Peo­ple

For hote­lier Rox­ana Jaf­fer, help­ing the less priv­i­leged is just as im­por­tant as busi­ness suc­cess. She tells Shiva Ku­mar Thekkepat that char­ity ven­tures are the best way to keep her staff mo­ti­vated

Friday - - Contents - Sthekkepat@gulfnews.com @Shiva_fri­day

The CEO of Hol­i­day Inn Dubai, Al Bar­sha be­lieves that the best lead­ers are first ser­vants.

Rox­ana Jaf­fer would have an open-plan of­fice if she could. The CEO of Hol­i­day Inn Dubai, Al Bar­sha, who fol­lows the ‘ser­vant-lead­er­ship’ man­age­ment prin­ci­ple – that a man­ager should first be a ser­vant and then a leader – is happy for staff to walk into her of­fice at any time to share their views or voice their con­cerns.

“Tra­di­tional lead­er­ship in­volves the ex­er­cise of power by one at the top of the pyra­mid,” says Rox­ana. “The ser­vant-leader shares power – he or she puts the needs of oth­ers first and helps peo­ple de­velop and per­form to their best.

“I have no is­sues with staff step­ping into my of­fice to air their views at any time – a rea­son I’d have liked an open-plan of­fice.’’ How­ever, as that was not pos­si­ble in the four-star ho­tel, she has the next best thing: a glass wall be­hind her chair. All she has to do is swivel round to see what’s go­ing on in the lobby be­low.

Not that she has to. “My staff are ef­fi­cient and con­sci­en­tious so my team of man­agers can put some of their qual­ity time into work­ing on more im­por­tant projects – char­ity, for in­stance – than on mi­cro­manag­ing chores,” she says.

The 50-some­thing Rox­ana has earned a num­ber of qual­i­fi­ca­tions in­clud­ing a diploma in man­age­ment skills de­vel­op­ment from Im­pe­rial Col­lege Lon­don, and a de­gree in ac­coun­tancy from the or­gan­i­sa­tion now known as the As­so­ci­a­tion of Char­tered Cer­ti­fied Ac­coun­tants. She got her big chance to put her be­liefs into prac­tice in 2005 when two of her friends from the UK wanted some­body they could trust, rather than just a pro­fes­sional, to run the ho­tel they were launch­ing in Dubai.

“I had just joined my hus­band, Sadrud­din Jaf­fer, who got a job in the oil in­dus­try in Dubai,” she says. “I had al­ready run my own busi­ness – a Dunkin’ Donuts fran­chise – so I had some ex­pe­ri­ence, but none in hos­pi­tal­ity.”

But Rox­ana was not afraid of tak­ing up the chal­lenge. “I had come to Dubai ex­pect­ing to re­tire!” she laughs. “But I was lucky to be given this chance to head a to­tally new busi­ness. I just rel­ished the chal­lenge.”

The ho­tel was still be­ing built, so Rox­ana had the chance to see it be­ing shaped from ground up. “I watched ev­ery floor be­ing laid and saw the elec­tri­cal wires and struc­tural ca­bling be­ing done,” she says. “I would go up on the makeshift lift in the July heat, sweat­ing buck­ets, to in­spect the progress. I se­lected the mar­ble for the floor­ing, even the doors.”

It’s dif­fi­cult to launch any new ho­tel in such a com­pet­i­tive mar­ket as Dubai, but Rox­ana had a plan. “We opened at a time when bud­gets were tight,” she says. “We had busi­ness strate­gies to put into place and tar­gets to be met. I de­cided that my first busi­ness strat­egy would be to en­sure that I had a good team who knew their job. They would help me in do­ing my job. The idea was to give them my vi­sion and they ac­tu­alise it for me.”

Team­work is key

For Rox­ana, run­ning a busi­ness is all about team­work. “The first thing I look into is how to re­tain my staff,” she says. “I am just one fin­ger in a hand. My staff are the other four. And just as you would need all fin­gers to hold some­thing or to do a task, you need all staff do­ing what they are ex­pected to do to ac­com­plish a job.”

Plan­ning is the other magic word for Rox­ana. “You can never plan enough,” she says. “I first did my bud­get, the cost­ing. It helped that I have a fi­nan­cial back­ground, so I planned well, fo­cus­ing on keep­ing the cost un­der con­trol.”

Even be­fore the ho­tel was launched in 2007, Rox­ana set the tone for the way it would be run – as a com­pas­sion­ate, staff-friendly ven­ture.

She feels that the morals in­stilled in her by her up­bring­ing had a strong ef­fect on how she con­ducts busi­ness to­day. “Three gen­er­a­tions of my fam­ily have been set­tled in Mom­basa, Kenya,” she says. “My mother ran a school for

men­tally and phys­i­cally chal­lenged chil­dren. As chil­dren we would go to school in the morn­ing with her, and she would pick up stu­dents for her school on the way.’’

So early in life she learnt to help spe­cial needs chil­dren get into and out of the car. She also learnt to in­clude them in the lit­tle games they played while trav­el­ling to school to­gether. Slowly the virtue of in­clu­sion and help­ing those less priv­i­leged be­came in­grained in her.

Hav­ing been through the ar­du­ous sum­mer on the ho­tel con­struc­tion site, Rox­ana wanted to ac­knowl­edge the con­tri­bu­tion of the ho­tel’s con­struc­tion work­ers. “They were con­tract work­ers, not ho­tel em­ploy­ees, usu­ally for­got­ten af­ter their role was over,” she says. “I felt that they, their work, needed to be ac­knowl­edged.”

Con­struc­tion over, she hosted a meal for them in the ho­tel. “We or­dered some lunch and had it all to­gether,” she says. “We made sure that we – the man­agers – served food to them. There were tears in their eyes. ‘No­body’s ever said thank you to us un­til now,’ they told us. It was a mov­ing mo­ment.”

And all this good­will wasn’t to the detri­ment of the ho­tel’s prof­its. In fact, the fi­nances have flour­ished. “We have had huge growth over the six years we’ve been in ex­is­tence,” says Rox­ana. “We broke even in 2009, posted a 6.7 per cent in­crease in prof­its over the pre­vi­ous year in 2010, 11.68 per cent in 2011, and 15.72 per cent in 2012.

Find­ing com­mon ground

“While Hol­i­day Inn is a global brand, we have built Hol­i­day Inn Dubai, Al Bar­sha as a brand within that brand. We did that by putting a few strate­gies into place,” says Rox­ana.

The first and most im­por­tant was be­ing staff-cen­tric. “I made sure they were happy and wanted to work for us,” she says.

The next strat­egy was “some glue that could hold to­gether the 23 di­verse na­tion­al­i­ties that com­prise the 263 staff’’.

It wasn’t easy to find some com­mon ground that brought to­gether all the dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties of staff, but Rox­ana’s in­spi­ra­tion was her childhood when her mother taught her that any­thing shared dou­bled the plea­sure.

“Cricket or mu­sic, for in­stance, can bring to­gether na­tions like In­dia and Pak­istan,” she says. “But the is­sue crops up when a Filipino doesn’t watch cricket, or a Brazil­ian knows only salsa. So how do we con­nect them in th­ese cir­cum­stances? I wanted to con­nect th­ese di­verse peo­ple so that we could be part of one big fam­ily.

“That’s how we thought up the The Hol­i­day Inn Loves You cam­paign. The sim­ple mes­sage be­ing that most of us are ex­pa­tri­ates here. We’ve left fam­i­lies back home to come here. So let’s make it worth­while. And let’s help other peo­ple along the way.”

Rox­ana makes it a point to add that the The Hol­i­day Inn Loves You cam­paign is not sim­ply a cor­po­rate so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity drive. “I wanted to not only help peo­ple but also to in­te­grate staff and make them feel good about them­selves,’’ she says.

To that end, a few months af­ter open­ing the ho­tel in Oc­to­ber, 2007, she threw a tea party for phys­i­cally chal­lenged chil­dren from the Al Noor Train­ing Cen­tre for Chil­dren with Spe­cial Needs at the ho­tel on Valen­tine’s Day in 2008.

As well as en­ter­tain­ing the 100 or so chil­dren who turned up, the event helped the Hol­i­day

Inn staff dis­cover a com­mon ground that brought them to­gether.

“Since then we haven’t looked back,” says Rox­ana. “Our team has gone on beach-clean­ing drives, we’ve pro­vided food and med­i­cal as­sis­tance to work­ers and got them gifts af­ter rais­ing money among our staff.”

She has also spear­headed ma­jor ini­tia­tives such as relief ef­forts dur­ing the floods in Pak­istan in July, 2010. “Dur­ing Ra­madan that year our restau­rant Gha­rana was used as a drop-off cen­tre to col­lect stuff like bed­ding, clothes, rice and other sup­plies,” says Rox­ana. “We sent 16 con­tain­ers of stuff to Pak­istan, which helped an en­tire vil­lage there.”

That in­ci­dent was a ma­jor turn­ing point in the staff re­la­tions. “Chi­nese, In­di­ans, Filipinos and Brazil­ians among oth­ers had got to­gether to help those in Pak­istan, be­cause they saw the flood vic­tims could have been from their coun­try too,” says Rox­ana.

“Af­ter this I no­ticed a shift in staff men­tal­ity. What had un­til then been my ini­tia­tive was promptly adopted by our staff. They were so en­thu­si­as­tic that a com­mit­tee was formed, which meets once a month to or­gan­ise ac­tiv­i­ties.’’ The com­mit­tee con­sults Rox­ana, and to­gether they plan new char­i­ta­ble ini­tia­tives.

One of the ideas the com­mit­tee came up with a cou­ple of years ago was to feed 100,000 hun­gry chil­dren all over the world through the United Na­tion­sWorld Food Pro­gramme (UNWFP). “We col­lected the nec­es­sary stuff, packed it and sent it off to needy peo­ple in In­dia and Pak­istan,” says Rox­ana. “To­day we are a recog­nised part­ner of the UNWFP.

“This year we will be feed­ing 80,000 un­for­tu­nate chil­dren in the Philip­pines who were af­fected by floods. The peo­ple who saw their coun­tries ben­e­fit from our pre­vi­ous pro­gramme are help­ing the Filipinos now.’’

One of the ways the staff raised funds was by con­duct­ing garage sales. This way they raised Dh10,000, which is enough to buy a meal for 10,000 chil­dren.

The ho­tel’s ini­tia­tive in­cludes re­quest­ing guests to give Dh5 more on their bill as dona­tion. “That’s how we hope to raise another Dh80,000,” says Rox­ana.

Rox­ana has started another char­ity ini­tia­tive called Ad­vent for Build­ing Hu­man Cap­i­tal (ABC). “I re­alised that many peo­ple who come to us look­ing for jobs have the tal­ent but not the lan­guage skills re­quired to make it in the hos­pi­tal­ity sec­tor,” she says.

“They usu­ally end up as ste­wards, house­keep­ing or as kitchen staff. So we de­cided to re­view their skills to see if they have the po­ten­tial to move up the lad­der.”

Build­ing lead­ers from within

Rox­ana cites the case of one of her staff who ben­e­fited from the ABC scheme. “He came to us as a stew­ard, and was very suc­cess­ful at it,” she says. “He was a whiz at wash­ing dishes and fig­ured out a way of do­ing it faster than it was be­ing done be­fore. He started teach­ing his col­leagues how to save time at work.

“But his English lan­guage skills were poor, so we de­cided to train him in other de­part­ments so he could im­prove them.

“Af­ter his reg­u­lar shift, he vol­un­teered to work for a few hours in the front of­fice and in the concierge. Three months later, he moved up the lad­der to a new depart­ment.

“To­day he’s earn­ing five times his pre­vi­ous salary and he heads a depart­ment with 15 staff. This way we are build­ing lead­ers from within.”

The up­shot is that Rox­ana is now tak­ing the ABC model to de­vel­op­ing coun­tries where they can help the un­em­ployed learn skills that will help them find work in the hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try.

“We have de­vel­oped a cur­ricu­lum for hos­pi­tal­ity in English through the Bri­tish Coun­cil School and took it to Pak­istan,” she says. “We taught it to tu­tors in vo­ca­tional train­ing cen­tres there.’’

Rox­ana sees a big fu­ture for ABC. “Five years from now we see it be­com­ing sus­tain­able with­out any sup­port from the ho­tel,” she says.

“Giv­ing money, giv­ing food is a tem­po­rary so­lu­tion. That’s why we started ABC – to build the com­mu­nity. Fi­nally, what mat­ters is not what I have achieved, it is what I have helped oth­ers achieve.”

What keeps her go­ing is the sheer joy of giv­ing. “The hap­pi­ness we feel when we see the joy on a re­cip­i­ent’s face is bet­ter than get­ting the best Gucci hand­bag!”

Rox­ana be­lieves work­ing to­wards a com­mon goal can help strengthen the bond among her staff, who have taken to the ho­tel’s char­i­ta­ble ini­tia­tive so much that they now or­gan­ise their own fundrais­ing events for char­ity (above right)

The staff of the ho­tel have been brought to­gether by the char­ity ini­tia­tives

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