CEO INTERVIEW: Jumeirah's Gerald Lawless
A rare insight into the life of Lawless - inspiration, ambitions & all
Considering that Dubai’s Jumeirah Group is rarely out of the UAE’s papers and regularly makes global headlines, the man behind the brand does a remarkably good job of staying out of the public eye. Reluctant when it comes to media interviews, preferring to let the quality of his hotels speak for themselves, Gerald Lawless is somewhat an enigma — everybody in the Middle East hospitality industry knows him, yet he scarcely speaks about himself. But with Jumeirah’s rapid portfolio expansion over the past 12 months propelling Lawless to the top ranking spot in the Hotelier Middle East Power 50 list of most influential hoteliers and a recent reshuffle of the company’s board bestowing on him the new and improved title of president and group CEO, Hotelier decided it was time to change that.
When we approached Lawless for an interview back in July, we didn’t tell him that he had scored the number one position in the Power 50. As always, this ranking is kept a secret until the September issue is published. Instead, we said we were inviting everyone in the list to Hotelier Towers for an interview and photoshoot. It was touch and go; Lawless accepted, but then promptly declined upon reading our questions. However, some gentle persuasion and rather persistent calling confirmed the meeting, and the head of the Middle East’s most famous home-grown hotel chain even took time out of his day to come to our office — quite a feat considering his obvious anxiety at being in the region’s largest publishing house.
It’s a story many know but Lawless, who joined Jumeirah upon its foundation in 1997 after a 23-year career with Forte Hotels, first came to Dubai in 1978 after convincing his exasperated superiors at Forte that he wanted a post abroad. With his previous hotel experience at this time covering just Ireland and the UK, this was a “pretty exotic” move, recalls Lawless, but more importantly, “one of the defining moments” of his career. He opened what we now know to be Le Méridien Airport Hotel and remained with Forte in Dubai for four years, then moved around to South Africa, Bahrain and Dublin. With Dubai still close to his heart, in 1990 Lawless suggested that he set up Forte’s regional office in Dubai and expand the portfolio in the region. His wish was granted, as long as he also looked after the company’s eight hotels in the Caribbean and covered both faraway territories from an unlikely location — Slough in the UK. Ultimately, it took Lawless 13 years to actually move back to Dubai, which he did in 1991 to set up Forte’s office but he has been in the emirate ever since.
From Forte to Jumeirah
However, despite his loyalty to Forte over the years, things turned sour in 1996 when the group was taken over by Granada in a hostile bid. In 1997, Lawless made the decision to move on and set up what is now Jumeirah in the “biggest and most defining” moment of his career. The question here is obvious; was it always the plan to develop Jumeirah as a global hotel chain, and did Lawless know 15 years ago, that in 2012 he would be in charge of 21 operating hotels and a pipeline of 13 more?
The answer he says is obvious too — “because I could see what was happening here”.
“I was invited to have a look at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel which was under construction and afterwards, I said to my wife ‘there’s no doubt, there’s no question this is what I want’.
And so the growth started; with Lawless working on the “very dynamic” development of Jumeirah Beach Hotel, Burj Al Arab, Wild Wadi, Emirates Towers and then Madinat Jumeirah, delivering the vision of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai.
“At the time people kept asking him what is your vision for this and he’d say ‘you’ll see’ and he did say [Burj Al Arab] would be the symbol of Dubai and I think he also felt very much that it would be a symbol of Dubai’s tourism or what he was going to develop with tourism. But did I know this was going to happen? No, not at the time,” says Lawless.
With Jumeirah’s Dubai presence established, in 2003 the company started putting the strategy together to develop the luxury brand abroad, having acquired hotels in London in 2001, but it was “joining Dubai Holding at the end of 2004 that became really a defining moment for us in terms of the future of Jumeirah and how it could expand,” says Lawless.
From regional to international
The game then changed for Lawless who, with the iconic Burj Al Arab under his belt, set about establishing the expansion plan — which has now seen the group grow to 5196 rooms, suites and residences operating in nine countries.
“When we decided we wanted to become a leading luxury hotel brand we understood as well that you have to have quite a global presence, and to establish our priorities in relation to [this] global presence so we wouldn’t just be jumping all over the place, we identified just under 30 key letterhead locations in main cities but also key resorts. We recognised that there was a lot of new development coming out of Asia and that we felt China was very important,” says Lawless.
Communicating the brand name was crucial and Lawless says participation in hotel development and investment trade shows was invaluable for exposure and networking, where he would “make a point of seeing everyone”.
“It was interesting over a period of five years, say from 2004 to 2009, from always looking for appointments and trying to see potential investors, it switched so that people would be contacting us. It was nice to see how it changed.”
Despite recent openings of properties in locations from Mallorca and Rome to Frankfurt and Istanbul, and Shanghai to Maldives, Lawless is unwilling to draw on any personal favourites.
“Every hotel is different and that’s what we say about Jumeirah — stay different,” says Lawless, a point evidenced at the new Jumeirah Creekside, which brings an art and lifestyle interpretation to Jumeirah’s classic luxury. “Especially in the luxury segment it’s really important that each hotel has its own identity and character and personality and I think this encourages management as well to be a lot more innovative in how they run their hotels.
“Certainly from my days as a general manager I felt it was very important to empower the management,” he says.
“We can’t run each individual hotel from a centralised basis. We can guide, we can direct, but in the final analysis the hotel general manager has to take responsibility and is accountable for the success or otherwise of his or her property.”
Lawless and leadership
And what about Lawless’ own management style? Currently, he is responsible for 13,000 colleagues, with expectation this will grow to 20,000, maybe even 30,000, as the portfolio continues to expand.
“When you start out you have to have ambition... not just for yourself but also for your company. If something can be achieved you have a duty to set about achieving it. Rather than just think why it might not happen, think why it could happen,” says Lawless, an attitude which explains his determination to move to Dubai in the first place, and then pursue Jumeirah’s ambitious goals.
“That’s why with having a leader like HH Sheikh Mohammed unless you have that kind of attitude he really won’t have [a] lot of time for you and that’s fantastic to have that kind of encouragement because it does encourage you to say ‘well there’s no reason why we can’t achieve that’.
“And I’ll always encourage people to be ambitious, set out for yourself where you want to go, what you want to be, it doesn’t mean it can’t change along the way, it doesn’t mean that you won’t achieve it. You might actually surprise yourself and find that you can do things you never dreamed you would do.” Lawless says this attitude extends on a personal basis too.
“I’m quite involved with the World Travel and Tourism Council and the World Economic Forum on the Travel and Tourism Agenda’s council and I’ve been invited to moderate sessions in Davos. [Initially] I said I couldn’t do that but you’ve got to challenge yourself as well and do something out of the comfort zone. [With] these kinds of things if you do send off that you have the confidence to be able to achieve whatever you think is achievable then you’re good to go.” Wise advice from Lawless, but with such an ambitious mind-set, what else is there that he wants to achieve?
“I’d still like to fulfil the plan for Jumeirah —I read a saying a few days ago that the road to success is always under construction. And it is. And that’s something that will never end. But I would like to see Jumeirah having more hotels open in different locations. I’m very pleased to have got from 10 hotels in 2011 to  hotels today, that’s a great achievement of the team.
“It will be long-term and we are patient but it’s really important to consolidate what we’ve done to succeed in the hotels we’ve taken on and that we resource up adequately and structure it properly. We can do it and we will do it, but there still are some key letterhead locations that we aspire to, places like Paris... and also in Asia to look at places like Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing, these are the big three in Asia, Tokyo would be another possibility.
“When you get to my age as well you have to think about succession planning, and naturally we do, I would never like to sever my connection with Jumeirah or with Dubai but I also recognise it's part of a mature proper leadership to have succession in place and to understand and develop people.”
He admits that having some more free time is also something he’d like, if only to practise his favourite hobby — skiing. “I only started 15 years ago but do it obsessively whenever I can. On a personal basis I’d just like to ski better than I do without breaking my hip,” he laughs.
Considering his new title as president and group CEO of Jumeirah — and assuming he stays safe on the slopes — Hotelier hopes that Lawless’ succession plan is still some way off. He needs some time to celebrate his new Power 50 status, after all.