It was 2003, the year of SARS. The airwaves were inundated with news of people who died or were seriously ill from the disease. Fear was a constant companion for many who thought: Who would be the next victim?
Mr Choe Peng Sum understood that fear and told his management: “We must be prepared to roll up our sleeves and do the work.” Then, the head honcho of Frasers Hospitality Pte Ltd and his management team went to the housekeepers and told them they didn’t have to do up the rooms if they were uncomfortable with the idea. “Those days, people were dying and it was uncertain. We didn’t force the staff to do it. We gave them a choice. Every single one of them said: ‘Don’t you worry. We’re going to work right through.’ Some of us almost cried.” It has been eight years since that incident, but the 51-year-old is still visibly touched by how his staff stood by him and the company at one of the lowest points of the hospitality industry.
Now, Frasers Hospitality is thriving, with 64 properties across 37 cities globally. It is regarded as one of the top three global companies for serviced residences. With its current success, it is hard to imagine that Mr Choe was headhunted by Singapore conglomerate, Fraser & Neave Limited, only 15 years ago to start up its hospitality arm. “I got in and I remembered the first day. The Executive Director said: ‘Okay, go start the business.’ I was in my office and I looked around. I was it, I guess. He said: ‘Go start the business.’ Where do I go?”
But go he did, to start the business. He was able to get competent people to join him. But the going was still tough. “When we started, it was really difficult times. When we opened, 97/98 was the Asian financial crisis. The board was thinking, ‘Can you do it? Do you still want to open it?’ And I said, ‘There is some demand still. We should still do it.’ And they said, ‘Okay, we trust you. But make money’.” With that, its first service apartments were launched in 1998 and within six months, the occupancy rate surpassed 80 per cent. The rest is history.
That he was able to prove his mantle was probably never in doubt. After all, he had held senior management positions with Shangri-La and Shangri-La Shanghai, China before joining Fraser and Neave and was already well-versed in the workings of the industry. A scholarship holder with Shangri-La, the Cornell University alumnus underwent the company’s management trainee programme that gave him exposure to every department, even the less glamourous ones. He was a receptionist, a bell man, a steward and was attached to the butchery. “There were times when I looked at my friends. They were bankers and were rising up the ladder really fast and here I was, a receptionist almost in a brass band uniform, with green and golden stripes.” Such moments were when he doubted his decision to join the industry and “questioned if he was in the right place”. But of course, that was many years back. In retrospect, he is “thankful to go through everything” and is “grateful to Shangri-La” as it gave him a complete picture of the hospitality industry.
With over 30 years of experience in this industry, it comes as no surprise that he plays advisor to many of his friends’ children who are interested in hospitality. He laughs as he elaborates on this informal role he plays outside work. “I will spend time with them and talk to them. It’s really not as glamourous as it seems. Many times, they go back and change their minds and their parents call me and ask, ‘What did you tell them?’”
Married with two daughters, the genteel Mr Choe talks about his family with much pride. He tries to spend his weekends with his family even as he travels a lot and spends extended time with his daughters when they hit 12, 16 and 18 by either going for camps or solo trips with each of his daughters. “I remember going overseas with my elder daughter. Every time we took pictures, she put her hands around me. When you grow to a certain age, sometimes you wouldn’t want to hold hands. So it’s great.” He also makes it a point to offer rides to his daughters whenever he can.
But there had been times when family was not as much a priority. Like many, he was climbing the corporate ladder and was caught up in the grind of work. Things only changed when a sudden realisation hit him while celebrating his elder daughter’s third birthday. “The thing that struck me the most was when I looked at her as I was preparing her birthday party. I said: ‘Oh dear, I don’t really have a lot of recollection from year one to year three what she did’”.
Knowing the importance of work-life balance, he introduced the five-day work week to his staff at Frasers Hospitality in 1998, an unprecedented move in the hospitality industry in Singapore and Asia. “In those days in 1998, you never hear of five-day work week in hotels. People say: ‘You’re crazy!’” The staff appreciated the arrangement and the work culture and worked hard for the company. With the right leadership and people in place, Frasers Hospitality’s list of accolades reads long and lengthy. Last year, it garnered the Best Regional Brand Award and Overall Winner for the Regional Brands Category of Singapore Prestige Brand Award.
Frasers Hospitality’s success can perhaps be summarised in one word: Respect. As Mr Choe shares: “You find that people are the same everywhere. If you treat them with respect and you expect them to have integrity and trust, you set the standards and communicate that, people are then proud to live up to the standards.” Too idealistic a proposition? Find out how he has managed to live out his ideals and stewarded Frasers Hospitality to where it is today when he speaks at the Distinguished Business Leaders Series in Beijing on 14 October 2011.
Join us for our Distinguished Business Leaders Series with Mr Choe Peng Sum in Beijing, China on 14 Oct 2011. Register for the event now!
By Yee Wei Zhen