Changing the game in Pakistan

Before I arrived at the Avari Towers Hotel in Karachi in the summer of 2007, I had given a great deal of thought as to how I was going to quickly turn around this underperforming iconic property, which was languishing at the bottom of its competitive set, and by doing so meet my owner’s very specific brief, which was to elevate the hotel to a market-leading position within a two-year period.

As the completion of our new rooms, suites, restaurants and public areas was at least one year away from the date of my arrival, and while 50% of the hotel was undergoing a disruptive renovation, I decided to focus my initial efforts on developing our people first, so that they would be well trained and confident enough to deliver our new market-leading products, service levels and profits once the new rooms, suites, lobby and restaurants opened in the summer of 2008.

What I decided to do at the outset in order to meet and exceed my chairman’s brief was to become a Game-Changer.

Game-Changer definition

1. A visionary strategist who alters the game his business plays or conceives an entirely new game.

2. A creator who uses innovation as the basis for sustaining profitable organic growth and consistently improving margins.

3. A leader who understands that the consumer or customer — not the CEO — is the boss.

4. A catalyst who uses innovation to drive every element of a business — from strategy to organization and from budgeting and resource allocation to selecting, rewarding and promoting people.

5. An integrator who sees innovation as an integrated end-to-end process, not a series of discrete steps.

6. A breaker of the chains of commoditization, who creates differentiated and value-added brands and business through innovation.

7. A hardheaded humanist who sees innovation as a social process and understands that human interaction — how people talk and work together — is the key to innovation, not just technology.

Once I had made that decision, I needed to quickly develop and roll out a game plan that would focus me and the entire management team from day one on developing our people first, and the profits later, and this is how I did it.

Day 1: Why am I here?

At 3 p.m. on my first day at the helm, I asked our heads of departments to gather as many staff members as they could spare, in the grand ballroom, so that I could introduce myself to them.

I felt it was important to do this immediately, so they understood from day one my need to feel connected to them and for them to feel connected to me. I also wanted them to know — from day one — why I had been selected and appointed by the chairman to head the redevelopment of the property and its positioning in the market.

So we arranged the chairs into five sections of 40 chairs, as only 200 staff members could attend due to a busy operation. Once they were settled and seated, I introduced myself, and then asked them what they thought my overriding objective as the new general manager of Avari Towers would be.

Some said “to make more profit,” some said “to train us,” some said “to make Avari Towers a 5-star hotel,” at which point I said, “Yes, precisely, and for that we need a 5-star team with a 5-star attitude.”

I then went on to say that my most important long-term objectives were to make the Avari Towers staff members the best-trained and the best-paid hoteliers in Pakistan, a comment that drew wild applause and a standing ovation.

However, before the applause died down, I delivered what was to be the first — but not the last — Game-Changer strategy demonstration, when I asked one section of 40 staff members to stand up and leave the hall, much to their bewilderment.

I then said, “That, ladies and gentlemen is precisely how we will be able to raise salaries above and beyond your expectations” — by reducing the headcount gradually by 20%, possibly even more, and then ensuring the remaining 80% are much better trained, much more productive and much better paid, and as result, live much happier lives, which had them all on their feet again clapping enthusiastically.

At this point, I brought back the rather puzzled 40 staff members into the room, and once again explained to them all just how I intended to raise the salaries above the industry norm. It was a point that became known as one of my first and most powerful game-changing moments, and one that has taken us through a period of unparalleled growth and profitability since that day to this day almost six years later, at which time we have indeed managed to reduce our headcount by an incredible 30% from the 2007 level, due mainly to natural attrition and internal transfers within the group, rather than layoffs or redundancies, while increasing the average salary by more than 600% over the same period, and in some cases by as much as 100% or more.

I am now convinced that I have the best-trained, the most loyal and the best-performing team of my entire 40-year career, all due to the fact that I made a decision right at the start to let everyone know what was to come over the next five years, and then set about making it a reality.