Thomas Dubaere, MD of AccorHotels UK and Ireland, was destined for Olympic glory before an injury changed his career path. He discusses recovering from a fall, embracing disruption and the importance of listening
As a child I liked to be the entertainer. When family came over, I was always creative – I sang, I danced, and then afterwards, a bit like a street artist, I came around with my hat to earn some money. I’m not sure if I felt I was going to be a businessman, but I might have got it from there.
I’m passionate about coaches. I was bitten by sports excellence at a young age – I played basketball from the age of six and was quite a good athlete. The army of people that surrounded us, the coaches, were an inspiration and I take their approach today in how I manage and coach people.
Talent without commitment is nothing. Jesse Owens is a hero of mine. A legend in athletics, he excelled at 100 metres and set a long jump world record that stood for 25 years. He also suffered from chronic bronchitis – imagine the commitment that he had to go with the talent.
I had one ambition – to go to the Olympics. I got into the Belgian 4×100 team for Los Angeles in 1984. I would probably have run against Carl Lewis. I never got there, I had an injury. That was going to be my life and it turned around in one day. It was a bad experience, but as I got older it became a good one. I had to find my gold medal somewhere else.
Nelson Mandela said: ‘The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.’ Before we get a victory, many of us have fallen and I think the magic is in getting back up again and again.
I discovered my second passion. To earn extra money I worked at weddings, and the venue owner said: ‘You’re quite good at this –instead of serving why don’t you manage the 20 servers?’ I found hospitality to be much like sport – you’re surrounded by people, you work in a team and on top of that you serve.
If you’re a damn good listener, it takes you twice as far. I got the keys to my first hotel at 27. Suddenly you have a team in front of you to inspire who are counting on you. I like speaking, but quickly I understood that it takes a lot to listen and you can’t make it on your own.
I joke that I joined AccorHotels as MD. I wasn’t the managing director, I was a maître d’ when I started in 1990. People say: ‘How can you, at the age of 50, have worked for one company for so long?’ But when the business continuously grows internationally, with a variety of jobs and opportunities – and as long as you can get a step up every two or three years – you don’t see a reason to leave.
You never stop learning as you grow. Today we have 222 hotels and 30,000 rooms. We want to go to 40,000 rooms. AccorHotels has always been very strong in the economy segment, very strong in the midscale, and very strong in the upscale, and we want to grow the luxury segment even more… recently we acquired Fairmont, Raffles and Swissôtel [buying the owner of the chains for $2.9bn (£2bn)] and Onefinestay [for £117m]. They know the luxury business, so it’s a question of what we can learn from them to integrate into our luxury brands.
Embrace the disruptors. If you take the example of Airbnb, people might say they’re disruptive and we should tackle them. That’s the biggest rubbish I’ve ever heard. I’m happy they’re there because it creates more traffic, more people travelling, and I believe that people move from one brand to another depending on the reason for travel.
Emotional balance is key. I have the book Emotional Capitalists by Martyn Newman on my desk. When you talk about emotional balance to people who have been in business 30 years, they’ll say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ As with sport, you can only achieve the best if your physical, emotional and intellectual coefficients are in balance.
Who doesn’t have 30 minutes? I do my half-hour exercise seven days a week, even when I don’t feel like it. I don’t really like running – it’s quite boring. But then you start to think about a project and it doesn’t matter, before you know it you’ve done 10k. It’s my meditation.
Manage sustainably. The team should continue being great when you leave. I said to a general manager, ‘Next year, after you leave your hotel and go to the next one, I make you responsible for the results you leave behind.’ Steve Jobs was a genius, and if you look at Apple today, well it’s still there innovating. He left sustainability, and that is fundamental.
Thomas Dubaere, MD, AccorHotels: CV
Education Graduate of Brussels Hotel School; master’s in management from University of Leuven
Career Joined Accor in Belgium in 1990 at Novotel Bruges Centre and went on to hold several general manager positions
2004 Appointed delegate director, economy brands, for Belgium
2005 Director of operations economy brands for Belgium and Luxembourg
2010 Managing director, economy brands UK and Ireland
2012 Managing director, AccorHotels UK and Ireland
Did you know? Dubaere also sits on the board of directors of the British Hospitality Association