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Interviewing Successful Hotel Managers: Michel Gehrig, Vice President, Kempinski Hotels, Geneva
By feature writer Lily Lin, MBA, Ph.D.
Michel Gehrig is the Vice President of Talent Development at the Kempinski Hotels' Geneva headquarters.
Michel Gehrig is extremely passionate about what he does for a living, may it be F&B or talent development. He is an outgoing person who obviously enjoys talking to people. His training in F&B taught him to be hardworking, self-disciplined, detail-oriented and quality-conscious. He is interested in helping people discover their real talent. He feels that in order to meet the challenge of managing five-star hotels that are prepared to deliver top quality services 24/7, their staff must acquire the same kind of self-discipline and hardworking attitude as the employees of a Michelin-star restaurant. Perhaps the top management in Kempinski agreed with Michel Gehrig and thought he was the man who has what it takes to do the job.
You graduated from Hotelfachschule Belvoirpark in Zürich, Switzerland and your focus was culinary studies. Did you always want to work in the hotel industry?
When I started culinary studies, I received a grant to work for a restaurant in a hotel. I loved the detailed work and high standards in a Michelin restaurant. After a while, I realized that if I wanted to go further, I needed to understand how a five-star hotel works.
Today, working in a hotel, I want to see the same kind of drive, passion, attention to details, and self-discipline like when I was working in a restaurant. A great hotel must have a highly motivated staff and the same kind of ambition as a first-rate restaurant.
You worked as a kitchen instructor/lecturer after graduation. How did you like teaching?
I absolutely loved it! I've always loved working with people. When I decided to study in a hotel school, I knew I needed to understand finance, strategy, administration and other aspects of the business. It was during this period that I developed a passion for what I do today. I wanted to make sure that I could share all my knowledge and passion with my students. It was the pleasure of contributing and sharing that got me going and I still do it today.
In 1996, you became the Executive Chef for the Palace of the Lost City Sun City, South Africa. What was it like working for a five-star hotel with 330 rooms and being responsible for providing fine dining experience for its guests?
What is the most challenging issue you are facing at your current job?
I think it's getting GMs and department heads to realize it is important to take time to talk to their staff, and not only during their job evaluation. Get to know your staff, their ambitions and personalities and you might discover a talent... We are talking about young, ambitious people who lack experience and who don't necessarily know what they really want to do. When an employee is placed in the right position, he or she can be much more valuable to the company.
In 2002, you were the Executive Chef/Corporate Chef at the Kempinski in St. Moritz but you left Kempinski in 2004. In 2009 you became the VP Culinary at the Kempinski headquarters. What motivated you to come back to Kempinski?
You have worked in a number of internationally known chain hotels. In your opinion and in terms of culinary art, which hotel is the strongest competitor? Why?
Every hotel I have worked for has taught me something. I could see their strengths and weaknesses. However, as a group, I love Kempinski. Kempinski is the only European five-star luxury hotel group. This group is very ambitious. It's led by individuals whose values I can identify with.
In your opinion, is having a Michelin-star restaurant in a hotel an important competitive advantage? Do the costs of investing and running such a restaurant justify the benefit it brings?
Absolutely! I do not agree with outsourcing hotel restaurants. My personal view is that we need to look into forming partnerships with celebrity chefs, for example. Such partnerships offer mutual benefit. However, not every chef will make an ideal partner. We need to understand each other's needs and ambitions. It must fit into the Kempinski DNA.
In your opinion, what is the single best quality your employees can possess?
Passion and ambition!
You can't work in the hospitality industry if you are not passionate about your work. Where else will you work so hard and such long hours and yet be most likely underpaid compared to other industries. Still, you enjoy the challenge. This kind of attitude cannot be taught. Either you have it or you don't. Therefore, it's important that we identify the right talents.
As the leader in culinary in your company, what is the most important quality you can possess as far as your employees are concerned?
My current responsibility is focusing on identifying talents. We have given the culinary responsibility to our Executive Chef. My personal opinion is that you must be a leader and lead by example. You must be passionate about what you do. You must involve people in your work, make them a part of your goals and, again, communicate...
What answers do you seek in a kitchen?
I truly feel that you can understand the atmosphere by looking at the chefs and their behavior. How do they manage their staff? Is the place well-organized and clean?
If you must make a choice, would you do the things right or would you do the right things?
I will do the things right if I am focusing on my work and delivery. When you are doing the right things, you are looking at the work of others.
I expect my team to do the things right as well.
I posted a question on our Facebook page (iworkinhotels.com): "Why do you think your GM is important to you? Someone answered: "I don't think my GM is important to me but he might be important to the company." Do you agree with this statement?
No. The GM has obviously failed! Why was the GM not important?
Communication is absolutely crucial. A GM must find a way to understand his employees and communicate with them. I think it is quite sad that the GM failed to communicate with his employees. If you don't know how to communicate, you will really struggle.
In Kempinski, we do communicate. I feel very strongly about this. You can avoid misunderstandings through effective communication.
What have been the defining moments or time spans in your life so far?
Not too long ago, I was called in to the office of the President Reto Witter. He said that he wanted me to take over the "talent" responsibility. A part of the responsibility is identifying and developing talents that the staff may not even be aware of themselves. This was truly a defining moment for me. I didn't see it coming; it was totally unexpected!
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
My strengths are people skills and my passion for what I do.
I am harsh, demanding and impatient. I expect things to be done. But of course, as we get older we might change and become more mellow and patient.
I prefer to focus on my strengths.
At work, what puts a smile on your face?
When I get an e-mail or a phone call and someone tells me that I influenced their career path because I spent 15 minutes with them, giving advice. It puts a smile on my face.
What puts a frown on your face?
If someone does not understand how important it is to listen to people, maybe they did not take the assessment sessions with their staff seriously. That upsets me. For us as a company, it will be a big problem if we do not have the right talents working on the right jobs.
In terms of self-image, who were you yesterday? Who are you today? Who will you be tomorrow?
Yesterday I was a passionate chef.
Today I am a people person.
Tomorrow I will be an inspirational leader and a role model.
What advice would you give to those who are inspired to be successful in the hotel industry?
You have to be mobile. Meaning, you must be willing to travel and work in different cultures and environments.
I started my new position about a year ago. I still have a lot to do identifying new talents on an international level, especially as Kempinski is expanding. I will continue to develop this department with the support and guidance of the CEO and President Reto Witter.
About Lily Lin
ily Lin, MBA, Ph.D. is the Chief Editor at http://iworkinhotels.com. She is also responsible for business development in Asia and in the US. She has extensive experiences in marketing management, consulting and training. She has taught in American, German and Dutch universities. In addition, she is an academic board member of the Schouten University, Master of Business Administration. Schouten University is a British accredited online university. She has taught for the University of Maryland (from the State of Maryland in the US). In the Netherlands, she was an adjunct professor for the Phoenix University MBA program in Rotterdam, Webster University in Leiden, HES (Higher Institution of Economic Studies) in Amsterdam, European University in The Hague. She was also an adjunct professor for the Schiller International University in Heidelberg, Germany.
For more than 20 years, she was the designer and the senior lecturer of a number of courses at the Hotelschool The Hague in the Netherlands that include Revenue Management, the first ever offered at the School, marketing management and other marketing-related courses. She conceived her latest project, ”Interviewing Successful Hotel Managers Series”, in which she interviews hotel managers from major international chain and independent hotels. Her interviews and other works are published regularly at the http://iworkinhotels.com/dr-lins-blog.
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