Gavin M. Faull is a Kiwi who calls Hong Kong home. Still, he says he spends more time on airplanes than at his apartment in the Chinese special administrative region.
At 64, the chairman and president of Swiss-Belhotel remains on the go, overseeing 120 hotels spread across the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, but he has no plan to slow down anytime soon.
“My life is one big holiday. I do what everybody wants to do on holiday, which is to stay in nice hotels and fly on airplanes. It’s been a lot of fun and stress,” says Faull.
Faull made his fortune building affordable hotels offering five-star services in secondary and tertiary cities. He ventures into less developed but promising places, engaging the local community to get involved in the workforce and, more often than not, becoming the pioneer of the hospitality industry in those regions. This was the case in Ambon, Merauke, Kendari and Kupang, where Swiss-Belhotel led the way for other investors in the hospitality industry.
“We built our business by venturing into secondary and tertiary cities, and this remains our main business strategy. Recently, we launched a hotel in Erbil, Iraq. We’ve also diversified our portfolio by building hotels in the bigger cities,” says Faull.
Asked to elaborate on property in Iraq, Faull commented: “People asked me the very same question when I launched a hotel in Jakarta in 1991. Apart from the big boys [five-star hotels], there was nothing [affordable foreign hotel chains] in Indonesia. But look at Indonesia today!”
Investing in curious places, he says, “eliminates competition – this is how we think differently.
“The excitement of local people when companies believe in their economic potential is priceless. We are very involved and very personal when it comes to our relationship with local folks,” he claims.
Road to success
Swiss-Belhotel’s first venture in Indonesia was Hotel Ciputra, which remains the crown jewel in his company portfolio. Back then, Faull wasn’t the owner of Swiss-Belhotel. It was the legendary Swiss hotelier and noted philanthropist Peter Gautschi.
Gautschi, best known as manager of the Peninsula Hong Kong for 30 years, took Faull under his wing when the latter was a 26-year-old chartered accountant working for KPMG in Hong Kong.
“I saw an advertisement for an opportunity at KPMG in Hong Kong in 1973. I was only 24 and I packed up my bags and moved to Hong Kong the moment I got the job,” he recounts.
Gautschi was Faull’s client. Two years after they got to know each other, Faull found himself working as a financial controller of two of the Peninsula group’s hotels. Faull would go on to work here for another seven years, gaining valuable industry knowledge and gradually planning his next big step in the business world.
A golden opportunity came knocking when a Singaporean businessman offered him a job as CEO of Kingsgate, a publicly listed company that managed 20 hotels.
“It was terrifying for a 34-year-old guy to be a CEO,” Faull admits. “But I learned so much about the business from my experience there. I remained in the job until 1990, when the company was sold to yet another Singaporean company.
“I was going to HK for the weekend and I met up with my old boss [Gautchi] for coffee. He told me that he started this little company called Swissbel International in 1987 as a retirement plan. He asked me to join, and I did,” Faull said.
Faull joined the company in 1990, and together with a Hong Kong partner, he bought Swiss-Belhotel International on Dec. 12, 1999.
“That was just the end of the Asian financial crisis,” he notes, adding ,“I had no choice but to get rid of some of our employees to save the company.”
At that time, Swiss-Belhotel was consultancy company that also owned three hotels; Hotel Ciputra in Semarang and Jakarta, and another hotel in Changchun (a small town between Beijing and the Russian border).
“It was a tough time economically, but that was also the time when Swiss-Belhotel became a fully-fleged hotel management company,” he notes.
Under Faull’s leadership, the transition led to rapid expansion. The company currently manages hotels in China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Iraq, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, while aggresively expanding its business in both rural and urban Indonesia. In Indonesia alone, the company runs 34 operations on top of 58 projects currently in the pipeline.
Faull says that the key to Swiss-Belhotel’s massive success is branding.
“The turning point was almost made unconsiously, which was to say we are a brand and an alternative to the big players. Some of our property didn’t carry our name – and I was aware that it could be a setback for the business. We needed a story – an identity” he explains.
The founder wanted to name the hotels “Bel Hotel”, but then they found out that there was a company in Europe that had the right to that name.
“I was sitting on a plane one day, making some notes, as I often do. And then I got into thinking that adding the word ‘Swiss’ could be fitting, as the founder is Swiss. So I thought let’s call it Swissbel Hotel with a hyphen in the middle,” he reminisces.
And that little epiphany, he says, led him to make the best business decision in his career.
“Once we have a name and a story, it’s easier for people to recognize our brand,” he shares.
Moving forward, Faull says that he’s going to concentrate on the Middle East, which is fast becoming a strategic hub for travelers.
“There’s a huge amount of people coming in and out of the region. I always look at the airline companies to navigate my business – they’re always ahead of the game,” he says.
At this point, one of his employees present during the interview chips in: “We’re ahead of Air Asia”, to which Faull retorts: “Then you made a big mistake. You never advised me to buy an airline!”
Despite owning more than 100 hotels, Faull says he prefers not to stay at his hotels when traveling. It’s not that he doesn’t feel they aren’t up the standard of a high-flying, globe-trotting executive such as himself, but he simply finds it hard to relax with jeans and t-shirts with his staff around.
So what’s his favorite hotel?
“If you must know,” he says, cheekily, “My favorite hotel is the one I never stayed in: The Peninsula Hotel. It’s always been too expensive.”
Gavin M. Faull
Place / date of birth: Taranaki, New Zealand, Nov. 25, 1949
Has 35 years experience in hotel management and operations under his belt. He started his career as an accountant for The Peninsula Group, Hong Kong. In 1983, he was made chief executive of Kingsgate International Corporate Limited, a publicly listed company that owned several hotels in Australia and New Zealand. He worked for a start-up hotel management company Swiss-Belhotel group in 1990, before taking over the ownership of the company in 1999. Apart from his illustrious career in the hospitality industry, he also runs a number of agricultural companies in his native New Zealand.
Holds a Bachelor Degree in Accounting from Victoria University of Wellington.
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