Jay Stein, CEO of Dream Hotel Group has managed Dream Hotel Group through a lot of growth over his 25-plus-year career with the company. This year Dream Hotel Group is projected to triple in size (predominantly through management deals), is expected to see 229% growth from 2016 through 2020.
Stein began his career in 1983 with Hilton Worldwide at the Vista International Hotel in the World Trade Center in New York City. After positions with Starwood Hotels and Resorts, he joined Dream Hotel Group, which includes the Dream Hotel, Unscripted, The Chatwal and Time Hotel brands, as executive VP of operations and was soon promoted to chief operating officer in 1997, overseeing hotel operations and playing a vital role in the company’s expansion efforts.
Chief Executive spoke with Stein about how he’s managed his organization through such a rapid period of growth in recent years, his thoughts on the importance of company culture and how his own leadership style has evolved. Below are excerpts from the conversation:
On managing growth and advice for peer CEOs
That’s one of the most difficult things that I have to balance all the time. We’ve got a great owner and the chairman of our company is funding a lot of this internal growth—not the development of the new hotel so much, but for the management company—and that’s a fairly large expense for us to be geared up at the level that we need to be, and that has to happen before the hotels are open. So we have to spend that money in advance and that’s a big investment into the company and though it’s not all coming out of my pocket, I need to certainly manage it and be mindful that it’s not a limitless amount of money that’s there. So it’s a question of how much I can bring on in advance and how do we operate at great levels, but with the minimum that we can do until we can get those paths to cross with a fee structure make sense to the investment that we have. So that is tough. It’s very tough.
I brought a lot of key members on as we’re growing, and a couple of key ones I’ve kept off and made people wear multiple hats and including myself—a lot of long hours. And even though we’ve been around for over 25 years as a company, we’re really in a startup mode and I’ve got to get people to think that we’re a startup even though we’ve been here for many, many years. And we’ve changed. Originally, we were a development company and we built hotels and we managed them and we made some cool one-off lifestyle type of hotels, but in the last five years we’ve really morphed into a brand and management company, set to build the manage a company much larger to be able to handle this growth. So it’s been two very different companies and the new one is really kind of a startup.
On maintaining a thriving company culture
I’ve been here over 25 years and it’s the caring culture that we have for employees, the respect and transparency culture that we have for our business partners and developers of the hotels. And then the guests that we take care of and the secret sauce that we feel sets us apart from many other hospitality companies. We pride ourselves on that. And that culture really comes not from a written training program or a motto that we hand out, but it comes from the way we carry ourselves daily and the way we speak to people from the top down. We don’t consider ourselves the top, we’re here to support you and that’s our job as the corporate office. We’re here to support the teams on the ground and we’re here to support the owners that are investing in these projects.
Taking care of our employees and making them feel like they’re part of this and that we’re not just mandating what you’re supposed to do and what you’re supposed to sound like and be like. We want people to have their own style, but there is a caring nature and understanding of what it means to be in a hospitality company, and we need to hire those right people because it’s not a situation where just because we hire them, we can always train everybody to be hospitable. You need to hire hospitable people and we do that fairly well through our screening and then try and nurture that even more.
The other big thing is we’re working for a lot of other owners these days—owners that are building these hotels. I tell all of my a corporate team when we’re working with these people that it’s the same answers and the same attention that we would have given Mr. Sant Singh Chatwal, our chairman, and his projects that we did for the first 20 years. Of course, we were building those and it was all our investment and I always tell them that if we could use that same mindset for everyone else’s projects that we did for our own, we can’t fail.
They’ll see that integrity and they’ll see that care for how each dollar is being spent and the selections that we’re coming up with for materials so they last long and we’re not wasting money. And so I tell everybody the same decision, the same answer that we would have given if it was a Mr. Chatwal project is the same way we will do it for every one of our partners, and I think that goes a long way.
How hos leadership style has evolved
[My leadership style] came from my roots and how I was brought up as a kid. I was always a natural leader when I was with my friends as a teenager and I was a boy scout, I was always the troop leader and somehow I just became the leader of different situations I would find myself in. So it was just kind of a natural talent that I had and that I enjoyed and it served me really well in my career. But early on, I didn’t know exactly how it was going to work for in the industry, but my dad had always taught me to respect people, respect all people, and give them the respect that you want to get back from them.
And if they weren’t worth it at that point, it became very obvious. But more often than not, my philosophy is 19 out of 20 employees would be great employees if they had great managers. And I truly believe that. A lot of times modern day managers think that employees are just doing menial tasks like room attendants or busboys or pot washers because that’s all they’re capable of. And what I have found out that many of these tasks are done by people that were coming from other parts of the globe and may have been very successful in other parts of the globe. But it just wasn’t a place that they felt they wanted to live the rest of their life, so they took amazing chances and just left their homelands and came here with nothing and are working their way through like millions of immigrants have.
And these are often not simple people that don’t have intelligence, but because English isn’t their first language, many managers assume they’re not bright because they speak with an accent. And I learned very early on that was not a good attitude to have and it probably was not accurate. I’ve got a lot of respect for lots of people globally that once I found out their backstories, they were highly educated and beautiful, smart and daring and brave people to come to New York or wherever it may be and just start a new life.
They saw that respect coming from me and that interest and the energy and the quality of work that I would get back from them. Even if it was the dishwashers, I would tell them “We’re having an amazing night. I need that stuff back out on the buffet lines. I need it cleaned.” They knew that there’s no way they’d ever let me down. There was that mutual respect and that their job was important, as important as my top sous chef on the line. And this was in the early days for me and that same philosophy, I’ve just used my entire life and I’ve able to get a big leg up on many of my other managers if they just didn’t seem to grasp that concept and it paid unbelievable dividends and still does for me. So that was always a big part of my management style and always will remain.
The other part I learned early on is that no one wants to manage difficult, hard to manage employees. It just seemed like a waste of energy and why beat your head against a wall. But I did learn early on that a lot of these tough to manage and highly creative people have a lot to offer and they’re the ones that give us the chance to really separate us from every other hotel, or restaurant, or health and wellness, or whatever it may be, concept. But it’s those often harder to manage but creative and daring-type employees that helped really get you that leg up.
And so I found myself bringing those kinds of people into my departments and into my hotels, and giving them the freedom to be unique and creative and high-energy and trying to minimize the negative things that those people bring in—and they do bring in negatives, they cause problems, they’re not easy to manage. But again, through respect and getting them to understand what the end goal is and that they need to temper those things or at least understand why those things are not going to help us, even though I might not eliminate all those things, and then really take advantage of the good things and the high-energy things and the press-worthy things and all those things that set us apart and make us great.
So I’ve surrounded myself often with difficult to manage people. And then I’ve been the voice of reason or the glue that holds it together. I often tell people that my mother would read me a Rudyard Kipling poem almost every night of my life when I was a little kid and basically ended with, “If you can keep your head amongst you and others around you are losing theirs, then my son, you are a man.” And somehow those words stuck with me and I’m the one that will almost always stay calm and will find a solution. This is not life and death stuff we’re doing here. It’s business and we’ll find the solution and we’ll be able to solve it and we’ll move forward and we’ll take our licks when we have to but we’ll win a bunch.
That’s really been the core elements to my management style and I don’t see a lot of people with all those same aspects but certainly some, but there are many different leaders out there and they have different ways of reaching their successes, but those elements have served me very well.