If there were ever an unlikely person to make waves in the hotel industry, it would have been Horst Schulze. The man who co-founded the Ritz-Carlton company had as unlikely of a journey as you’ll find considering his upbringing.
“I grew up in a small village in Germany. There were no hotels. I’d never been in a hotel and I don’t know how it got in my mind. When I was 11 years old, I went to my parents and said, ‘I want to work in the hotel business.’ And they [were skeptical], but I kept on saying it. I was persistent.”
His parents reached out through the government and found him a job as a busboy dishwasher in a hotel 60 miles away from his home village. And that’s where it begin—a career that ultimately led him to becoming the co-founder and founding president of the Ritz-Carlton company, creating a standard in customer service that has transcended the hotel industry.
Chief Executive got a chance to speak with Schulze, who is promoting his newest book, “Excellence Wins: A No-Nonsense Guide To Becoming The Best In A World Of Compromise” in a wide-ranging interview to talk about how Ritz-Carlton became known as the gold standard for customer service, challenges the company faced as those standards were being established and much more. Below is part one of a two-part interview.
Talk about coming up in the hospitality industry and how you got to a point where you co-founded the Ritz-Carlton company.
I left home when I was 14 and started as a busboy in the hotel business. I worked in Germany, worked in Switzerland. I honestly worked in the finest hotels in Europe. I’ve worked [for] Holland America Line. I worked in Paris in Plaza Athenee for three years. I worked in London in the Berkeley and in the Savoy. And then came to the U.S. in ’64 with the intent to be here for a year or two. I worked for Hilton and Hyatt and then was offered a job to start a new hotel company in charge of operations…that ended up becoming the Ritz-Carlton.
Was the idea to start a hotel that was high end and really focused on customer service something that just kind of came naturally?
No, I worked in Hyatt at the time and I had a great job. I was the corporate vice president. I had started in Hyatt as a food and beverage manager, then became a rooms manager, a general manager, a regional vice president over 10 hotels and then was made corporate vice president. I didn’t need a job. I had golden handcuffs and everything, but [the Ritz-Carlton people] called me and said, “Hey we are starting a new hotel company. We need somebody to run the operations.” I said, “If you are willing to go top market I would be interested, but I’m only interested top market.”
So I moved then from Chicago to Atlanta to start this new company. At that time, the leaders in the industry were Hyatt, Westin, InterContinental and so on. And I didn’t want to compete with them, I wanted to go above them. That was the simple idea and above it means particularly related to service delivery and so on. Again, I had worked in the greatest hotels in Europe and I wanted to combine the relaxed relationship of America with a little more refinement from Europe. That was the idea and that’s what we did. So I came here and of course a little bit over a year later, we opened our first hotel in Atlanta and the rest is history.
But with all this, in every location saying, I want in every location to be the absolute leader. I want to be known in every location as the absolute leader and that is accomplished with great service and with great product. That’s the only way to accomplish that. And we created the right processes, the right training and so on and hired the right people. Now mind you, I didn’t do it by myself. There were a lot of people.
I was at the Forbes Five Star Awards two years ago. I went there and there were all the great hoteliers from around the world. And they said that Horst Schulze is in the room and everybody stood up and applauded. But let’s be honest they didn’t applaud me. They applauded the image that Ritz-Carlton had built up, which was achieved by bellmen, doormen, busboy, cooks, waiters, maids and so on. They created that image. We created a great image that was good for everybody and good for the employees, because if a Ritz-Carlton employee looks for a job and there are a hundred others, the Ritz-Carlton employee gets it. Why? Because of the image. I was able to have a [positive] image because of many people doing a great job.