John Bamsey came to the hotel industry late in life. Then the IHG executive's cancer diagnosis forced him to take stock.
Hospitality chief looking to leave a legacy
John Bamsey believes that, by fate or by chance, it can sometimes take a terrible event in life to bring about a change for the better.
Three and a half years ago he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, just as he was about to take up his current position in Dubai as the chief operating officer for InterContinental Hotels Group's (IHG) Middle East and Africa region. The illness was detected early, and could be treated relatively swiftly. But it is not something Mr Bamsey has forgotten so quickly. "I'm wiser as a result," he says, although he adds it is not a subject he often talks about.
"You think you're indestructible. You're rushing through life all the time and suddenly you get these levellers that bring you back to earth and just say 'it's about today - appreciate what you've got'. "It's a shock to the system and makes you evaluate what's important." The experience had a lasting impact on his approach to the job, in which his main duty is to he oversee the performance of properties in the region run by IHG, the largest hotel group in the world.
"It made me approach it with more humility than I would have otherwise," Mr Bamsey says. Today, sitting at the company's corporate offices next to the InterContinental Dubai Festival City and sporting a deep tan, the Briton is a picture of health. Mr Bamsey, 57, entered the hotel industry relatively late, joining Hilton Hotels as the managing director for the UK in 1994, from a background in marketing.
In an industry where corporate roles are often filled by seasoned hoteliers who have worked their way up the ranks, washing dishes and dealing with customer complaints, colleagues sometimes treated him with a degree of scepticism after he came in at so senior a position, he said. "I remember being asked in my very early days, 'what do you know about hotels?' My response was, 'I've been a customer for 30 odd years. That's a good place to start'," Mr Bamsey says.
Coming from outside the sector gave him the advantage of a dispassionate view. But once in, he was there to stay. "Once you come into the hospitality industry it's virtually impossible to leave, because it's just so much more exciting and fun than any other business," he says Mr Bamsey's early career included stints with Whitbread in the early 1980s, when he was the marketing director for Pizza Hut UK and saw the chain grew from 11 restaurants to 55 in the two and half years of his watch.
Later roles included running a laundries business and being appointed chief executive of the luggage chain Salisburys. Mr Bamsey started out as a graduate trainee in the marketing department at Unilever after graduating with a degree in geography. But as a boy, he had always harboured other ambitions. "I wanted to be a PE teacher because I loved sport," he says. "I had a headmaster who said 'you don't want to just go and teach PE, you need to take a degree in your best subject because when your knees collapse and you can no longer teach PE you need a subject to fall back on.'
"So I studied geography at university but as most people will tell you, I would have been a lousy teacher." Before relocating to Dubai, Mr Bamsey had been IHG's area president for Europe. But he had visited the Gulf region before and had developed an affinity with the emirate, he says. "I'd been coming to Dubai since the mid-'90s. I first came out here on work but then I just fell in love with the place, so much so that we were coming out here twice a year on holiday as a family.
"In 2004, I actually bought a property here on the Palm [Jumeirah], which in those days was just some sandbars and sand being blown out to sea." The Palm is what he now calls home. "The great thing about being on the Palm is there's nobody else there. It's like being on your own desert island. "One of the values of having this experience ? as a businessman and as a tourist, is when you come here to run a hospitality business you have an insight which is not developed when you do the job, it's developed from before you do the job."
With IHG expanding in the region there are constant challenges that include retaining talented employees, he says. IHG's approach is not to stifle its staff but to empower them and give them room to grow, which reflects his own management beliefs, Mr Bamsey says. "My biggest objective ? is not how many hotels did I open? How much did I grow the profits? What was the revenue?" he says. "To me individually, it's about did I make a difference for the people, did the people grow, because then I made a contribution that's going to be a legacy.
"It's the legacy that you leave in terms of the impact you make with people, and in a people business that's what it's got to be." Half of Mr Bamsey's year is spent travelling and working within different cultures, and that is an aspect of the job that he relishes. "The patch covers a lot more than Dubai. Although I'd been to Oman and Cairo, I'd not been to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait."
The job also satisfies his competitive streak, he says. "As well as adding new hotels, we are dropping hotels out of the bottom. That's about upgrading the estate as you move forward. "One of the big challenges here in the Middle East is that every new hotel that opens is bigger and grander than the one that opened last year. So a hotel that was opened 10 or 15 years ago, you get quite a gap. "So we're having conversations with owners about how we manage that situation. We drop ones that clearly don't fit the brands as they're now developing. We dropped out of a Holiday Inn property in Yemen this year for example, which the owner will not invest in."
In Dubai, IHG was without a hotel under its InterContinental brand for four years, as it moved out of its old hotel at Dubai Creek to the new property at Festival City. "It was quite clear that for InterContinental to compete in Dubai, the old property was just not good enough. We made what was a brave decision at the time that we would go without a property in order to get the right property." Despite his busy schedule and passion for his job, Mr Bamsey says he is much more measured in his approach, making sure he takes time out to reflect and relax, be it reading, playing golf, sailing in his dinghy, or retreating on holiday to Menorca where he built a small villa.
"You've got to live for today, because if you keep planning for something else it might never happen. Today is what it is," he says. "There is no yesterday and there might be no tomorrow. You've got to step back and appreciate where you are. "If you're trying to live for something else, before you know you it, you'll be there and it'll be gone. And you'll have missed everything in between." firstname.lastname@example.org