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Craig Smith: the gypsy manager

The president and managing director, Asia-Pacific, for Marriott International on leadership, travel and bonding over skiing and biking

Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

For two weeks after the tsunami devastated parts of Asia in 2004, Craig Smith had nightmares. He says when a crisis like that hits, you bury your emotions and get to work, because that’s the need of the hour. 

“But you have nightmares thinking about what you could have done differently," says Smith, who was then general manager at JW Marriott Phuket Resort & Spa, Thailand. “You are second-guessing—what should I have done or could I have done. It’s hard because the hotel (business) is so fluid—whether it’s (cases of) suicide or affairs or others—training is probably the best weapon to do your best. 

The president and managing director (Asia-Pacific) of the hotel chain Marriott knows a thing or two about fluidity and being prepared. The hospitality business has taught him the importance of people management and training, while his growing-up years prepared him for uncertainty. 

For someone who lived in about a dozen countries while growing up—and nine during his working career—Smith considers “expatriate" a nationality. He is American by parentage, spent many years in Latin America, lived in Communist Hungary during the Cold War, and now uses Hong Kong as a base. He is, therefore, more at ease with cricket and football (soccer, not American football) than with baseball.

The countries he grew up in are the US, Mexico, Ecuador, Venezuela, Hungary, El Salvador, Virgin Islands, Dominican Republic, Brazil, Peru, Thailand and Hong Kong. Those were exciting times—the KGB used to bug the family’s phones (Smith’s father was a diplomat). 

“I was reading spy novels then, I was between 10 and 14. We were told our house would be bugged. A watch team lived across the street," he remembers about Hungary. 

Not surprisingly, Smith is completely at ease in India, a country he has been visiting for a decade and a half and has been to about “100 times". He can handle the spicy food, is nonchalant about the noise and heat, and mildly amused by the traffic.

“The first time I came here, we landed in Hyderabad late one night, 14 years ago. It was the worst airport—you couldn’t eat anything, the bathroom was filthy and mosquitoes were the size of pterodactyls. You compare (it to how it is) now—the airport’s better, but the traffic is worse.

“Two years ago, I went to renew my visa and I spent the entire day in the consulate at Miami. The whole process took us 11 days. The last time I did it, the (multiple-entry) e-visa took four-and-a-half minutes. I timed it," he says.

“But it took me one-and-a-half hours at immigration last night. So, some things are moving fast, some slow, but they are moving," adds the 54-year-old. 

Craig Smith once hosted a former head of government who, soon after arrival, asked if he could get his pants ironed. The valet was summoned. As Smith and his hotel general manager waited, the ex-PM—much to their surprise and horror—took off his pants and handed them to the valet. Smith didn’t know where to look—he was too embarrassed to look down, too curious not to. The former PM then proceeded to practise his speech for the evening in front of them for 10 minutes—in his boxers, showing his “pale, British” legs. When Luisa later asked him about the colour of the boxers, Smith couldn’t remember.-

Dressed in a blue suit with a matching watch and a purple tie, sipping on a coke, Smith sits facing a window in a conference room of the JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar, next to the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. The view from the window is of the relatively new, elevated road joining the highway to the airport, symbolizing Smith’s assertion of progress.

He was in the country in the first week of October to attend the India Economic Summit, organized by World Economic Forum in Delhi, after a fleeting visit to Mumbai. But his focus on India goes beyond the India-China-important-markets cliché. The plan is to cross a hundred hotels this year—they have 91 now in India. 

Marriott has become the largest hotel company in India by rooms—more than the Taj Hotels Palaces Resorts Safaris—after its merger with Starwood Hotels and Resorts a year ago. Starwood includes brands like The Ritz-Carlton, St Regis, The Luxury Collection, W Hotels, Renaissance Hotels, Le Méridien and Westin. They want to have more properties in Goa, some up north, and in Kerala, which has none yet, says Smith.

He is a “glass half-full" person, the reason he is so keyed up about India. “In some ways, from a tourist point of view, you have an unpolished diamond people may not know about. The country hasn’t taken advantage of it. If and when they do, wow!"

“They said incredible Indians and I saw impatient Indians. We are more bullish about India than Indians in India because they are impatient, which is good. It creates a desire." 

But infrastructural challenges remain. The many permits required means it takes longer to open a hotel here. “It can take seven years, whereas in Japan you can open one in two years," he adds. 

Smith is also a loyalist, having spent his entire career with the hotel chain, where he started working in the housekeeping department in 1988. He had worked at a hotel his uncle owned to pay for school and fell in love with the business. And when he graduated with a bachelor’s in science from Brigham Young University, Marriott hired him.

His first position taught him important lessons, of managing people and delegating. “I couldn’t clean rooms but I could take care of people. For a lot of people, it’s rhetoric. For me, if you take care of people, they work better for you," says Smith.

He was initially offered a job in the front office. But in housekeeping, he discovered, he could manage more people and order supplies, which sounded like a great idea. When he told his mom, she was less than pleased. Her impression was of their housekeeper—an old lady who smoked too much. “I had to tell her that I will still wear a suit and a tie to work," he says, laughing. 

Smith, who started work in California, spent about a decade in Latin America, during which time he learnt Portuguese (he already spoke Spanish). He wanted to use his advantage of being the “international guy" and move out to explore more of the world. 

He had to practically threaten to quit the company in order to move to Asia—the Phuket hotel, his last job as general manager, was the smallest he had worked in (November 2003-March 2006). Before taking over his current position in mid-2015, Smith also spent two-and-a-half years as president of Marriott’s Caribbean and Latin American region and as executive vice-president and chief operations officer for the Asia-Pacific—his life continues in a confusing timeline of geographies, periods and positions. 

To explain why he has spent 29 years in the company, he goes back to the tsunami phase. He got calls from the chairman and vice-president of the company, and the first question they asked was about the employees. “We had 2,000 hotels then. The chairman called me twice to see how we were doing. They sent money and the vice-president visited us. Later, I remember talking to my counterparts in other companies: They had one call from the HQ, to cut staff because there was not enough business." 

“In a disaster, you become autocratic, you cannot be democratic," he adds. “A hotel is like a city. On the outside, we have to look calm, cool and collected. On the inside, you are nervous." 

“You learn a lot as a GM—I was GM five times. It’s a fun job. Now I am running over 550 (company-branded) hotels, with over 125,000 employees. It’s harder." 

I ask him about his many management degrees—from the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, an executive MBA from the University of St Gallen in Switzerland and another from Sao Paulo Business School, besides an advanced management programme from Harvard Business School. He is also learning Mandarin, has become a Divemaster, and is doing an online course on asset management.

“I am a slow learner," he says, laughing. “I don’t want to be a dinosaur. In strategy, they teach you that small points of differentiation compounded over time become great advantages. My competitive advantage is that I am an American who has lived and worked all over. So I went back to school every three years." 

Having moved around continuously, he does not feel unsettled, maybe because “I was never settled", he says. “I think of myself as a gypsy. Our children walked into the house (they bought one in San Diego two years ago) and Stevey (the youngest of five) said, ‘so nice to be home.’ I said, ‘you have never been here.’ But he said, ‘it got our furniture.’

“For us, home became our furniture, our mother and father. So when I go back to see my father, every piece of furniture is a different part of our life." 

Hong Kong is now the closest to being home, he says—he has lived there for about 10 years. The previous longest stint in a single place was four years at university. In Hong Kong, their friends are from different countries, their spouses are from different countries, it has great Thai and Cantonese food.
Plus he gets to play football a few times
a week.

“My wife figured out pretty early in our marriage that if I play football I come back happy. Some wives negotiate, but she says, ‘go play, you will come back a nicer person.’" 

His wife Maria Luisa, who is Mexican, is everything he is not. “She is creative, she lives for today, I live for tomorrow," he says.

He often rides to work on his Ducati, which his secretary refers to as his “Superman time" because he changes in office into work clothes. Biking is also a form of bonding with the family—he goes dirt-biking with his (future) son-in-law from the deserts of San Diego to Mexico. 

“It’s a Christmas tradition: We go skiing and then to San Diego and take the guys across the border and call it the ‘man-cation’. 

“Lots of our vacations are about skiing, biking; diving is a family thing. For me, I am around people so much it’s nice to do things outdoors. I have my best conversations with my kids then—on the way up from skiing. Or just after diving." 

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