Breaking barriers, setting records

Updated: 2013-08-10 08:34

By Ma Xue (China Daily)

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Ask George Benney about his Chinese name "Zuo Bainian", and the managing director of the Regent Beijing will say with a smile: "Actually Li Ruihuan (the former mayor of Tianjin) personally picked it out for me nearly 30 years ago and I've been using it ever since."

Although Benney migrated to Australia at 18, strong English breakfast tea and old-fashioned manners are still very much a part of him, especially the British humor, which works like a charm.

"I would like to think myself as more of a result-oriented general manager," Benney says. "And apparently I am a perfectionist, too, from what I heard."

He was first invited to China to manage the Hyatt's first hotel in Tianjin in 1986. Although he was able to turn around a negative situation into a manageable partnership with the local Chinese owner, there were several potential crises he was not empowered to fix.

He says China's hotel industry was still in its early stage back then, not long after the first years of economical reform.

"I was the general manager, but unfortunately, 25 years ago, I didn't have control of staffing, purchasing or finance."

Benny entered the hospitality industry by accident after a brief period working as a bellboy. In less than 10 years, he had risen the ranks to become one of the youngest general managers in Hyatt history, at the age of 27.

Sometimes, it sounds easier said than done. For instance, in 1979, the year he was appointed the general manager of the Hyatt hotel in Mashhad, Iran, revolution broke out.

"Just before Christmas, I woke up one day and the hotel's military protection - all the tanks and armed vehicles were gone," he recalls.

So instead of being with his family, he spent Christmas Day in the office of the state's governor general and military commander asking for help. When he thought the situation couldn't get any worse, hotel employees went on strike.

"Have you ever seen the movie Argo? Well, it was kind of like that."

Leaving everything he owned behind, he had to start his career from scratch again.

His crisis management days were not over. In Jakarta, he overcame numerous labor-related challenges at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, including a full-scale strike. To balance that, he successfully raised revenue in food and beverage by 36 percent over four years and had an 8 percent increase in occupancy in 12 months.

Benney had developed the Midas touch.

He managed to turn the Hyatt Regency in Perth, Australia from a hotel running at a loss to a quality asset providing a Return of Investment (ROI) over 12 percent to its owners, and doubled its property value in 3 years.

Drawing from his experiences, Benney is a firm believer of 'do the right things' rather than 'do the things right'.

In 2011, Benney returned to China as the managing director of the Regent Beijing, after an absence of more than two decades.

"When I am approached to look after a property, I'd initially prioritize its issues," Benney says he'd focus on the hotel's main aspects, such as the management team, operating system as well as the hotel structure.

"Luckily for me, the Regent Beijing still doesn't need any of my expertise in this area any time soon."

Benney points out that employees' attitude is another key factor. "The fact that some employees are reluctant to adjust where changes are inevitable, makes the process even more complicated."

He thinks it is crucial to protect the staff and their loyalty at all time, especially during crunch time.

"I can speak from my own experience; this is just as important as protecting the best interests of hotel's shareholders and owners."

His piece of advice for young hoteliers coming in to China, he says, is for them to be patient and culturally aware.

"What's more, to learn something about yourself."

Zhao Lin contributed to this story.