a job as a dishwasher and busboy at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. He worked his way up to waiter and after graduating, he joined Omni Hotels’ food and beverage team, later working for Hyatt for a decade before joining Best Western in 2001. His initial interest in the hotel industry stemmed from his childhood when a family meal was enjoyed every Sunday at a Hong Kong hotel.
Horst Schultze, chairman emeritus of Capella Hotel Group and Founding President and Former COO of The Ritz-Carlton Group, dropped out of school at age 14 and moved more than 60 miles from his home to become a hotel busboy. He went on to work for Hilton and Hyatt before joining Ritz-Cartlon. In 1999, Johnson & Wales University gave him an honorary Doctor of Business Administration degree in Hospitality Management.
Hilton Worldwide President & CEO Chris Nassetta landed his first job in the hotel industry at the age of 18; he was plunging toilets at a Holiday Inn in Washington D.C. But ask him today about his first job and Nassetta, a graduate of the University of Virginia McIntire School of Commerce, will call it “an entry-level position in the engineering department.” He went on to eventually work for Host Hotels & Resorts Inc., before signing on with Hilton in 2007. Today, he serves on a number of committees and advisory boards including the World Travel & Tourism Council and The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
But Nassetta isn’t the only one at Hilton Worldwide who got a taste for hospitality early on; the company’s Executive Vice President of Global Brands Jim Holthouser put himself through business school playing piano in a number of hotel bars. Although the musical aspect of the work quickly became monotonous, the engagement with hotel staff and guests would later come to influence his career moves.
Working an overnight shift as assistant foreman at a Minnesota hotel was a lesson in teamwork for Arne Sorenson, Marriott International’s president and CEO. The tenacity paid off; Sorenson went on to become Marriott’s third CEO in 2012 and the only one without the family name. Before starting his long and illustrious career with the world’s largest hotel company, Sorenson was a partner at a D.C. law firm.
Filip Boyen, CEO at Small Luxury Hotels (SLH), skipped university and launched his career as a commis chef when he was 18. He worked his way through the kitchen ranks and eventually into Michelin-star restaurants in Belgium, England and France. But he left his culinary success to become a general manager with Orient-Express Hotels, now Belmond Hotels where he held the COO job before taking on the CEO role at SLH.