Leadership in the time of disruption
Suphajee Suthumpun is the Group Chief Executive Officer of Dusit International. She joined the global hospitality company in January 2016, bringing with her over 20 years of experience in technology, including positions as Chief Executive Officer and Executive Chairman, Thaicom Public Co Ltd.; General Manager of Global Technology Services (GTS) at IBM’s ASEAN headquarters in Singapore; and Country General Manager of IBM Thailand Company Limited.
Here, she shares her thoughts on trends in the hospitality industry.
Q: You are the first CEO of Dusit International who is not a member of the founding family. What do you think you have that the family gave you their trust?
A: Dusit International is about to embark on a period of unprecedented growth which, in the next five years alone, will see the company’s portfolio of global properties grow from 26 to 76.
To facilitate this development, Dusit International’s Founder, Thanpuying Chanut Piyoui, and her son, Khun Chanin Donavanik, now vice chair and chair of the Executive Committee, were looking for someone who could implement new management systems and build a solid corporate structure that would enable the company to grow not only in terms of hotels, but also in hospitality education.
The family knew that, as with any modern business, technology would play a key role going forward, and that technology would enable the company to respond dynamically to changes in the tourism industry.
My track record of success at both IBM and Thaicom certainly helped to establish initial trust. But what really sealed the deal is that I truly share the family’s vision of bringing gracious Thai hospitality to the world. I also strongly believe in promoting education; if we do well in education, I believe it will strengthen the quality of the industry in general, which is significant for Thailand and the region.
Q: What do you anticipate will be the next big thing in the hospitality industry?
A: Rather than a single ’big thing’ to come, I think many changes are already taking place and impacting the hospitality industry.
Take the current shift in power from west to east, for instance. An increasing number of businesses are investing in Asia instead of Europe and this is facilitating rapid growth of the Asian middle class. So much so, this stratum of society is expected to grow from around 600 million in 2016, to one billion by 2020 and three billion by 2030. Soon, a huge number of people will have enough disposable income to spend on vacations. As a result, intra-region travel will boom.
On top of this, the number of international tourist arrivals to Asean is expected to double by 2026 to 200 million. That’s a lot of inbound tourism. Demand for hotels after Asean integration is clearly not going to be an issue. But, then again, neither is regional supply.
We have already seen how social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest have vastly changed the way guests interact with hotels; how the growth of online booking sites such as Agoda and Booking.com have driven down room prices and changed the face of online booking; and how the rise of the shared economy, championed by services like Uber and Airbnb, has further diversified what consumers expect from the hospitality industry.
State of flux
Thanks to technology, the industry is in a constant state of flux, and more innovative business models are bound to launch soon. The lines of service will only continue to blur.
The challenge for hoteliers pushing ahead in this tech-driven climate will be finding how to strike the perfect balance between high tech and high touch service, while simultaneously maintaining impeccable brand standards.
Q: You led technology firms IBM and Thaicom before joining Dusit. What is it like shifting from technology to hospitality? What intersections or parallelisms did you encounter in the shift?
A: Any business, at its core, is about serving customers. So whether you work in hospitality or technology, you should always aim to meet the requirements and expectations of your customers while serving them to the best of your ability.
When I first joined IBM, in 1989, the company, which was then very much hardware focused, was going through a bit of a rough patch. But within a decade we had managed to reverse the trend and boost business considerably by shifting our business model from a hardware focus to a service and solutions focus. This didn’t happen overnight, of course – the shift was the result of a ten year long, vitally important transformation of the company’s culture – but it highlighted how service oriented operations could reap dividends.
It was a similar case at Thaicom, whose fortunes were turned around when, after another carefully considered culture transformation, we shifted our focus from product to service, and moved our attention from internal matters to focusing on customers.
So I guess you could say that that’s my forte—implementing cultural transformation, and shifting focus from products and hardware to solutions and service.
In this sense, while changing from technology to hospitality may sound like a giant leap, the shift really isn’t that great. The big advantage of course is that I bring to this role a fresh pair of eyes and a novel perspective, yet still the same service-minded attitude.
This has allowed me to embrace Dusit’s longstanding traditions while also ushering in a new chapter of change. The fact that technology has become a big part of everything, of course, is another big advantage.
Q: You turned-around Thaicom and made it profitable after several years of losses. What was the most important thing you did that triggered the turnaround?
A: At Thaicom, I chose to focus on three major steps: a culture transformation, an operations transformation, and an organizational transformation.
By shifting Thaicom from a technology driven operation to a solutions driven one, I was able to take advantage of many business opportunities. To achieve this I established new core values under the acronym EPIC (Excellent in technology; Passion to challenge; Initiative in innovation; Commitment to contribute), and introduced what’s called a ‘Strategy House.’
As the name suggests, a Strategy House is a template which lays out explicitly the role each person plays within an organization. From the top down, each level of the ‘house’ is divided between goals, departments and staff so that, from just a quick glance, everyone knows where they fit into an organization and how they contribute to the company’s overall success.
By using this strategy at Thaicom I could confirm that each staff member had clear details about the importance of their role within the company, and concrete information about the company’s short and long-term goals. This ensured everyone was always working towards the same overarching objective. No confusion, only results.
The key to success in any business is to ensure everyone has a clear idea of their roles and how what they do contributes towards reaching the same goal. This fosters team commitment and trust. And nothing can be achieved without trust.
Q: Tell us a bit about women empowerment in Thai culture and how did your background (both cultural and personal) influence your leadership style globally?
A: In business today, gender is not the main issue (at least not in the environment I am in). Rising to the top of any company is all about professionalism. If you approach challenges with the right attitude, respect all members of staff, and share your vision and objectives clearly and concisely, you have as good a chance as anyone of leading a corporation. Forget the glass ceiling. The only thing that stops any woman breaking through it is self-doubt.
As for my leadership style, I think my studies in social sciences have shaped my methods to some degree, because any management system I implement always has a key component focused on people and how I can lead them to become leaders themselves. At Thaicom, for instance, I created ‘brand ambassadors’ and ‘value champions,’ which led to a cultural transformation within the organization. I also implemented a more integrated communications process to ensure employees felt much more a part of the company’s operations and knew exactly what role they played in the business. I am doing something similar at Dusit International, where I have identified five key areas for quality growth – people, process, property and branding, technology, and financial capability. Again, the focus is on ensuring all staff are motivated to work towards the same clear goal. Motivate people, and you energize your company.
The real key to being a good leader, which I have learnt over the years, is that your leadership style must be dynamic. You can never be trapped by past success. You should constantly evaluate what you have done, or what you are doing, and whether or not it’s relevant to your business going forward. Keep innovating and developing. Inspire your team and they will follow.
(Suthumpun will be a guest speaker at the W2W (Women Mentoring to Women) Talks of the Women Business Council of the Philippines (WomenBizPh) on Oct. 21, 2016, Friday, 1 to 5 pm at Dusit Thani Manila (Makati). The event is entitled Disruptive Moves, Lifestyles and Transformations in the 21st Century and is open to the public with prior registration. Email [email protected] for more details.)
(Josiah Go is chair of marketing training and advocacy firm Mansmith and Fielders Inc. For full transcript as well as his interviews with other thought leaders, please visit www.josiahgo.com. Please also visit www.mansmith.net for information related to Josiah Go’s marketing seminar schedules)
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