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It is not where you start, but where you finish. In this special series, four hotel industry veterans share their climb from entry-level rank-and-file positions to be General Managers today, including Copthorne King’s Hotel Singapore Kung Teong Wah who had started as a Commis Cook. Find out what drives these #LeadersOfHappiness.

#BizofHappiness #Workforahotel #PassionMadePossible

How long have you been in the hotel industry? I’ve spent 27 years in the hotel business, working at properties in five different countries.

You are now a General Manager of a hotel, but what made you decide to pursue hospitality in the first place? When I was younger, I wanted to attain a skill that would be both useful and valuable. I decided to learn how to cook and to work in the kitchen because I thought that this skill would last me a lifetime, and allow me to build relationships and connect with others. I also thought that working in the kitchen opens up opportunities to work in Food and Beverage (F&B), which would give me a good understanding of hotel operations.

More than that, I also had a dream – to be able to work overseas. As a chef in the hospitality industry, I was given the chance to travel and gain international experience. That was a big pull factor for me.

So you started out in the kitchen of a hotel. What was that experience like? I started like any other chef – as a Commis (entry level) Cook. I am not going to lie – it was tough. I would work 12 to 15 hours a day, and my mentors back then were quite strict. I had to work hard to learn the techniques and recipes. That was probably why I was able to rise up the ranks and become an Executive Chef in 10 years, when it would normally take longer.

My dream of working overseas kept me going. I knew I had to push through if I wanted to achieve that dream.

How has your career journey been so far? Can you tell us more about the various roles you’ve held – and what you do now? I started out in the kitchen. As there are a lot of cooks in a kitchen, I had to find a way to stand out. So I learned to do costings, to articulate myself better, and made it a point to ask for opportunities to go overseas. When I finally became an Executive Chef, I asked myself, “What’s next?” That was when I grabbed the chance to move out of the kitchen into the F&B division.

It definitely took me out of my comfort zone. I was extremely comfortable in the kitchen, but moving to the front-of-house was a game-changer. I had to learn about business strategies, marketing, coming up with F&B concepts, brand positioning and more. It was challenging, but I appreciated the challenge to push myself to grow. I worked in F&B for about six years in different hotels across different countries.

My next challenge was in the rooms division. There were all these new things I had to learn – the process for checking in and out, engineering, renovations and revenue. After that, I took on an executive role before eventually becoming a General Manager (GM). Now, I am answerable for everything in the hotel. I have to see the big picture and plan ahead for the next three to five years to ensure the success of the hotel.

You worked your way up from a chef to a GM. Have you always planned on someday becoming a General Manager of a hotel? To be honest, I didn’t imagine it was possible when I was working in the kitchen. But when I moved out to F&B, I realised that it was an achievable goal for me, so I started working towards that goal.

How did you pick up the necessary skills to become a General Manager? I learned a lot in the various departments that I worked in. But there are some soft skills that you need as a GM as well, like leadership. I’ve been to workshops where coaches evaluated my strengths and weaknesses as a person and as a leader. There’s a bit of science involved in these workshops, but I think that a general rule of thumb on how to be a good leader is to just listen.

Personally, I don’t like to dictate the actions of my staff members. I will give them room to explore, and chances to take some risks. Sure, I have the final say – but I’m not the only one with a voice. I am open to suggestions and ideas, because I don’t believe in sticking to the old ways of doing things. In order for us to improve and grow, we need to explore and try new ways.

What has been your favourite experience in your career so far? Working overseas. I’ve worked in hotels in Cambodia, China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. These opportunities gave me the chance to learn about different cultures and try out all kinds of different experiences. I really enjoyed those moments, and I’m very grateful I got the chance to do that.

What do you love most about working in the hotel industry? People. After all, we are in the people business. I think that working with people is the most interesting challenge to tackle. In hospitality, you have to know how to handle guests, staff, and even yourself. Being able to connect with people is a skill that takes many years to acquire. And once you have that skill, it will last you a lifetime.

That is why I feel that working in hospitality is a long-haul career. The experience you’ll gain is irreplaceable and invaluable.

Would you say that you’ve had a fulfilling career? Yes, definitely. I’ve gained so much. I have friends from everywhere in the world. I’ve learnt how to cook, serve and drink. I’ve experienced the best restaurants and stayed in the best hotels. I know this sounds great – and it is – but the first 10 years of working in hospitality were tough. Most people don’t make it past 10 years in this industry, but if you can go through the hardship, you will enjoy the benefits which are very fulfilling.

What are some important lessons you’ve learnt during your time in the hotel industry? Have passion, work hard, love people, and most importantly, have a dream.

A dream will give us a goal to aim for. From there, if we have the passion to make that dream a reality, we’ll have the strength and drive to work hard every day to get closer to that dream.

It’s also important to have good people around you who can help you attain that goal. Foster good relationships, and give back to those around you whenever you can.

Do you have any goals that you hope to achieve in the future? I want to keep learning, and keep improving. The world is moving at a fast pace, and I think the hospitality industry needs to keep up with the times. One way we can do that is to change our mindset and adapt to the way that younger people think these days. If we can relate to them, not only will we attract more guests to hotels but we’ll also attract more young talent to join us in the industry.

What advice would you share with someone who is interested in joining the hotel industry? Have a big dream; then work hard to achieve it. Perhaps another important piece of advice is to have the courage to ask for what you want. Seek opportunities, and prove yourself worthy of those opportunities. There is no dream too big if you’re willing to work hard for it.