The world is full of successful CEOs, innovative entrepreneurs, and risk-taking business owners, but every person follows their own path to the top. Welcome to How to Succeed, our monthly interview column in which we pick the brains of industry leaders to find out how they got to where they are today.
Over the last fifteen years, Dr. James Mabey has led and managed hotel and real estate projects in over thirty-six countries leveraging his diverse communications skills in English, Mandarin, Thai, Laotian and Spanish. James has spent his career alongside multiple developers and hotel operators executing deals that involve every aspect of real estate from strategy, development, asset management, to operations. Some of his most outstanding projects include the late world renowned architect Zaha Hadid’s tallest building the Jumeirah Nanjing, the development of the Niccolo Brand and its flagship the Murray Hong Kong, The W Ubud Bali and finally the recent opening of the new Standard Huruvalhi Maldives Resort.
James’ diverse background, exceptional cultural literacy and global success eventually led him to his current role as Managing Director Asia & Middle East and Chief International Business Officer of the Standard International. Looking at all the international projects he’s developed and managed, it is no exaggeration to say that Dr. Mabey is a true expert in the worlds of real estate and hospitality. James is a primary shareholder in multiple hotels around the region, and currently holds board positions with real estate and hotel developers such as Selong Selo, Isward Dewarta (Ruang Teknik Group), and Hotelintel Media. He is also Vice-Chairman of the Industry Advisory Board of HK Poly U’s School of Hotel and Tourism Management and Assistant Professor at Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management in Dubai.
For this month’s How to Succeed, we sat down with Dr. James Mabey to learn about his rich, international experience in real estate development and hospitality, his reason behind choosing this path and his advice to those who want to follow his footsteps in building a global footprint professionally.
Tell us a little about yourself
Originally I’m from the US, but have spent nearly 20 years overseas. I pretty much spend all of my time in airplanes and hotels. Come to think of it, it’s been eight years since I’ve even had a real apartment; I literally live in hotels. It’s a bit difficult always moving around, but I love flying planes, skydiving, surfing, snowboarding, rock climbing and sailing, so while on the road I can always find something exciting in case I have a few minutes of down time.
How did you get into real estate and hospitality?
I had this opportunity to come work in Asia around twenty years ago and because I was young I didn’t have much to offer besides the mere fact that being from United States, I understood how to build relationships with US companies and people. I was able to help organisations in Asia with basic marketing communications and etiquette since I knew how they should behave and interact with US investors. Localisation projects were something I could do as a young person. In China during this time and still to this day, a big part of the economic development is real estate development whether it’s infrastructure, commercial or residential, which naturally led me to other real estate related activities. This was how I got to Asia in the first place and my work became more and more hospitality and real estate focused as it progressed. It started out as development projects on the investor or developer side but then morphed into both development and management projects.
And how do you think your upbringing and background led you to it?
My family was always very internationally oriented, my grandfather did a lot of government work internationally for the state and defence departments and my father’s work focused on international business development. They always traveled around to different places for work and my mother lived also in India when she was younger. As a result, I was always interested in international business, cultures and people. My father, before he worked for the US government, actually was a general manager of a resort in the US. As a kid, I literally lived on property inside of a sort of spa retreat resort for the first eight years of my life. Perhaps subconsciously it was buried in there. My father and grandfather are my heroes and role models so I knew I would do something similar to them. As a teenager I felt a lot of pressure to go into the military as my grandfather had done but I ended up doing more the international business side of things like my father.
What have some of your roles entailed over the years?
Over the years my roles have shifted back and forth between working with operators who are managing mixed use projects to working with the developers building them. I’ve worked with many developers, master planning, building projects as well as on the operators’ side of hotels. Usually, I’ve always worked for smaller, more boutique hotel companies because I like to be involved in the actual strategy and execution that drives growth. I like the flexibility and the ability to adapt quickly to be better in tune with the guests. When you’re with a hotel company with 6000 hotels, it’s hard to be proactive, whereas when you’re with a smaller company you can easily put your finger on the pulse of what’s going on. I’ve always sought out this type of involvement. After my time in China, fifteen years ago, I started working on Jumeirah projects, which led me to build strong relationships with a lot of the big developers. Then when I went to do my doctorate at Hong Kong Polytechnic’s School of Hotel and Tourism Management, one of my mentors Dean Kaye Chon, connected me with the CEO from Wharf Hotels, Steve Kleinschmidt. I really grew a lot under Steve’s leadership. He gave me the great opportunity to lead their international development department as Senior Director of Development. I oversaw the development of the Wharf Hotels group, which at the time was still Marco Polo Hotels. When I was with them, we started the creation of the Niccolo Hotels brand. I spent a lot of time in my final days at the company on our flagship project the Murray by Niccolo in Hong Kong. Niccolo Hotels have really done great. Many of them, like the Niccolo in Chengdu, out perform all the better known internationally luxury brands. Then I joined Jumeirah to oversee their business in Asia Pacific. I split my time between Dubai and Singapore for three and half years. I focused a lot on the development side, but later oversaw the operation and preopening of hotels as well. That was a great time for me. I built an incredible team there under the mentorship of hospitality legends like Gerald Lawless and Robert Swade.
After I wrapped up my time with Jumeirah, I stayed in Dubai to finish my law degree at Dubai University. My approach to education has always been as a critical supplement to work experiences.
What were some of the challenges you faced, and what are some of the challenges you face today?
The biggest challenges and also the opportunities lie in trying to localise ideas and concepts into new markets. This is one of the reasons why I love hotels. You’re building platforms where people from different cultures can connect and interact with one another. People get along just fine despite their government’s political standpoints when you see them at hotels and resorts. Regardless of media sensationalism, when you have people from the US, Russia, China (or anywhere) in a resort, you see them enjoying themselves and becoming friends, there is no animosity. From a more noble perspective, hospitality allows people from different walks of life to share ideas and cultures. The challenge, at least with the kind of hotels and companies I like to build is that you’re trying to create spaces where people can interact whether it’s families making memories or lovers developing new relationships. You have to create these spaces and make sure they have longevity and flexibility too because a hotel should work for twenty or thirty years. You have to create the spaces knowing that they will need to accommodate different groups of people for a long time during different times. You also have to be aware of the needs of different groups of people to try and cater to them. For example, Japanese people traditionally may prefer twin beds and baths, Arabs travel with a lot of family members so you need a lot of connecting rooms or suites and the Chinese will travel with multiple generations together. You need to a build a hotel that meets the current needs of the demand but also keep in mind the future trends as we move forward as well.
Hotels are extremely difficult to manage because you have restaurants, events, and people living in the buildings 24/7. Once the hotel is open for twenty, thirty years they don’t really ever shut. In the Maldives now where at the Standard we have just opened a hotel, it’s a whole city. These small islands at any given time have 300-500 people living on them so we need to have water desalination system, bottling plants, power generators, places of worship, medical facilities etc.
What are some of the achievements you are most proud of?
Not sure how to answer this but if I were to say one thing it’s the fact that I’ve been able to build incredible teams in different countries that have consistently outperformed our competitor teams. I’m most proud of how I have put together teams with so much synergy and successfully built the right type of loyalty within them that we go on to do amazing things. Nearly ten years later I am still in touch with the interns that were a part of the internship program that I designed at Wharf, which was focused on developing them as professionals and their networks within the hospitality industry. These interns are all now in senior positions around the world in the top hospitality and real estate companies.
Could you introduce us and tell us more about upcoming projects in the Middle East and Asia Pacific?
We are fortunate that the Standard brand attracts interest from leading developers from around the world. In the Middle East and Asia, we are evaluating dozens of projects at any given time. Of course there are a few that we are especially excited about, with our Asia/Middle East Head Quarter in Bangkok, our upcoming projects in Thailand are moving very quickly, including properties under development, Bangkok, Phuket, Hua Hin, Samui and Pattaya. We are also finalising projects in Melbourne, Jakarta and Singapore. Maldives is just opening so that’s a big one for us right now. The Maldives is a very interesting project for us and for me it’s a very critical and strategic project because it showcases The Standard in pure resort environment and simultaneously, from the geographic perspective, ties our London and Europe properties in through the Middle east and over to Thailand and our far East projects.
What is the key to success?
I would say three things really, first you need to have great mentors. I’ve been so fortunate, like I mentioned earlier to have people in my corner like my father and mother, Steve, Dean Chon, Gerald and Robert. Now at Standard it is the same with our amazing CEO Amar Lalvani and Chairman Srettha Thavisin, these guys are geniuses really; support from people that can teach you and want you to succeed is absolutely crucial.
Second is for sure working in great teams. Your team will make or break your career. A good team with the right cultural will add multiples to your ability to deliver. You need to make sure you’re in a team that has the right culture and is structured and resourced for success. That is paramount; macro/micro economics, brand, political trends, nothing comes close to determining your success like the strength of your team.
And third, you learn a lot through experience, but education is also key. Education should be about supplementing your experience or work, adding layers of cultural fluency, which I think is really critical. A lot of what you see in Asia, you have these expats who spend decades in a foreign country and don’t really know the language or the culture. When you work in places like Beijing, Thailand or Dubai, you naturally understand a bit about the culture, but work is extremely hierarchical where as in an education system you’re all in the same class. You learn way more about the culture and the language studying with the locals than if you were working with them as subordinates or superiors because you have camaraderie with your fellow peers. I studied in these cities I lived and worked in, with the idea that education adds layers of theory to practice, and should also add layers of cultural literacy onto my experience. This is key to good international business.
What inspires or motivates you?
In hospitality specifically, one of the reasons I’m in this industry in the first place is that I find it to be rewarding and cool to be looking at empty land or an old building and realising it could be so much more, trying to imagine what could be there in a sustainable way and economically viable way. I like to put together those pieces to make something work on all levels. Hospitality products are the most difficult type of real estate to manage and to deal with. Like I said before, in hospitality we have the opportunity to build platforms where people can develop really valuable relationships and connections that can change the course of the world.
Do you have plans to start your own hotel brand in the future? Why or why not?
No, not really. I have my hands full already. I really enjoy working with The Standard. It is a goldmine of untapped brand value. It’s exactly what the world needs right now, especially Asia and the Middle East. Other than that, I enjoy serving on boards of development companies and volunteering with universities. Helping entrepreneurial developers develop solid strategies and bring innovative products to the market is exciting and doesn’t conflict with my current duties at the Standard. And of course, helping the next generation of real estate professionals and hoteliers is very important to me. Our industry has been very reactive and slow to adapt; the new generation needs to change this. They need to be prepared to drive tomorrow’s solutions for environmental and financially sustainable projects.
What advice would you give to young people trying to pursue a career in real estate and hospitality?
Don’t stress about whether or not you know exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life. Just focus on the next one or two positions you want. Think of growth as a direction, not a specific destination. So many opportunities and possibilities will pop up along the road; there is no sense trying to anticipate everything in advance. Make sure you like the general direction you are heading, and your day-to-day goals align with that direction and you’ll be fine. Tomorrow will take care of itself. I’m always happy to give advice to young people, feel free to hit me up on Linkedin if you’d like.