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Successful hotel managers: 1-on-1 with the Fairmont San Francisco's Thomas Klein
By feature writer Lily Lin
Thomas Klein, Area Vice President and the GM of the famed Fairmont Hotel San Francisco in the US, has been in the hospitality business for 32 years. As part of our continuing series of interviews with successful hotel managers, we ask him about what motivates him, what his most challenging issues are, and what advice he has for others inspired to become successful in the industry.
You graduated from the Boston University with a Sociology degree in 1977. Four years later, you became a Hyatt management trainee. What motivated you to work in the hotel industry?
It was less by design and more by default. Originally, I really wanted to be a criminal lawyer but I lost interest after studying law for a short time at the University of New Hampshire (in the US). I didn't really know what to do. I was in Columbus, Ohio (in the US) working as a waiter at the Hyatt Regency. I fell in love with the business in the hospitality industry. They offered me the opportunity to get into their management training program. That was 32 years ago and it was how I started in the hotel industry.
You have worked for a number of well-known international chain hotels. In 1989, you became the GM of Ritz-Carlton Sydney in Australia. Did you always want to become a GM?
It was in my DNA that I always wanted to go to the next level. I wanted someday to manage my own hotel and to define the culture of that hotel, as I know that the culture and values are driven from the top. I also knew that I had to work harder than others. Whenever my company needed help, I volunteered. As the result, I moved around a lot with Hyatt and then with Ritz-Carlton, a great company when it comes to service.
In 2006 you received an MBA degree from the Loyola University, Chicago in the US. At the same time, you were the Regional VP and GM of Swissôtels & Resorts Chicago. Did you find it difficult holding down a full-time job and at the same time became/becoming a student again?
What I received was an MBA certificate. I felt and still feel today that continuing education is important. The experience was worth the effort. It is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day operations. Stepping out of the hospitality environment and into the academic environment gave me a fresh outlook. It was an extremely beneficial experience.
Today, I enjoy being a guest lecturer teaching in various hospitality schools and I also Chair the University of San Francisco Hospitality School program.
You've been the Regional VP and the GM of the landmark and flagship hotel, Fairmont San Francisco since 2008. At the same time, you are very active in the local community. What keeps you motivated?
My wife will tell you that I am crazy. I am a workaholic. In addition to Fairmont San Francisco, I am also responsible for five hotels in the Northern California region. Furthermore, I am the Chairman of the University of San Francisco - Hospitality Advisory Board and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society - Bay Area Chapter. I am also a board member of a number of hotel organizations. I firmly believe that every hotel is a part of the local community and they have to embrace it if they wish to be seen.
When you love and have passion for what you do, the rest is easy!
What are the most challenging issues you are facing on your current position?
There are many levels of challenges. The most important ones are:
What do you do at work that you enjoy so much you actually lose track of time?
Every morning without fail I walk through the Fairmont Hotel and when I travel I will also walk through other hotels in my region. I chat with my colleagues. I want to see and feel their energy level and passion. This hotel is 105 years old, and I have colleagues who have been with the company 35, 40 and even 50 years and they still have an inner passion to do their job! A housekeeping employee makes 14 beds a day! I can't even make my own bed! Seeing them working motivates me to ensure that we provide them with the right working environment.
Doing things differently and setting higher standards also motivate me.
In 2013 Fairmont Hotels (California collection) was recognized as the Best Places to Work in the Bay Area by the SF Business Times. In your opinion, what is the single most important concern for your employees?
Mutual respect, without question, is important to my employees. Also, trust and transparency, and open-lines of communication are also their major concerns.
I hold a casual lunch with 15 to 20 of my colleagues regularly to remove communication barriers, such as fear of reprisal - being fully engaged with the colleagues at every level continues to be critical in gaining their trust and commitment.
Now, I can't shut them up. Whenever someone contacts me, I will respond within 24 hours. They may not like my answer but they deserve to get it.
My employees know that I don't want it to be a job; it's a life style.
In the eyes of your employees, what is the single most important quality you should have?
Trust and respect are very important. You've got to have integrity! Active listening skills are also important. They know I have passion, and I always try to raise the bar.
Tonga Room in Fairmont San Francisco is probably one of the first theme restaurants in the world. While many well-known theme restaurants have come and gone, Tonga Room remains as popular as ever, even though its basic theme has not changed much since its opening in 1945. What is the secret of its success in a city that has 39.3 restaurants per 10.000 households --- which outnumbers every city in America?
I know; it's wonderful, isn't it?! Fairmont Hotel San Francisco is very much an institution and part of the fabric of our great city. From the theme perspective, it hasn't changed much since its opening. The pool in Tonga Room used to be a part of a health club in the 1920s.
We've been always true to the value of Tonga Room. The Tiki Bar concept came and went but it is coming back again. You know, we have the best Mai Tai in the world!
Our business is going strong. Basically, we listen to our customers. The quality of food and the quality of service must be maintained at a certain level. We never become complacent.
Some people say that a GM is not important to his frontline employees. Do you agree?
No. Absolutely not! If anyone says it, they need to change the GM. The GM is critical in setting the tune and the culture of the hotel. I can tell right away when I walk into a hotel whether the GM has set the tune. The GM must show his employees his genuine care for them and the passion for his business.
What is your leadership style, and what makes you an effective leader?
You have to ask my employees.
I think you have to be emotionally and physically there. You have to make sure that you stay grounded at all times. I show respect to my employees, guests, owners and bosses. We are nothing without these people.
If you must make a choice, would you do the things right or would you do the right things?
I think doing the right thing from your heart will always prevail. It has to be morally and ethically right!
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
My strengths: One has to have the ability to multi-task under a high degree of pressure without showing outward signs of stress. When you are managing a fast-moving business, you must be able to maintain composure and be able to show leadership and support and give direction. Change is inevitable and truly the only constant!
I am also disciplined, structured and accountable.
My weaknesses: My biggest weakness is getting the right balance in life.
I move very fast, probably because I am German. I tend to be impatient. I don't accept complacency. If you say you are going to do something, I expect that it will be done.
I think I am doing a better job than I did 10 years ago in achieving a balance in life but it still requires focus!
At work, what puts a smile on your face?
I love to be busy.
When our colleagues deliver service excellence and they do it in a passionate way, i.e., when I hear from guests that our employees did an excellent job, it's those guest stories that put a smile on my face. Anybody can build a hotel but it is the heart and soul of the hotel that will make the difference.
Of course, financial stories also put a smile on my face. Achieving solid business results at every level can certainly put a smile on my face!
What puts a frown on your face?
Complacency and lack of attention to details will put a frown on my face.
Who do you admire and why?
A couple of people who helped me in my approach and understanding of what hospitality really means. One was Horst Schulze, the former president of the Ritz-Carlton. You know, the famous Ritz-Carlton Hotel motto, "We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen." Horst showed a true understanding of what service is really about. It will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I worked in Africa for eight years and had the opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela a couple of times. I admire his ability and desire to influence changes in the generations to come in a positive way after he had gone through so much in his life. It is quite remarkable!
What is your greatest fear? How do you overcome it?
I was just thinking about this. We all have fear and when I reflect back on it, to overcome fear, you just have to step into the unknown, overcome your fear and just do it! Step into the uncharted waters and say to heck with it! By doing so, you will realize your capacity.
If you can only choose one from "wisdom", "wealth" and "fame", what will be your choice? Why?
Clearly, I would choose wisdom. Everyone likes wealth but it does not define who you are. Wisdom defines who you are.
What advice would you offer to those who are inspired to become successful in the hotel industry?
Do what you like. Be passionate with the career you choose. Don't settle for just being good. Always try to strive for the next level. Make your mistakes and move on. Don't overcomplicate things. I believe that there are only three true ways to create and sustain superior performance for the long haul. First, take exceptional care of your customers with superior service and superior quality. Second, take exceptional care of your colleagues by challenging and developing them to their full potential and third, constantly innovate - that's it!
Good question! I want to grow personally and professionally. I still love what I do. Fairmont is a great company. During the coming years, it will grow considerably. I want to stay with the same company, and I want to take on more responsibility.
Would I like to have my own company someday? Maybe. But this will have to be with the right and like-minded people!
About the Fairmont, San Francisco
The Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco is a luxury hotel atop Nob Hill in San Francisco, California. The hotel was named after the mining magnate and U.S. Senator James Graham Fair (1831-1894) by his daughters, who built the hotel in his honor. The hotel has been featured in many films, including Petulia and The Rock. Exterior and interior shots of the hotel were used as stand-ins for the fictional St. Gregory Hotel in the television series Hotel. The Fairmont San Francisco was added to the National Register of Historic Places and it is part of the Historic Hotels of America.
About the author
Lily Lin, MBA, Ph.D. is the author of the book, "Interviewing Successful Hotel Managers", in which she interviewed 44 hotel managers and executives from major international chain and independent hotels, such as Four Seasons, Hilton, InterContinental, Kempinski, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, etc. She is also the partner of Lin & Pavelson B.V., the publisher of the book and the owner and Chief Editor of the wearehoteliers.com and its blog.
Her management experience includes the positions of international marketing manager and VP of Marketing Management. She has taught in American, German and Dutch universities. For more than 20 years, she was the designer and the lead lecturer of a number of courses at the Hotelschool The Hague in the Netherlands. She designed the first Revenue Management course offered at the School. She is also experienced in consulting and corporate training in hospitality and other industries.
Lily Lin graduated with summa cum laude from the University of Maryland with a B.S. degree in Business Administration and a B.A. in Psychology. She received her MBA from the California State University and Ph.D. in Strategic Marketing and TQM from the Amsterdam University. She also completed the Cornell University, Revenue Management certificate program.
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