Numbers-savvy hotelier builds on a legacy

A self-proclaimed “egghead,” Andrea Olshan knows her numbers, but she also gets the soft side of the business. Olshan is CEO of Olshan Properties, which owns and runs six hotels in Ohio, Georgia, Illinois and Florida, part of a broader commercial portfolio that includes retail, office and residential holdings. She is hands-on in every detail of the business, from acquisition and financing down to choosing place settings for the restaurants. During her 13 years there, her sharp eye has steered Olshan Properties toward consistent double-digit gains in revenue and net asset value. Her latest coup: a joint venture to manage a mixed-use development in the works adjacent to Boston’s historic Haymarket.

Olshan is one of 20 rising stars (all 40 and under) HOTELS interviewed for our May feature. All shared their insights about their lives in the business and thoughts about some of today’s challenges and opportunities. In a Wall Street Journal-sponsored series, read Olshan’s responses to our questions and click here to link to the full list of interviews with HOTELS 20 Next-Gen hospitality leaders.

Andrea Olshan, CEO, Olshan Properties
Andrea Olshan, CEO, Olshan Properties

Contributed by Megan Rowe

HOTELS: Do you think the glass ceiling has been shattered in the lodging business? Or does the old boys’ network still prevail?

Andrea Olshan: We’re pretty diverse, so I don’t just see the hotel part of real estate, I see lot of property types. Hotels have a lot of opportunities for women. Michelle Russo (Hotel Asset Value Enhancement) is a great example — she’s a foremost hotel consultant, hires a lot of women and has tremendous respect in the industry.

H: How are younger professionals networking and learning about what the industry offers — and what do you think is a draw for them?

AO: I think social media has been incredibly helpful. When you can share your experience through personal anecdotes, that means more. Also, it’s a very appealing industry. While retailers might say they’re about “experience, experience, experience,” hotels are sort of the original experiential part of real estate. I think, from the Millennials’ perspective, that customer experience is fundamental. They want to be engaged in a meaningful and personal way.

H: Do you see company cultures adapting to help enhance recruiting efforts?

AO: I think they are. A lot of companies are creating separate innovation offices to get away from the big company culture and attract people who are more creative. Instead of being in a suburb they are located in an urban area, and there is more community space and a communal work environment. Not every work environment suits everyone, and if you want to attract disruptive innovators, you have to create something for them.

We have a corporate office in Columbus, Ohio, and originally we adopted the typical New York workplace policy of casual dress on Fridays only. The Columbus human resources manager came to me and said other companies in that market have casual dress every day; that’s what recruits are looking for. So we changed the policy. You have to recognize where you are.

H: You’re a second-generation leader at your company. How are your priorities different from your father’s?

AO: My father built a portfolio; I’ve tried to build the operations. To me it’s not just a collection of assets, I look at what do we do with this collection, how can we attract different types of talent and create a platform we can leverage. For instance, at one time we had 12 offices, and now we have three. So we’ve trimmed expenses. On the hotel side of the business you have to be incredibly disciplined when it comes to portfolio management. My father was entrepreneurial and kept buying. I do a lot of buy-hold-sell analyses. I’m about governance, governance, governance.

H: How can the industry make itself more attractive to the next generation of leaders? What’s attracting people now?

AO: I think there needs to be some clarity around the brands — and not everyone knows how the shakeup is going to emerge with the Starwood-Marriott merger. I think if there was a little more vision in big and small in terms of plan — not just rolling out more flags for expansion. If you are a junior person going into that corporate structure, do you see where the mother ship is going in two years? I don’t know if it’s clear.

What attracts people? Hospitality is really a passion. I think it’s in your bones. The hours are different and it’s very, very hard work, but it’s incredibly rewarding and addictive.

H: What keeps you up at night?

AO: Airbnb, to a degree, because it’s a very different service model. But really it’s brands. Every day a new flag is competing with us. And that gets very difficult. You look at a new Courtyard and an Aloft, and…I have to ask whether one brand is higher or lower, whether it’s select service or not. The gradations are so fine now that I don’t know if the consumer gets it — and that makes it hard.

There has been so much expansion, the deals are getting more marginal and the flags are blurring. Then you have Airbnb, and no one has resolved how to deal with that. There are just a lot of big questions.

H: What do you think is behind your success and growth?

AO: Really hard work! You have to be incredibly nimble, always entrepreneurial, have no ego — realize you’re not always smarter than everyone else — and always be open to a new or better way. We reward innovation on a monthly basis. It could just be changing an SOP, whether it’s at the corporate or property level, but we encourage people to come up with ideas that will make something better. It has to be a team effort and go from property level all the way up.

H: What would you tell someone entering the hotel business right now?

AO: You can’t substitute time at the properties. Real estate is a local business. Get on a plane, in your car, travel, see it in person, learn from everyone up and down the line. I’ve always been what my father would call an egghead — more academic. But you have to see every property, every market. You cannot read or study your way out of that, it’s just essential.

H: Describe some of your daily practices, and why you do them.

AO: I think there are things people want to ask you in person, so I almost never close my door and I try to walk around and check in with people. I think approachability makes a huge difference.

H: Who inspires you?

AO: Mahmood Khimji (Highgate) has created a fantastic company and recipe for success, especially in the unbranded category. I admire Michelle Russo, who is so smart, a really good partner to her clients and very helpful. David Simon (Simon Property Group) is the rare second-generation leader who totally improved upon the first. Internally, my father, Morton, is my biggest inspiration and the guy who made it all happen. And Wendy Silverstein, who is on our board, is an amazing woman and has inspired me in the way she takes so much time to mentor young women. She always took time with me and inspired me to pay it forward.

H: What do you foresee happening over the next year?

AO: I actually think it will be the year of the small guy. Things are changing so rapidly that if you can be nimble, see things differently and change course, you’re going to win. Being able to read and react in such a rapidly changing time is really an advantage — it’s no longer “You’re too small,” now it’s “We’re so nimble.”