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The luxury hotelier who isn't afraid to don a beard


By Chloe Riley on 11/5/2018

It’s the height and the beard that first strike you the minute you’re expertly greeted by the French-born Philippe Leboeuf. At 6-foot-4, he gets his height from his mother – a 5-foot-9 Swede – but the beard is all his own. It is certainly uncommon to see on a hotelier, especially for someone of his status: general manager of the 5-star Mandarin Oriental Paris and the brand’s area vice president of operations. 

The “beard shift” is not a small thing. For a man who has managed some of the world’s most prestigious hotels – the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, London’s Claridge’s, The Carlyle in New York – it marks a choice, the beginning of his vision of what a hotel and its staff should look like and physically represent. A movement away from the old and into the new while still keeping the very foundation of hospitality: that the guest should be always be “wowed.” 

Mandarin Oriental Paris GM Philippe Leboeuf on the property's rooftop.

“I guess I’m close to my feminine side, especially in our business,” says the 59-year-old Leboeuf, whom HOTELS readers chose as winner of the 2018 Independent Hotelier of the World. 

Philippe Leboeuf is the winner of HOTELS 2018 Independent Hotelier of the World award, joining Jay Shah as the 2018 Corporate Hotelier of the World

“You have to listen and observe. There are a lot of intuitive things that are not said,” Leboeuf adds. “If you observe that someone drinks white wine and does not drink Champagne, some hoteliers are going to put (out) lovely, expensive Champagne, but the people don’t like Champagne. They like white wine. Hello? That’s absurd. The best service is when you don’t have to ask and it just happens.” 

He says this as he sips the same type of mineral water once consumed at the courts of Louis XIV and Louis XV at Versailles, while simultaneously eating just-arrived bites from the hotel’s kitchen, staffed by Michelin-starred Chef Thierry Marx, who’s been with Leboeuf since the property opened in 2011.

At the time Leboeuf accepted the GM position with the as-yet-unopened hotel, one of only a handful in Paris to be granted palace status, he was general manager at London’s iconic Claridge’s.

But the culture of Mandarin Oriental called to him. It’s provided a space which, in addition to allowing room for facial hair,  also has given him the ability to truly cultivate and perfect his management style. (Not to mention he got his choice of rose gold lapel pins – Mandarin’s signature fan icon – which are typically cast in plain gold.)

And at eight years now, it’s also the longest he’s worked at one place. He became area vice president of operations in 2013 after years of specializing in hotel openings, mostly for Concorde Hotels & Resorts and Rosewood Hotels & Resorts. In addition to Mandarin Paris, he supervised the opening of Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech in Morocco in 2015 and more recently has had operational oversight of Mandarin Oriental, Geneva.

“Taking immediate actions”

His daily routine consists of early rising, a drink of plain hot water and ideally a swim, but almost religiously a bike ride to work. Leboeuf has been a competitive cyclist for 20 years; in his days as managing director of the Hôtel de Crillon he used to fly the Texas flag for the Texas-born Lance Armstrong, often having a beer with the famous cyclist after each Tour de France finish.

He makes sure to get to work early, before meeting with his staff at 9:15 a.m. to go over what worked and what didn’t — “moments of delight and moments of opportunity,” as he refers to them.

What if the moments that didn’t work dominate? His personal assistant, Sophie Verneuil, says Leboeuf knows how to strike the right balance.

“He’s quite cool about this, but he is quite firm, also,” says Verneuil, who has also been with the property since its opening. “When things have to be solved, they have to be solved. And it’s not about asking about what happened. It’s taking immediate actions.”

“I say walk the talk, don’t talk the walk. I’m more about doing than speaking,” Leboeuf says. 

In his office at the Mandarin Paris, there sit three hats from the three “C’s” – the Crillon, The Carlyle and Claridge’s. There are piles of books that emphasize growth as an individual and a poster of the 2008 Owen Wilson film “Marley & Me” with Leboeuf’s face superimposed over Wilson’s and his 9-year-old border terrier, Archie, subbing in for the golden retriever. 

“They’re really big buddies,” says Verneuil of Archie, whom Leboeuf first got as a puppy while working at Claridge’s. “Every Friday we have Archie, and it’s nice to have a dog. Because it soothes tension, breaks barriers. Guests come, they have little kids who like to see Archie. He’s our little mascot.”

Leboeuf and Archie take a moment together on the hotel's terrace.

There’s also a small meditating gold frog on his desk. The frog isn’t just for show. Meditation, and in turn, time management, is important for Leboeuf and he tries to prioritize it every day, even if for just a small moment.

“Sometimes he does take five minutes, and we don’t disturb him. No phone calls, nothing. And it’s important just to refocus,” Verneuil says.

Like many well-trained GMs, he walks through the rooms daily, especially the VIP ones. He checks the towels, turns on the TV and takes a look under the bed.

“Let’s say that we have opportunities and shortcomings from clients and everything else,” Verneuil says. “But at the end of the day we are both in the office, and we say, ‘OK. Job’s done. Everything is fine. Everything went smoothly.’”

Leboeuf as a child with his mother, Maud.

“I want my son to do better”

Though Leboeuf has managed some of the world’s most prestigious hotels, he also has worked as head of housekeeping and understands the importance of seeing the property from all angles.

Born in Alsace, Leboeuf grew up in the countryside, “the boondocks,” as he puts it, with his mother, a brother and a professional soccer player – his father, who went on to open a diner-style restaurant later in life.

Like his father, Leboeuf had his sights set on sports, at the time volleyball.

His mother, Maud, had other thoughts.

“My mother said, ‘I want my son to do better than that,’” Leboeuf says. “There was no choice. She sent me to hotel school at age 15, which I had absolutely no intention to go to.”

His first job in the industry was as a reservation agent, then not long after, as an attendant on the private jet of then-President Francois Mitterrand.

Ultimately, he graduated from Cornell University and HEC Management School in Paris, becoming fluent in English and proficient in Italian and Spanish. In 2014, he was awarded France’s Knight of the Legion of Honor – the country’s highest decoration. 

Leboeuf at a ceremony awarding him France's Legion of Honor in 2014. A Chacun Son Everest's Christine Janin decorated him with his insignia: She is pictured (right) with Leboeuf and his partner, Pepita Diamond.

Since his entry into the industry, he has  traveled constantly and worked all over the world. During a period when he was out of work and visiting his daughters in New York, he met with hotelier James McBride for coffee – a moment which led him soon thereafter to an almost year-long stint in Dallas, Texas, as vice president of operations at Rosewood Hotels & Resorts. 

“Philippe was always in the lobby. He’s an old-fashioned hotelier where success is based on relationships,” McBride says. “Having very, very strong relationships with travel agents, clients – that embodiment of being a leader with deep relationships just bodes so well for success. And when you couple it with innovation and loyalty to the company you’re working for, it becomes a very successful force which Philippe embodies.”

Leboeuf is also president of A Chacun Son Everest, a foundation for children with cancer and more recently, women diagnosed with breast cancer. The organization, which Leboeuf joined in 1997, was started by Christine Janin, the first French woman to summit the peak of Mount Everest and with whom Leboeuf became friends through his time at the Crillon. 

“Together we go further”

In addition to Archie and his partner, Pepita Diamond, he has two daughters from a previous marriage, both of whom live in the United States. One works in the film industry, and the other, who received a Ph.D. from Harvard University, revolves her research around feminist philosophy. 

It’s a philosophy that Leboeuf also adheres to. He makes a point to elevate women in the workplace. In his daily morning meeting, over half the leading staff members present are women, as is his “number two,” hotel manager Sonia Timsiline.“It’s important for him to see women rise,” Verneuil says. “And having women be in key positions.”

Joanne Budge, senior director of people and culture at Four Seasons Hotel New York, worked with Leboeuf in the 1990s at the Westbury Hotel on New York’s Upper East Side (since converted into luxury condominiums).

“He was very openminded,” says Budge, who remains friends with Leboeuf to this day. “But whenever he would get a little crazy on me and not want to listen, I would sit him down and say, ‘Frenchman! You must listen to me!’ And you can hear in my voice that it was a very open and wonderful relationship. Very transparent as it still is today.” 

“And we would talk out the situation and we would always, always, come to some sort of agreement which was beneficial for the employee as well as the hotel,” she adds. “As far as a guest perspective, you’re not going to find someone who’s much more guest-centric than that man is. He just gets it.”

There’s a saying in French, Verneuil says, which Leboeuf often quotes. “Seul on va plus vite, ensemble on va plus loin”: “Alone we go faster, together we go further.”

Leboeuf (back, far left) with children from the charity he's worked with since 1997: A Chacun Son Everest.

“Change is good”

The mother who drove him into his life’s work died in 1995 from cancer. He had just received his first GM post at the Crillon at the time of her death and told her the news while placing a rose on top of her coffin.

He says he entered the Hotelier of the World contest for her, as a tribute.
“She loved me so much,” Leboeuf says. “She wanted me to get out of the country and succeed.”

For all the famous hoteliers who have influenced him – ex-Carlyle GM Frank Bowling, Ritz Paris President Frank Klein – when asked who inspires him every day, it’s A Chacun Son Everest’s Janin and his partner, Pepita.

Why?

“They are positive people, they make me happy, make me laugh,” he says. 

Leboeuf on his bike in a suite at the Mandarin Oriental Paris

Leboeuf does not so much have regrets as he does lingering thoughts about how the past could have been prioritized differently. 

“I wish I would have spent more time with my children, which I didn’t as much going into the industry,” he says. “Retirement, I don’t know. I’m a bit Buddhist about it. Like the frog,” he says, gesturing to the meditating statue on his desk. It’s at the mention of having more time that his eyes finally light up.

“If I could meditate, instead of five or 10 minutes, maybe 20 minutes a day? That would be ‘wow,’” Leboeuf says. 

As to where this industry is headed, his thoughts may mirror his own personal preference when staying in hotels. Despite a history of working within luxury, when he travels, he stays in offbeat, experience-driven properties. 

“Because I don’t want to wear suits. I don’t want to be the ‘suit’ with a capital ‘S’ or be confined to one image,” Leboeuf says.

“We’re in the middle of a huge transition,” he continues. “Things like Airbnb are extremely important and cannot be ignored by hoteliers. These things in a way are good, because I think change is positive. That’s a good thing about Asian culture and the Asian heritage that we have in our brand. It’s really build into our genes. Change is good. Constantly.”


 
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