After spending his formative years in the receptions and corridors of Cape Town’s hotels, Guy Stehlik, the Founder and CEO of BON Hotels (and self-proclaimed ‘hotel brat’) is no stranger to hospitality. He studied hotel management both in South Africa and New York before formally joining the hospitality sector as part of the Park Hyatt opening team. He now heads up BON Hotels, which has properties in South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Namibia. Here, he openly shares and details his journey in the hospitality industry, discusses the challenges that BON Hotels has faced, and gives his invaluable insight into the industry that he’s so passionate about.

What is your story?

My first ‘job’ was as a bellboy at the age of 7 at The Heerengracht Hotel, one of the first hotels in South Africa that my dad managed.  I’m part of an elite group who often refer to ourselves as “hotel brats” – one of the generation of kids who grew up in hotels when the South African hotel industry came alive. We probably annoyed the staff but the guests thought we were cute.

I’m a Bishops Boy, my own boys have gone or are going through the Bishops system. Hindsight is a wonderful gift and I can mostly say that I was fortunate enough to attend the South African Navy, where many a life-lesson was learned. After the navy, I studied a BComm at Stellenbosch University and then took the fork in the road pointing to the hotel industry. I completed a Diploma in Hotel Management at the incredible Wits Hotel School in Johannesburg. From Wits I made my way to Cornell University in New York, where I furthered my studies in hotel management, while getting a large dose of the BIG Apple.

My first real job in the hotel industry was with the Hyatt Group, who were then one of  the first international hotel groups to hit South Africa. I was part of the team who opened the Park Hyatt in Johannesburg in 1995 and I loved it! This kicked off a progression in my career of opening, re-opening and turning around hotels in South Africa. Throughout my early career, I always took a wide berth when it came to Protea Hotels; with my father being the founder and chairman, I wanted to prove myself to the industry. The writing was on the wall though and I finally joined the Protea Hotel Group and was included in the opening team of the trendsetting Victoria Junction Hotel, which was a fantastic experience and an early career highlight.

My first general manager position came in 1999 at the Protea Hotel Strand Beach in Gordon’s Bay, a challenging position as the hotel required an urgent turn-around. Life is often about timing and during my stint at the Protea Hotel Strand Beach, I was sent off to attend a 6-week course in Hotel Science with 25 prominent South African Hoteliers at The Gordon Institute of Business Science. This took my knowledge and love for the industry to another level.

But we make strange decisions along the way and in 2005 with a lifetime of hotels behind me and an itch to try something new, I accepted an offer at Avis Rent a Car as the Commercial Manager. I moved to Johannesburg, a city that I love and, well, let’s say went full throttle and burnt out.

After some life-changing lessons, moments, realities, epiphanies, I took a serious look at my life and in 2007 I took a few steps back and re-aligned my path. Back to the industry I was born into and more importantly born to be in.

Protea Hotel Durbanville was my first project and needed some strategy and hotel management expertise. I bought the hotel from the developer and after some significant business restructuring, marketing and sales management, my team and I transformed an ailing (not yet failing) project into a great success. And so began my plans of creating a hospitality brand that owns, markets and manages hotels with a difference. Having been both a hotel manager, operator and now owner, I wanted to create a hotel management company that took all role-players into consideration. I call it an “owner-, staff- and guest-centric” approach. With so many questionable operators in the hotel industry at that stage, I wanted to define a new era in hotel management. And so began the search for GOOD people, GOOD thinking and GOOD feeling, and the birth of BON Hotels.

Explain who you are to the industry in a couple of sentences

I was fortunate in that the hotel industry was the only thing I knew growing up. Coupled with being the son of an iconic hotelier and landing up in the same industry, I have always been mindful to be my own person. I’m hell-bent on making a success of BON Hotels and it does get lonely in a position like mine, and being the character that I am, I prefer to bang my own head through trial and error. I do know that I’m a difficult bugger; I have high expectations and expect results overnight. But find my soft side and you’ll have me wrapped around your finger; I genuinely care, I care about my people, their families and overall happiness.

If you have worked in countries other than SA, how is the South African hospitality industry different from those in different countries that you’ve worked in?

I have worked in the USA, Austria and the UK and have found that we/ South Africa, and Africa for that matter, are inherently friendlier and more naturally welcoming.  We have a natural disposition to hospitality; perhaps experience or history has taught us the value of a smile; but our warmth of spirit, I believe is unparalleled in the world.

Having worked in Europe in the early days of my hospitality career, one thing became overwhelmingly clear: hotel and hospitality staff abroad are efficient and hotels are largely managed efficiently. We are not as efficient or technically orientated, we do not necessarily have the technical skills yet to outpunch our counterparts from Europe, Asia, Australia, etc. because of our educational short-comings here. A career in hospitality in Europe and the USA is highly respected and recognised as an honourable profession. Training in this field is acute; education levels are good. Waiter and waitress staff, hotel service personnel, front of house staff are employed based on training received and years of experience in the industry.

As far as the US is concerned, I believe they come closest to us in terms of genuine warmth of character.  We are capable of breaking all sorts of paradigms in the industry in South Africa – industry-led paradigms which have existed for decades and decades and are outdated and no longer relevant. We are primed in South Africa to tip these ‘templates’ on their heads; the industry needs disruptors, trail-blazers, wave-makers and we all know South Africans are capable of that.

Guy Stehlik’s Pop Quiz

What are some of the overall issues that you’ve seen affect the hospitality industry in SA?

The self-imposed challenges that our government has created for our industry through the VISA and unabridged certificate fiascos to name a few, the fact that we haven’t been able to create a competitive, compelling argument for a visa-less entry requirement, like so many of our African counterparts are doing, and the challenges surrounding our domestic carriers and open-skies policies are holding us back from creating anywhere near true potential.

We just cannot underestimate the ongoing saga and PR own-goal of foreign visitors to South Africa who are still left stranded at airports all over the world, unable to enter South Africa. David Frost from SATSA estimated that 13 000 visitors were left stranded last year due to mixed messages from the South African government in terms of Visas – a PR disaster for “Brand South Africa”. Given the exchange rate, value for money and our dynamo tourism offering, we should be shooting the lights out!  We should also certainly not underestimate the junk investment status that we have been afforded, the recent recession and economic scepticism we are experiencing along with the visa restrictions and various other factors that continue to muddy our tourism waters.

It does, however, call for the need for industry and government to work far more closely.  There is definitely the willingness from the private business sector do so but we are challenging in receiving the same degree of co-operation from government. Tourism is our country’s second contributor to our GDP, outperforming mining!  Think of how much credence mining is given as opposed to tourism. But we have a duty to legitimise ourselves as a sector in the eyes of government and in order for government to take us more seriously we need to rid ourselves of the white-run, white-owned image that we still portray. That’s our biggest challenge, particularly if we aim to truly partner with government in our tourism endeavours.

What are some of the challenges that BON Hotels is facing at the moment and how are you addressing these challenges?

Let’s face it, we are in business to make profit – one can find oneself with a couple of ‘loss leader’ hotels and I suppose one substantiates sitting it out, carrying the weight and giving a business a good chance. But there comes a time when these loss leaders have been exhausted and need to be sun-setted. If we are honest, we take them on over-optimistically, idealistically, especially in the early stages of a new management group’s cycle. We recently took a decision to cut our losses and let two of our properties go.

Our new business model is based on doing what is best for business at every level and if we are not going to make a profit, we will not get involved.  That was lesson number one.

Lesson number two is not to waste your time with hiring junior General Managers, not necessarily in age but in terms of age, ability and experience. While much as we value the potential in our youth, too many shortcomings of these new-age General Managers can be attributed to quick, easy promotions. I’ve encountered one too many young General Managers who cannot calculate their Average Daily Rate (ADR) and Revenue Per Available Room (REVPAR). Yes, I understand that there are new burdens on today’s General Managers and administration demands have increased, but that should never be at the expense of a hotelier’s ultimate judge – the guest.  There are many good general managers in this country and we just have to make sure we share that pool.

What are some of BON Hotels’ main focuses at the moment and going into the new year?

The expansion course of BON Hotels has only just begun and our strategy of developing Africa by Africans remains strong.  We have 11 hotels opening next year, 6 in Nigeria and 5 in South Africa, and our focus is on getting those hotels successfully opened, making sure that we have the right people in place to manage those hotels, but most importantly that they open on time and are leaders in their own competitive set.  Our focus over the last year has been on developing our footprint in South Africa and we are very pleased to announce several new openings next year, and continued prospects and growth in Nigeria.

How do you see BON Hotels fitting into the South African hospitality industry?

Humbly, I’d like to believe that we are a rising star – we are not governed by how quickly we grow, but we are, however, governed by the quality and calibre of the relationships we have with our partners, staff, communities and owners.  So with that in mind, we are a regional hotel group, an African hotel group with great experience in managing hotels and there is a place in the market for exactly that – and that I believe is the niche in the market that we occupy.  Three-star rates, four-star facilities and 5-star service – that’s something we still believe in, although not necessarily the cornerstone of everything we do as we do take on four and five star hotels – but behind all of that is the perception of value that one gets – the guests’ expectation may be lower on arrival, but they leave surprised, happy and satisfied, having enjoyed a good experience.

Where do you think your company’s place and brand is, and what makes the company unique in SA?

Our hotel group is built solidly on teamwork, inspiration and resourcefulness, but most of all, an absolute, unabashed love for what we do. Our head office team is small, lean and agile and we are proud to proclaim that we are strong, that our strategy of ‘developing Africa by Africans’ remains front-and-centre.

How do you engage your brand to the local SA market? Any engaging media initiatives and marketing campaigns that you run?

Our most important aim here is to develop a direct relationship with our end-users – in a broader concept, “owning the client” – something I learned way back in my Marketing 101 days at Varsity – the number one rule of marketing, and to develop strong personal and direct relationships with our bookers, without by-passing the intermediaries altogether as we have to work with them and maintain relationships.

We have many initiatives in place to support this aim:

  1. Direct booking preference with all of our rates, affording competitive and cheaper rates for our guests
  2. BONami, our loyalty card platform which has exploded into the market place
  3. BONangels, our CSI initiative, creating a community of ‘angels’
  4. Very strong social media interactions and platforms and a big following
  5. BONhomie, ambassador programme
  6. BONNY, web-based application

What are the company goals for future excellence in the local industry?

We believe  in and focus all our energies on our internal ethos  called “Profitable Standards – it’s something that pervades right through our company. What we learned during our startup phase was that we cannot have fanatical professional business standards, without ensuring that we make profits at the same time. And vice versa. One cannot outweigh the other: finding a balance is the greatest challenge.

We know that each of our businesses has to be profitable and number two,  on the other side of that, we have to be out-punching our competitors within our competitor set with our guest feedback.

Let’s talk Sustainability and the steps you have taken to make a difference here.

There is definitely still more that we can do but we have definitely covered all of our bases with water-saving initiatives, rate-shedding campaigns during the electricity slump, reduced carbon footprint – we no longer have plastic bottles on site.

It is challenging to retro-fit a hotel once it has been built and operated, but we would will most certainly make sure that old and new build would be up to scratch, like with Africa’s Greenest Hotel, Hotel Verde, which we opened in 2013, a true benchmark for the industry.

How do you incentivise and motivate staff as an organisation?

Incentivising staff has to be done on performance and we believe that with regard to performance criteria everything has to be measured – there are very few aspects of our business that remain unmeasured – most of which are marketing-related.  Every single staff member has key performance criteria which are measured monthly and it starts right at the top with myself, to management and cascades right down to all staff – if those targets are met then there is a financial reward.

Other motivating initiatives include:

  1. Learnership Programmes
  2. Best of BON employees of the month

Trend Prediction for the local industry?

A general prediction in terms of the macro-economy is that we are about to enter a period of unprecedented tourism growth here in SA – starting first of all with the elections in December and that cascading over to 2018 – the results of which will send a very strong message into domestic and international business – that we are open for business and that we will have competence to overcome the state capture, junk status and corruption that has currently taken over and tarnished our image somewhat.  With regard to the micro-economy, in terms of our business I think we are going to see more game-breaking come in on the millennial hotel development styles in this country – hotels that offer so much but without all the frills and unnecessary costs that drive up the rates.

If you were going to teach a college course, what course would you teach? 

Marketing 101.

Which leader or leaders do you look up to and why? 

I prefer not to hold leaders in too much esteem – I don’t have role models – there are certain people whose opinion I respect – I think I have just been disappointed too many times.  I prefer to create my own destiny, then piggy-back off someone else’s.

What is one truth you believe in that most people disagree with you on? 

Something I always bang heads with people on: “You don’t get bad staff, you get bad managers.”

What’s one assumption people make about you that is dead wrong?

That I got given everything handed to me on a plate, growing up and throughout my career.

Tell me about a time when you had to make a tough business decision that supported your company’s purpose, but may have had a negative, short-term financial impact.

Pushing through the startup phase of our company has been somewhat of a roller coaster. The self-proclaimed liquidations of our two non-performing hotels which we had to do for business reasons – cash resources that were being drained from the company and we had to face up to the fact that they just weren’t going to be viable was probably the toughest of those dips. While we emerge from the battle slightly wounded, we are also loads wiser and ready to fight another day! The disappointment has been a learning curve, forcing us to take change take and never again take on hotels without exhaustive diligence.

If you could go back and give your 21-year-old self a valuable piece of advice, what would you say? 

Dude, you should have done that MBA!

As you think about your career, who is a team member you had a huge impact on and what are they doing today as a result of your leadership?

Early on in my career I took a bunch of trainees under my wing for whom I like to think I played a decent role in their success.  In 1997 I cherry-picked a group of school-leavers to come and join the orientation trainee programme at The President Hotel back in 1998. Fifteen youngsters joined the programme and of those, seven are some of the top-performing general managers, hotel directors, group directors in the country and across the globe today, many of whom I am still in contact with to this day.

If you could work on solving any problem in the world, what one problem would it be? 

Definitely getting rid of plastic – there should be no excuse or reason not to drastically reduce the amount of plastic being produced and used! There has to be the political buy-in though.

What is your leadership philosophy? 

Success is measured in results – it’s my job as a leader to promote results on every level – people-related, HR- or financial-related.

What specific mental, physical, emotional and/or spiritual activities do you engage in to keep yourself operating at your optimum level? 

I am the proverbial stress junkie – I thrive on stress, not always a good thing, however I do try to eat right, work out and lead a balanced life, spending quality time with my family.

What are you learning right now?

I am learning the concept of “let it be”, and trying not to push too hard for things that shouldn’t be pushed, and becoming less impatient.  What will be, will be….

Favourite Inspirational Business Quote?

“Everything will be okay in the end and if it’s not okay, it’s not the end!”