Banyan Tree chairman Ho Kwon Ping on painful decisions like retrenchment & importance of empathy

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | March 13, 2021, 02:45 PM

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COMMENTARY: Co-founder and executive chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings Ho Kwon Ping has lived quite a life.

A former journalist who was jailed not once but twice in his youth — once in the U.S. and once under the Internal Security Act (ISA) — Ho then went on to found international resort and hospitality brand Banyan Tree with his wife Claire Chiang in 1994.

As part of Lessons on Leadership, a new Mothership series hoping to inspire the next generation of Singaporeans through the stories of Singapore’s many successful business leaders and entrepreneurs, 68-year-old Ho shares more about his personal values and how he has imbued them in the company that he started almost three decades ago.

As told to Jane Zhang

How would you describe yourself as a boss?

I think I'm very approachable but pretty temperamental.

I know that all my associates like to see me when I go and visit them, because they know I don't have airs. You know, in most Asian societies, when you greet — whether it be the wai or the bow — normally it's a lower person who bows to you first and you just sort of acknowledge.

When I see one of my associates, I will do the wai to them, even before they wai to me, simply because it's kind of like saying hi. If I see somebody, you know, I just say hi right away.

But then in an Asian society where there's nuanced hierarchies, people think, "Wow, the boss is acknowledging them before they acknowledge [him]."

But I am also a pretty impatient person. And I do blow up — very much not against any person — but if I'm frustrated by a situation. It's because I feel like there's so much to do, so many things that need to be done, and there's so many obstructions along the way, so I get frustrated by these obstructions

And I think that's why people would say that I am pretty temperamental, but never towards them.

I picked up more from my mother, which is that she's quite creative and articulate, but she has a very short temper. The only saving grace for that is that, like my mother's, it's a temper that rears up and then dies down pretty quickly. It doesn't last.

[In terms of] values that I learned from my father, it's really his patience with people, which I don't have.

My father didn't speak so much, but he was one of the kindest, most patient, people I've ever known. And he's loved by all his associates and his staff because of that. So, I try — not always successfully — to be more like my dad.

Ho and his father Ho Rih Hwa. Photo courtesy of Ho Kwon Ping.

What were big influences in how you became the leader you are today?

I wasn't born with values and management style. Born with it meaning that, for a lot of people, the birth of their values and everything else is when they finish their Harvard MBA or their other fancy MBAs, and that's why most MBAs walk around with the same jargon, because they're born from the same mother.

But I didn't do that way, so I don't know a lot of that jargon about management styles or about values, and most of the values that both I and Claire have have actually come directly from experience.

Banyan Tree Bay [the fishing village Yung Shue Wan in Lamma Island] was where we lived in the most important years of our lives as a first married couple.

Ho and Chiang at Yung Shue Wan (Banyan Tree Bay). Photo courtesy of Ho Kwon Ping.

We weren't at all rich, but it really symbolised, to me, to us both, the values of Banyan Tree, which was about communication, and romance for each other and for travel, because we backpacked about at that time.

So the term romance and intimacy became part and parcel of the concept of Banyan Tree, and the values of the culture itself.

Romance — romance between people, romance for life itself, a love for life. Romance for travel.

Intimacy — again, not necessarily romantic intimacy, although of course there is that element in it. But intimacy in terms of with nature, personal communication. Intimacy means you're close to something.

Photo courtesy of Ho Kwon Ping.

From there, we've recently developed a tagline now, which Claire originated, which is now being rolled out across all our enterprises. And this tagline actually symbolises the core culture and value of Banyan Tree, and that is, "I am with you".

"I am with you" underpins our entire service culture, because it indicates that empathy is at the very, very root of everything that we do. Only when you are empathetic towards your customer do you derive some degree of self-respect for yourself and what you do.

And I think because it came gradually, there is a real authenticity to it. It's not anything that we ever picked up from anywhere.

When you empathise with what life is like on the other side, things click inside you and then it becomes much more natural for you to respond to situations.

To most traditional hotel chains, service culture is mainly a case of asking hotel associates to anticipate guest needs, etc.

Our difference is to recognise that service culture is a two-way street, and that its roots lay not in servitude, no matter how well dressed up it is, but in genuine ability to see the world from the other person’s shoes.

Empathy for a hotel associate means understanding what a birthday or anniversary means to a guest, but also how grief or loneliness can be a reason for a trip; it also means understanding your colleagues and their stress.

Mutual respect is an important corollary to empathy.

How do you think such values come through in how Banyan Tree is being run?

We have these programmes where they go through different aspects of the Banyan Tree culture — our marketing culture, our service culture, and so on.

It's basically more a process of sensitisation of people, and quite a lot of group workshops, so that they understand what empathy is all about.

Ho and Chiang with Banyan Tree Associates. Photo courtesy of Ho Kwon Ping.

But it's not like a boot camp where you have to go through these things. We have more a number of other things that we want them to do.

For example, we do have a programme where, if possible, we would like all the frontline associates to actually have stayed in our hotel before the opening of a hotel.

Now again, it's not mandatory. It's not a reward. It's for them to actually understand how to look at what it means to be a guest. So you actually see some of them noticing that certain things were not adequately done, and the room wasn't adequately cleaned.

If you are staying as a guest with your whole family — and we allow you to stay as a whole family and we don't mind that you order room service — and it takes one hour to come, then you know what it means to not be a very happy guest.

So that's again about empathy. You develop empathy when you see what life is like on the other side.

I think Claire and I — and most of us in Banyan Tree — believe that experiential learning is at the root of long-lasting learning.

How have your values of empathy and "I am with you" played out during Covid? What were some difficult decisions you had to make?

Even during Covid, I think we've been as empathetic as we could be, even though it was a difficult time.

When we first started with the unpaid leave program, immediately I said, "I will take no salary at all. I'll have 100 per cent pay cut."

In Banyan Tree, all our leaders insisted they take far deeper cuts than other associates. The highest-paid get the highest proportion of cut.

Now, the sceptical, the cynics would say, "Yeah, that's nice and easy for you to say. You own half the company." And that is true! I'm well-off and I can survive quite well without my salary.

But I think it is symbolic in some ways. It is a way of basically saying, "I am with you. I know what it's like. I know you have to take a 50 per cent pay cut. It's hard for you to even feed your families."

That doesn't help a lot more when you are a frontline worker — you still got your salary cut — but at least it's less egregiously insulting that top management benefits themselves.

The latest manifestation of having to make painful decisions, but which were necessary, was that for the first time ever, we really had to retrench people — not just let one or two people go; we had to retrench thousands of people.

That was one lesson learned — that you don't wait until you absolutely have to do it, otherwise you'll go under because then is too late. So we let a lot of people go very early on, at the beginning of the crisis.

It's really very painful, you know, to retrench people who've done nothing to deserve it. And many people who've been very good, but you know that you have to do it.

The overwhelming majority understand that we’re hardly doing fantastic right now, and we can hardly maintain full employment staff numbers when occupancies are lower than 10 per cent. And our principles for retrenchment were transparent and fair, based on length of service.

We created our own mobile app for temporary employment and registered all our associates on the data base, and we then serve as a clearing house for temporary job-seekers and hotels which need temps. Which basically means that we’re trying to help them make some income.

And it's only because of that, that now with the second outbreak, third outbreak, fourth outbreak, we don't have any problems surviving as a company at all.

When you were young, you had pretty radical ideals. What kinds of values did you hold back then that have stayed with you, and what have you found to be incompatible with what you do now?

*laughing* Communism and capitalism don't mix. I was never a hardcore communist, but I was a romantic idealist. I would read Che Guevara, Franz Fanon. Hey, you've got to forgive me, I was in my 20s and the whole world was on fire.

A newspaper clipping about Ho's arrest amidst his political activism in the U.S. in 1972. Image courtesy of Ho Kwon Ping.

So, my economic theories have changed quite a bit. I don't believe that a state-led communist system works at all.

However, if you even talk about that narrow area of economic theory, having been much more "radical", I still don't subscribe to much of what people admire in capitalism today. And people are finally getting a little bit upset that the injustices of capitalism are just phenomenal.

What has remained with me is probably a deep sense of anger toward social injustice, although today I'm not going to hit the streets and do all kinds of things. I've spoken out about 377A, not because I'm a huge proponent of gay rights, but I think it's a human rights issue.

I don't think those things have changed, it's just that the way of manifesting my ideas today has. The fundamental difference is, before I didn't have a platform. I have a platform today; I have Banyan Tree.

So I put everything that I want to do into trying to create something that has a lasting legacy — a legacy that's not just in terms of a company that makes money for the family, but hopefully a community of people which expresses the kind of culture we want to create.

What values do you hope to pass on to the next generation and to your children?

I would probably say — and it will sound a little bit trite, but I think it's absolutely true — you can only succeed in doing those things which you absolutely love, whatever it is. Only then will you have that extra edge over other people.

The only thing you've got going for you is that you love it so much that you live it 24/7. So that work and play and not differentiated, and therefore you don't feel burnout because you just want to keep on doing what you're doing.

The other thing, I suppose, would be: if you really love something and you don't do well in it, don't get discouraged. Be an eternal optimist.

But the flip side to that is that when you finally become successful, don't ever think that's just because you had a lot of failures and you're now doing well, you are the best thing since cheesecake.

There are a lot of young people now who are privileged, not just by wealth, but by education.

Because we have a meritocratic system, the not-so-fortunate flip side is that people who succeed in meritocracy think they got there entirely on their own, which is not true. It's largely a function of the schools you went to, or whether your parents were educated or not.

The other flip side of meritocracy is that not only do you think it's justified that you got up there, but because meritocracy implies fairness and equality, you think the people who didn't get up actually deserve not to.

You'll find quite a number of people in the Singapore system who, because they got there through the system, think that people who didn't get there through the system could have but didn't, so they don't even deserve help.

You know, the balance between humility when you're successful and a stubbornness to not give up when you fail — that's an important core value that I think everyone must have.

Ho and Chiang with their children and grandchildren. Photo courtesy of Ho Kwon Ping.

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Top photo courtesy of Ho Kwon Ping. Some quotes have been edited for clarity and grammar.