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 president for one of the world’s most prestigious hotel groups.
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 his quick wit and charismatic charm.
Having began 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 where at one point they had 5,000 glasses coming out of the Hilton at night and these hands on tasks really shaped my career.”
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.
I then began as a food manager controller in Munich, were I had to go to Africa to participate in the opening of a hotel in 1979, I then went to Luzuto expecting exotic animals and to experience the African dream, but I was in for a shock as it was nothing like I had expected it to be. So 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!
So I landed a job at the Savoy in London as assistant manager and stayed with them for four years and 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.”
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: “When Hilton came back to me the decision to return would ultimately and essentially shape my entire career as it stands today. I was offered the position of general manager to open up the Langham Hotel in London, which was of course an offer I just couldn’t turn down.
We had an exceptional launch where we created great concepts and I could see progress unraveling 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 began 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, explaining: “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:
Having held several management roles in high-end hotels, gaining him over 40 years of experience within the industry Jagersbacher explains how he successfully transitioned from executive roles to senior leadership positions: “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. The reason being, because working on a regional level in an extremely senior position involves so much more than just your one priority hotel.”
Having further expanded his career through education, Jagersbacher explains: “For example I went to Cornell University and the London School of business to change my outlook and experience, setting me away from a unit in a hotel to a multi-unit management mind-frame and structure.
Hilton was really helpful in seeking out those they thought were capable of being future leaders for the brand and further developing their progress.
There are still two colleagues of mine who have been with Hilton like 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 with your brain as opposed to managing a hotel by walking around and seeing the problems. That is often the biggest transition from leaving a role as a GM to becoming senior management, and let me tell you that it isn’t an easy transition to make in the slightest. The educational process in hospitality is an ongoing one, especially at senior management level, 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 means that when my office door is open anyone can come in without an appointment or announcement, but when the door is closed I am busy at that moment. This policy 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 as he explains: “I feel that I have always been able to identify good people who have extraordinary qualities. So it is great when I now see that they have grown within the company because I believed in their potential and somewhat nourished them to grow, there is nothing more rewarding than helping people.
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, 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 as Jagersbacher faced his fair share of challenges over the course of 40 years, he explains: “One of the earlier issues which I faced was the lack of guidance and understanding going into an industry that had an extremely mixed reputation at the time.
People wanted to work in banks, become doctors and solicitors and I was interested in being a hotelier which was something many people frowned upon.
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 also 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 we have developed 12 brands in line with the MEA region’s developmental structure. For example, take a look at Emirates Airlines and how many countries they deliver passengers to everyday, so our overall industry has changed in the Middle East.
When you have 65 million transiting people, with new airports being built it is simple, we essentially need a lot more beds to be readily available.
As soon as the demand is there, Hilton Worldwide will scoop in and capitalise on the opportunities which are presented to us.”
It has been no surprise that Hilton Worldwide have launched into new territories for the MEA and expanded its offering with mid-scale properties as he explains why there is a need for this type of hotel in the region he says: “The financial crisis in 2008 left space for us to find new projects which had lower capital investment that could offer lower rates to attract different people to stay with us.
This is why we have introduced our Hampton by Hilton brand and Hilton Garden Inn to the Middle East and Africa.”
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.
We are also developing in new areas including Morocco, Doha and Egypt which is picking up significantly hence why we are opening three hotels there this year alone.
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.”
As Hilton Worldwide take the number one spot for upcoming hotel openings, showing no signs of slowing down he 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 20-25 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.”
He adds: “Strategically for us it is important to eliminate a curve drop by not having too many of one type of hotel in a specific area, so we much have a mixed variety of mid-scale and up-scale properties evenly spread across any one region.
We want to make sure we level out our trading opportunities across all markets to ensure that we still deliver the kind of returns to our investors.
Saudi 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.”
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, as he explains: “The industry is becoming more tech-savvy and technology now defines so many deciding factors for potential visitors.
For example take Hilton, we are spending millions annually to keep up to date with emerging technological advancements to move forward and we have a million people a month checking in and booking online, that is a huge amount.
Customers now have the facility to see the floor plan on our app, choose their room and confirm their room number which not only speeds up the check-in process but gives our guests the feeling of being in control.
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 explains: “My biggest inspiration has always been my grandfather. He started a regional newspaper in Austria when I was a child, and will always remember him writing and publishing these newspapers. He had big printing machines in my house and 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 of notable rewards by other peoples 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.”