Q&A with Dusit Group CEO Suphajee Suthumpun on Leadership in Times of Disruptions

Suphajee Suthumpun is the Group Chief Executive Officer of Dusit International. She joined the global hospitality company in January 2016, bringing with her over 20 years of experience in technology, including positions as Chief Executive Officer and Executive Chairman, Thaicom Public Co Ltd.; General Manager of Global Technology Services (GTS) at IBM’s ASEAN headquarters in Singapore; and Country General Manager of IBM Thailand Company Limited.

Q1: You are the first CEO of Dusit International who is not a member of the founding family. What do you think you have that the family gave you their trust?

A: Dusit International is about to embark on a period of unprecedented growth which, in the next five years alone, will see the company’s portfolio of global properties grow from 26 to 76. To facilitate this development, Dusit International’s Founder, Thanpuying Chanut Piyoui, and her son, Khun Chanin Donavanik, now Vice Chairman and Chairman of the Executive Committee, were looking for someone who could implement new management systems and build a solid corporate structure that would enable the company to grow not only in terms of hotels, but also in hospitality education.

The family knew that, as with any modern business, technology would play a key role going forward, and that technology would enable the company to respond dynamically to changes in the tourism industry.

My track record of success at both IBM and Thaicom certainly helped to establish initial trust. But what really sealed the deal is that I truly share the family’s vision of bringing gracious Thai hospitality to the world. I also strongly believe in promoting education; if we do well in education, I believe it will strengthen the quality of the industry in general, which is significant for Thailand and the region.

Q2: What do you anticipate as the next big thing in the hospitality industry, especially at the onset of ASEAN integration?

A: Rather than a single ‘big thing’ to come, I think many changes are already taking place and impacting the hospitality industry.

Take the current shift in power from west to east, for instance. An increasing number of businesses are investing in Asia instead of Europe and this is facilitating rapid growth of the Asian middle class. So much so, this stratum of society is expected to grow from around 600 million in 2016, to one billion by 2020 and three billion by 2030. Soon, a huge number of people will have enough disposable income to spend on vacations. As a result, intra-region travel will boom.

On top of this, the number of international tourist arrivals to ASEAN is expected to double by 2026 to 200 million. That’s a lot of inbound tourism. Demand for hotels after ASEAN integration is clearly not going to be an issue.

But, then again, neither is regional supply.

A quick glance at STR’s March 2016 Pipeline Report reveals that 592,299 rooms in 2,558 projects are under contract across the region, representing an 8.7 percent increase compared with March 2015 and a 1.6 percent year-over-year increase in rooms in construction. And more and more projects just keep coming online.

This of course, will raise both opportunities and challenges for savvy hotel operators, who, to remain competitive going forward, will have to continually update their hardware and technology and, at the same time, keep informed of ever-shifting consumer behaviour.

We have already seen how social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest have vastly changed the way guests interact with hotels; how the growth of online booking sites such as Agoda and Booking.com have driven down room prices and changed the face of online booking; and how the rise of the shared economy, championed by services like Uber and Airbnb, has further diversified what consumers expect from the hospitality industry. Thanks to technology, the industry is in a constant state of flux, and more innovative business models are bound to launch soon. The lines of service will only continue to blur.

The challenge for hoteliers pushing ahead in this tech-driven climate will be finding how to strike the perfect balance between high tech and high touch service, while simultaneously maintaining impeccable brand standards.

Hoteliers will also have to adjust the way they do business. They will have to decide early on whether they plan for their properties to be small and boutique, or instead go big and offer meetings and events facilities.

To fuel sustainable growth, strategic partnerships will have to be established. Acquisitions, such as Marriott International’s $12.2 billion buyout of Starwood Hotels, may become more commonplace. Dynamic leadership and clear strategies will be essential. Hotels must strive to be unique.

At Dusit International, one area in which we aim to differentiate ourselves is education, particularly education that’s integrated with the hospitality industry.

In 2018 we will open the pioneering Dusit Hospitality Management College, a unique fully integrated hospitality school and hotel in Manila, Philippines. This will complement our bourgeoning education portfolio that already includes the Dusit Thani Hotel School (Bangkok) and Dusit Thani College (Bangkok and Pattaya), where we offer a wide range of vocational and degree courses for the public and private sector. Our aim is to strengthen the education system not just for us, but the whole industry.

Q3: You led technology firms IBM and Thaicom before joining Dusit. What is it like shifting from technology to hospitality? What intersections or parallelisms did you encounter in the shift?

A: Any business, at its core, is about serving customers. So whether you work in hospitality or technology, you should always aim to meet the requirements and expectations of your customers while serving them to the best of your ability.

When I first joined IBM, in 1989, the company, which was then very much hardware focused, was going through a bit of a rough patch. But within a decade we had managed to reverse the trend and boost business considerably by shifting our business model from a hardware focus to a service and solutions focus. This didn’t happen overnight, of course – the shift was the result of a ten year long, vitally important transformation of the company’s culture – but it highlighted how service oriented operations could reap dividends.

It was a similar case at Thaicom, whose fortunes were turned around when, after another carefully considered culture transformation, we shifted our focus from product to service, and moved our attention from internal matters to focusing on customers. So I guess you could say that that’s my forte – implementing cultural transformation, and shifting focus from products and hardware to solutions and service.

In this sense, while changing from technology to hospitality may sound like a giant leap, the shift really isn’t that great. The big advantage of course is that I bring to this role a fresh pair of eyes and a novel perspective, yet still the same service-minded attitude. This has allowed me to embrace Dusit’s longstanding traditions while also ushering in a new chapter of change. The fact that technology has become a big part of everything, of course, is another big advantage.

Q4: You turned-around Thaicom and made it profitable after several years of losses. What was the most important thing you did that triggered the turnaround?

A: At Thaicom, I chose to focus on three major steps: a culture transformation, an operations transformation, and an organizational transformation.

By shifting Thaicom from a technology driven operation to a solutions driven one, I was able to take advantage of many business opportunities. To achieve this I established new core values under the acronym EPIC (Excellent in technology; Passion to challenge; Initiative in innovation; Commitment to contribute), and introduced what’s called a ‘Strategy House.’

As the name suggests, a Strategy House is a template which lays out explicitly the role each person plays within an organization. From the top down, each level of the ‘house’ is divided between goals, departments and staff so that, from just a quick glance, everyone knows where they fit into an organization and how they contribute to the company’s overall success.

By using this strategy at Thaicom I could confirm that each staff member had clear details about the importance of their role within the company, and concrete information about the company’s short and long-term goals. This ensured everyone was always working towards the same overarching objective. No confusion, only results.

The key to success in any business is to ensure everyone has a clear idea of their roles and how what they do contributes towards reaching the same goal. This fosters team commitment and trust. And nothing can be achieved without trust.

Q5: What was the greatest challenge you faced in the technology sector and how did you overcome this?

A: The biggest challenge in the technology sector was the technology itself, because it is constantly changing. Factors that influence change in the industry come from everywhere – from other industries, from consumers, from regulators etc. To overcome this challenge I first had to be nimble enough to adapt to these changes as well as willing to accept them, too. To stay ahead of the game, a company cannot only adapt to change, it has to foster a climate of innovation; innovation has to become the staff’s modus operandi. This, of course, takes time to achieve, but it was key to my success. Simply embracing change is never enough; you also have to lead it.

Q6: Tell us a bit about women empowerment in Thai culture and how did your background (both cultural and personal) influence your leadership style globally?

A: In business today, gender is not the main issue (at least not in the environment I am in). Rising to the top of any company is all about professionalism. If you approach challenges with the right attitude, respect all members of staff, and share your vision and objectives clearly and concisely, you have as good a chance as anyone of leading a corporation. Forget the glass ceiling. The only thing that stops any woman breaking through it is self-doubt.

As for my leadership style, I think my studies in social sciences have shaped my methods to some degree, because any management system I implement always has a key component focused on people and how I can lead them to become leaders themselves. At Thaicom, for instance, I created ‘brand ambassadors’ and ‘value champions,’ which led to a cultural transformation within the organization. I also implemented a more integrated communications process to ensure employees felt much more a part of the company’s operations and knew exactly what role they played in the business. I am doing something similar at Dusit International, where I have identified five key areas for quality growth – people, process, property & branding, technology, and financial capability. Again, the focus is on ensuring all staff are motivated to work towards the same clear goal. Motivate people, and you energize your company.

I also believe an effective leader must be able to evaluate themselves and define the areas in which they may be weak and need to develop. For instance, when I was at IBM my knowledge of the inner workings of computers was limited; at Thaicom, it was the same with satellites. But being able to recognize this meant I was able to work with people who were more knowledgeable than me and then make informed business decisions based on their expertise. If you have a gap in your knowledge, you must find the right staff or strategic external partners to help you bridge the gap.

The real key to being a good leader, which I have learnt over the years, is that your leadership style must be dynamic. You can never be trapped by past success. You should constantly evaluate what you have done, or what you are doing, and whether or not it’s relevant to your business going forward. Keep innovating and developing. Inspire your team and they will follow.

Q7: You have an interesting education combining social sciences (sociology and anthropology) and finance (accounting), and then you went into technology before hospitality. How have all these come into play in the way you look at your life and your work?

A: You know the old cliché, variety is the spice of life? Well I believe it is also the condiment of success. Technology, finance and people are key facets of any business, and I am fortunate enough to have experience in all three. This knowledge informs all of my business decisions; it’s a big part of who I am. Without this knowledge I wouldn’t be where I am today – about to lead Dusit International into a period of unprecedented development. And I am content.

Q8: What keeps you awake at night because it makes your heart soar?

A: At the end of a working day I always look forward to what the next day will bring, but I still sleep soundly because I know I have worked to the best of my ability. I don’t believe in failure, only valuable lessons, so I don’t carry any worries. That said, I often reflect on what I’ve done, and how I can improve my work, but because I know I have implemented a solid strategy with firm foundations at the company, this allows me to focus on other areas of life and therefore enjoy a good work-life balance. To have successfully achieved this balance makes my heart soar.

(Please visit www.mansmith.net for information related to Josiah Go’s marketing seminar schedules. Ms Suphajee Suthumpun will be a guest speaker at the W2W (Women Mentoring to Women) Talks of the Women Business Council of the Philippines (WomenBizPh). The event is entitled Disruptive Moves, Lifestyles and Transformations in the 21st Century and is open to the public with prior registration. Email admin@womenbiz.ph for more details.)

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Josiah Go features the movers and shakers of the business world and writes about marketing, strategy, innovation, execution and entrepreneurship


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