With over 35 years in the Canadian hospitality industry and hands-on experience in all areas of the sector, Calvin Mak knows more than his fair share about hotels. He moved out of semi-retirement to return to Hong Kong and to build the Rhombus brand - which he found and runs as CEO - into what it is today. Having managed 11 hotels prior to starting his own business, Mak now relishes the daily challenges he faces in his new roles in the industry he knows so well. Under his expert eye, the Rhombus group has gone from strength to strength. He checks in with Billy Clarke.
How did you get into the hotel business?
I moved to Canada many years ago with nothing more than C$100 (currently about HK$750) in my pocket. I went to school, then went on to do a hotel management course. I graduated with a scholarship from Hilton International, but not before being awarded "The person most likely to succeed in the hotel industry" by them.
After working for Hilton, I moved to the Four Seasons and then to the Delta Hotel in Vancouver, which is where I stayed until I started my own business at the age of 37.
After being away from Hong Kong for over 35 years, I thought it was a good time to come back, and six years ago, I incorporated Rhombus Hong Kong with the Peterson Group. Within three years, I opened the three Hong Kong hotels that we have today.
The hotel industry is a fascinating industry, especially if one likes people. It is a people business and, as a leader, I like to lead by example. I always ask people what I can do and I expect them to offer and look for ways they can help, too. If you have high expectations and demands for your staff, you also have to care for each of them and give them opportunities to grow.
The hotel business takes years to learn, and a lot depends on how far one wants to go. At the management level, one has to work himself up from a junior manager to middle management level, then from junior executive to the executive and then the corporate stages.
"Corporate" is another area entirely. It's more about building hotels, leading teams, and turning a piece of raw land into a beautiful property. I, myself, am lucky since I have had the chance to work in every position of a hotel, and so can relate to every employee - even the dishwasher.
Today, owning my own business also offers different perspectives. It is not just about sitting in an office writing cheques. Times are often tough, but if one can get through things, they'll be a better man for it.
What is a typical day for you?
On a standard day, I am in before 8.30am. I like to be an early bird as much as possible, even now that I have my own company. In the morning, I feel I can push a lot of things out of the way without any interruptions. Even when I was in Canada where they only work five days a week, I still chose to come in on Saturdays for a few hours to sort out my desk, so I could start afresh on Monday. Here in Hong Kong, I still start early, but my mornings are spent with my people, running through the daily and weekly targets with them.
What do you think makes Rhombus successful?
I did a lot of groundwork. I am involved with a lot of universities and associations, and I was a member on a lot of hotel chambers and boards, such as InvestHK. I also did a lot of interviews and travelling as a keynote speaker in China and this is how I exposed my name. In addition, I was on the board of [the Hong Kong Polytechnic University] and the board of the Hotel Owners' Association.
Before selling a brand, one has to sell himself first. It's all about corporate branding - one needs to tell people who he is. I also built up the core players of my hotel team and I give full credit to them.
Who inspires you professionally?
I like to read biographies of successful people. I have noticed that no matter what their industry, one thing they have in common is passion. If one does not have passion, then one is not going to go anywhere. It's passion when someone goes to work and doesn't feel like they are working.
What is the most important career lesson you've learned?
I think people should always put aside time to learn. I am still learning everyday. Also, there will always be a certain amount of negativity, though I tell people not to worry about this. If someone says you can't do something, just prove to them that you can.
What is in store for Rhombus?
We are in the process of opening our Chengdu property and we have two more Hong Kong projects in the pipeline. There is also a possible European and North American project. However, since we are not a public company, we are always careful to pick the right projects and do things that we believe in. We don't tend to claim numbers like the private companies that promise 30 or 40 hotels to boost the stocks of their companies. A hotel is certainly not a short-term investment.