Among many other things, it is clear that Maria Zec is loyal, trustworthy, humble, collaborative, meticulous and goal-oriented – many of the traits that drive a great hotelier needs to succeed.
There is no sitting on high in an office for this hands-on, highly communicative leader. “I’m a participative GM – the one that sets the tone for the entire hotel and not one that sits in the office and points,” explained the understated leader who is also known as being demanding but fair as she leads The Peninsula Chicago. “You have to show people what they need to do and lead by example.”
It is that simple and honest approach that has earned her the respect of her team. It is also why no one is surprised to see Zec help clean tables, in the kitchen working with room service, or even in a guest room to help turn a room. “People respect that, and I don’t do it to try to earn their respect,” Zec said matter of factly. “I do it because they need help and I’m there to help get the job done.”
That determination, along with a natural gift to manage and develop people, has guided Zec for the past 20 years as she carries on in her greatest and longest role as managing director of The Peninsula Chicago, which since 2007 has included regional vice president for the Hong Kong-based luxury brand hotels in New York City and at the Quail Lodge & Golf Club in Carmel-By-The-Sea, California. Zec also sits on the group management board of The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, the organization’s management and operations decision-making authority.
“Maria walks through her hotels with the eye of the guest,” said Richard Cotter, who hired her in 1994 at The New York Palace and has remained a mentor ever since. “She is always in the moment. If something is out of place or just not right, it gets fixed immediately. She embodies loyalty with an aura of not just for me, not just for you, but for all we encounter – a trait that has enabled her to rise to the top of the industry and maintain the Peninsula hotel as an icon of luxury. Others go to school by her example. She is simply the best.”
With testimonials like that, along with a sterling reputation and a career filled with accolades that led her peers to choose the Chicago-area native as HOTELS 2022 Independent Hotelier of the World.
Zec came from somewhat humble beginnings in Whiting, Indiana, about 30 minutes south of downtown Chicago. She learned early on the importance of hard work, even working as a short-order cook by age 16.
After graduating from Purdue University, starting a career in retail and losing her mother at an all too early age, Zec took stock and decided to change direction. It was then that iconic hotelier Eric Long hired her at the Hilton & Towers in Chicago, and despite an awful first six months of her career in 1985 working at a “complaint desk” in the lobby, she stuck with it, received her first promotion and started to fall in love with her new career.
Zec became the number two person in the front office before Long took her to Short Hills, New Jersey, as the front office director with an opportunity to reposition the property as Five-Diamond. It was her first taste of luxury.
Shortly after being called to New York’s Waldorf-Astoria to help train a new front office director, which also led to her first meeting with Cotter, Zec eventually took that position full-time for two years.
“When Maria arrived as director of front office of the Waldorf-Astoria in 1990, as hotel manager I marveled that I had met my first empathic manager,” Cotter said. “She was then a marvel, turning a ‘just good enough’ front office operation to world-class.”
From there it was back to the Hilton in Chicago, where she successfully helped implement a profit enhancement program and caught the eye of a regional vice president. She was quickly promoted to resident manager at the nearby Palmer House before getting another call from Cotter some 20 months later to return to New York City and become his number two in charge at The New York Palace. By 1998 and upon Cotter’s departure she became the GM of The Palace, at the time quite an accomplishment for a woman, especially in New York City.
It was then that she fortuitously met Mike Selby, who represented the ownership interest of The Palace. As part of a plan to do a full, in-house renovation of The Palace, Selby sent Zec to Europe and Asia to become further immersed in luxury, including three fateful days with then-Peninsula Hong Kong general manager Peter Borer, who would become her next mentor. “It was such an important time in my life,” Zec recalled. “The Palace was more about experiences, more about the guest… We did a phenomenal renovation at that time, and it was enriching to be a part of that. I felt very fortunate.”
Tough but fair
The Peninsula Chicago opened just as the September 11 tragedy hit New York City. Shortly thereafter, Zec was given the opportunity to take the new, 339-room luxury hotel to the next level and learn about the Peninsula Group’s philosophy about how guests and staff members need to be equally valued.
“I learned a lot about how important it is to treat people with respect and develop those relationships,” she said. “You can’t just develop relationships with your managers; you have to develop your relationships with everybody – from the person who cleans your office to the stewards. That is what’s really important and maybe for me humbling.”
Yes, humble is certainly among Zec’s traits, but she is also known as being rather tough, an attribute she embraces because she is also fair and consistent in her approach. “Anybody will tell you that I’m tough, tough, tough – but fair. But people want to come to Chicago because they know that they’re going to learn as I’m also more of a collaborative leader,” Zec explained. “I like to get buy-in and bring people into the fold to be part of the conversation and decision-making process.”
Her teaching and communication skills are not only shared with her management teams as ever since Zec took over at the New York Palace, and still today, she conducts weekly roundtables, taking 10 people from any department to listen and find out what’s truly happening. Everything said is communicated but never attributed. For example, she might learn about a small issue and realize there is an easy fix. “It’s very important to show that I’m following through on what they’ve asked. If I say I’m going to do it, I make sure that I get it done. It serves to break down all the barriers and can take care of things.”
In fact, taking care of business and tending to all the details clearly defines Zec’s approach. She’s a fanatic about cleanliness and grooming is very important, as well. “At every employee orientation I say ‘error in favor of the guest,” she said. “If you’re not sure what to do, take care of the guest and we will sort out the details afterward.’”
For Zec, delighting guests is always top of mind and she has a particular penchant for surprising children and older guests, utilizing a great purchasing department to create last-minute surprises. “Being creative is important, as well. I always talk about how together everyone achieves magic,” she said. “We’re a team and have to work together. Integrity is very, very important to me. It’s been a guiding principle throughout my career.”
With a trust and verify mentality, Zec is also known for tracing activities around the hotel. “I trust you to do a good job, but if you don’t, I start tracing or double-checking until you’re consistently good again,” she said.
All these strategies are a part of Zec’s management tactics, especially when it comes to taking care of guests and never resting on laurels. There is no room for complacency, she doesn’t believe in sacred cows and loves creativity, making sure she puts the most creative and smart people around her. “I’m proud of the fact that the hotel has the look and feel of a relatively new hotel, even though we’re 21 years old… It’s because we do walkthroughs all the time. I don’t just sit in the office. It’s about knowing what’s going on.”
That level of intensity also defines Zec and her style. “I’m intense all the time – it’s just in my DNA,” she said. “Sometimes my husband says, ‘you’re not in the office, Maria. Tone it down a little.’ But no, I think that’s how we keep the standards up.”
Your word is everything
It is this style and approach to the day-to-day that Zec tries to instill in her teams, and it seems to have worked as she has mentored multiple GMs in the Peninsula organization. Three of the nine current general managers at The Peninsula Hotels worked directly for Zec just prior to being named to lead a hotel.
“I always tell people to be indispensable and do things for your boss that make them look good,” she said. “Keep taking on more responsibility because then it will become natural to just give it to you.”
Zec added that young hoteliers have to follow through on what they say they’re going to do. “Your word is everything. If people are going to respect you, you must have integrity.”
She remains completely energized by the day-to-day business of running hotels and enjoys being challenged by everyone around her. “I like being in the operation. It’s fun. I like being around the energy of a hotel,” she said.
That energy and commitment have not gone unnoticed. “Maria to me is the perfect friend and colleague,” said Peter Borer, chief operating officer at The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels. “She is loyal, trustworthy, intelligent and an amazing leader, which has helped to form countless young hoteliers. It is a great privilege to work with Maria and to be able to call her my friend.”
At the end of the day for Zec, she is simply humbled by being in the position she loves. “I feel like I’m very lucky to be where I am. I worked hard, but you know, I still feel lucky.”
But, no doubt, it was not luck that caused Borer in 2018 to suggest naming the new Z Bar at the Peninsula Chicago after Zec, an honor bestowed on a few select Peninsula leaders who have significantly contributed to the company.