Barry Lall is no stranger to managing a business. Starting Pinnacle Hotels USA in 1989 with the acquisition of a humble 12-room motor lodge, he worked tirelessly over the course of three decades to see his portfolio grow first to a 26 property portfolio, then streamlined down to nine locations to focus on the premium brand and full service market. Although he trained to become a doctor, upon emigrating to the United States his passionate desire to take advantage of the abundance of opportunities saw him abandon his future in medicine to honor his entrepreneurial spirit.
Today, Barry Lall searches for that same passion and drive in each person he hires. He has developed his company’s mission to provide quality service through a “triangle of caring,” simultaneously placing an emphasis on not only his guests, but also the associates and assets that allow the business to grow and thrive. By instilling the values of professionalism, quality, leadership, teamwork, integrity, and appreciation throughout his entire company, Lall has developed a smooth-running business that focuses on exceeding the expectations of all who have an experience with it. We recently spoke with him on high standards, a culture of teamwork, and his unique hiring process technique.
How have you managed to create a culture of teamwork and hard work in your hotel portfolio?
I think that begins with the hiring process and ensuring that we hire the right individuals onto our team from the start. We want each employee to feel it is a privilege for them to join our fantastic team. We all know that during the good times or the bad times, hiring outstanding individuals is very very difficult — it doesn’t come easy. Hiring on an executive level is generally about who you know, the networking that you’re involved with and the connections that you have, the reputation that you have, and once you establish that then people will want to be part of your endeavor.
However, if you’ve happened to have read Phil Knight’s book “Shoe Dog,” he talks about how he was able to find his talent — to find good people to create the great company Nike became. The athletic shoe industry was still at it’s very early stages at the time, so rather than search for few people with experience, he simply looked for the sharpest minds he could find. Once you are hiring at a mid-management level hiring is more about the interview process, and this not only means understanding a candidate’s prior work background, but also understanding that person as a human being. What are their aspirations? Do they have drive? What excites them? What are they most passionate about? These are all questions you need to find out the answers in order to make sure that the position they are being considered for is a good fit for their personality.
Once you have a good understanding of their personality, during the interview process I try to find out something about the family of that individual, and generally I’m very successful without the candidate even knowing that I was trying to pry that information. I like to find out what their parents do, what their siblings do, what kind of professions they’re in, their education levels — it is about figuring out the qualities of the individual through the way they were raised. How sincere they are, how honest they are, how straightforward and direct they are — these are all qualities that people can claim they have but in actuality they are just good actors. I believe I am good at sniffing out the good actors in the interviewing process. Once you have established their qualities, for me the qualifications are not as important. It is valuable, yes, to understand what education they had, how they began their work career and what progression they’ve had, but that is not the most important. What’s most important is what I described earlier, the human side of this individual.
So once you get comfortable with a lot of this, then I want to make sure the candidate understands what my expectations are, what our company’s expectations are of this individual in that position. This process will very clearly outline for the candidate whether he or she can meet the set of required criteria for them to be successful with our company.
What sort of qualities are you looking for in an associate?
For me it begins with their integrity — how straightforward and honest they are. What is their character like? Can we trust them? Can we count on them to be totally honest where it matters related to work ? The second thing I look for is their professionalism. I look at how they present themselves as individuals, how they dress, how they groom, how they communicate, how they treat others, and their own desire to be extremely proficient and knowledgeable in the line of work that they’re in. To be looked up to by others and for others to say “I want to be like him or her when I grow up, that would be so cool to follow in his or her footsteps.” Professionalism is very very important. The third quality I search for is their ability to work with a team. Teamwork is absolutely crucial. For us we have different units within the hotel, such the housekeeping team, the front desk team, the team of food and beverage, the administrative team — all these different teams. So, not only do they have to work well within their own micro teams, but they have to work well together as a greater team level — the whole hotel. And then I expand that into the greater Pinnacle team, which includes all of our associates within all of our hotels and our corporate office.
To expand on teamwork — what does that mean for your business in particular?
It means whether we like a decision made or something asked of us by a superior or not, we should generally respect that, unless it violates any of our own values. If they don’t respect that and appreciate it there’s a process for addressing that, but until then it’s like being in a family at home. How can we love and respect each other? It is so important to truly have good feelings about everyone on the team. Just like at home your family can irritate you, but that is momentary and the true love, respect and caring supersedes any other friction you may have. Within our industry, teamwork for me means that no one lets down the rest of the team. Whether it be issues with punctuality, not wearing uniforms and name tags, it is so important that no individual becomes the weakest link that breaks the chain.
This sense of each associate taking personal ownership of their role within your company seems to be prevalent in your business model. Is this something you try to enforce at every level?
leadership at all levels for us is an absolute requirement. Leadership, even if you’re not a department head, is expected of everyone meaning they have the ability and power to be able to say and correct right from wrong. Whoever it is has the empowerment , when they notice if something is going wrong even if it’s outside of their department is able to have a voice in fixing it. The way our culture works, we make everyone feel like this is their business. It’s not just somebody else’s business, this is our business and we have to protect it and we have to have our antenna up all the time. We have to be able to sniff, hear,and see !!!!!. So leadership is crucial particularly as one makes progress within the company to higher levels. Leadership is obviously about leading people, but for us it is about leading with respect instead of with fear, and being compassionate, showing kindness, but at the same time, having the ability to be a servant when necessary.
So Barry, what do you think are the most important things that hotels and hoteliers should focus on to keep high standards and to keep guest satisfaction high?
Again, it all goes back to establishing a positive culture and being consistent with it., From an ownership standpoint we truly believe in success through what I like to call the triangle of caring.The triangle of caring is composed of the guest, the associate, and the asset, and just as a stool can’t function without one of its three legs, our business won’t thrive if all three of those factors aren’t being taken care of..
The first element is taking care of the guest. Now taking care of the guest is not a complicated matter in and of itself — it is not a difficult science. It is very simple and basic, but there is a certain etiquette and element of service that can be difficult for some to understand. I It should be just like having a visitor at home. What kind of reception do you give the visitor — how do you greet the visitor? Yes, I want to hug them, I want to embrace them, I want to give them a big welcome with a lot of genuine warmth.. It should not be an act-it should come naturally.. And even if you cannot speak the language, well you can show warmth by a nice smile, and the eyes can tell a lot also, about how somebody welcomes you. Taking care of a guest means also that you listen first -and you try to satisfy them in every way you can. .
The second element is taking care of the associate. We have to and we do rely on the team, and if the associates aren’t taken care of, if the associates don’t feel good about working at that particular unit, how can they be expected to care for our guests? For example, if a hotel is going through a lot of turnover, then guest satisfaction levels will decline. We have to notice the decline very early , diagnose the cause very quickly and stop the hemorrhaging. Usually it is because there are disgruntled associates, t and even if only one or two individuals are disgruntled, we have to identify them and we have to immediately correct the problem. But if we can stay on top of that, be very vigilant and constantly listen to ideas and thoughts from the associates the root cause can be corrected. So it is very important to be very vigilant and listen to the guest and associate, and constantly work at it. So, we as a company have to set the tone, the culture, where associates are being taken care of.
And number three that comes with the triangle of caring is our assets. And so that’s where I constantly talk to my people and say each individual that’s walking around the property is responsible for helping us maintain our asset at our highest level. That’s why I say you have to be able to see, you have to be able to sniff, you have to be able to hear. And if you are able to communicate your findings, it can be taken care of. From the ownership level we take extreme pride in our assets and everything that we do. We’re constantly investing a lot of money to make sure that the assets remain at very high levels. Hotel buildings also require constant nourishment to thrive.. So taking care of an asset is crucial where it comes to hotels.
And so, in my opinion, if you take care of the associates, if you take care of the guests, and if you take care of the assets, then the financial results will almost grow automatically.. You’ll notice in our triangle of caring there’s nothing about money, there’s nothing about caring for the owner either. It’s about those three legs of the triangle, and if you do well with those three aspects you’re taking care of the owner as well.
So again, it is about emphasizing this day in and day out (it’s not about placing posters on the wall and hoping that people see them) and communicating this message often, because this is at the core of our success.