Mit Shah was enjoying the fruits of his labor.
As Shah, founder, senior managing principal and CEO of Noble Investment Group, a company that invests in and manages hotels, he had successfully gotten the business past the struggles that followed the Sept. 11 attacks when travel and tourism dollars fell. Everything was back on track, and the company had been growing, earning spots on the Inc. 5,000 list through the years, and in 2008, it recorded $325 million in revenue.
But things have slowed from the pace Shah and his team are used to.
“We’ve built this model over 17 years — great people, great human characteristics — but clearly the last two and a half years have created a real pause of how we approach our business,” Shah says.
One of his challenges is having extremely talented people, which most wouldn’t think is a problem, but in tough times, it proves to be.
“How do you keep a group of highly successful, highly talented, highly motivated, passionate leaders engaged and focused on the ability to manage what we have when you’re an organization that’s truly built for continuous investment and continuous growth, and that’s how you’re structured?” Shah says.
He’s also been challenged by looking for opportunities to grow the business and figuring out how the market will shake out.
“That has been a big part of my responsibility to continue to surround myself with people who internally and externally will give me good insight as it relates to how do we see opportunities going forward,” he says.
And then it’s been just hunkering down on the business basics.
“Continue to do what the books say you’re supposed to do — stick to your core values during times of great opportunity and during times of crisis, take care of people, make sure that you continue to commit to things that are part of who you are and who you espouse to be,” Shah says.
Over the past three years, by building a solid group of peers to rely on, focusing on his people and looking for opportunities, Shah was able to successfully move Noble forward — earning $346 million in revenue in 2009 — and prepare it for future growth.
Build your peer group
One of the aspects of business that Shah says has been particularly critical the past few years has been forecasting out where the market would go and how things could change, but he can’t do this alone. He’s come to rely on a core group of people that he’s built over the years to help him better make decisions about his company.
For example, he may have dinner with the CEO of Hilton Hotels one day and the president of Wake Forest University on another, and they both play a critical role in his life.
“I always stayed very close to a group of people that I viewed could help me on a broader basis,” Shah says. “It goes back to this peer group — never being the smartest person in the room, always having the smartest room, and always finding people who I could befriend and I could build a relationship with and build a partnership with, who, in essence, I could learn from and build a base of knowledge that I wouldn’t get in just running my company.”
Having a group of people to get feedback and ideas from has also helped him bring in the best people when those openings arise. To build his group, he got out on the road and met with people continuously, and this went back as far as 18 years ago. Over the years, his group has also evolved and today includes top executives of the world’s major hotel chains, basketball coaches, people in service businesses and manufacturing as well as investment bankers.
“That’s really helped me think about things, both then and now, in a way that helps me lead more effectively,” he says. “I have the power of and the benefit of a broad range of thinking, and then I can take those thoughts, and I can incorporate them into my own and lead through that manner.”
To create a group for yourself, Shah suggests getting out more to build those relationships with people.
“Go to meetings, go to conferences, find out the best industry events,” he says. “Walk around, shake people’s hands, get to know people, and take every opportunity that you have to understand those in whatever business and industry are at the tip of being visionary, of being organizations that have had sustainable track records, that are respected among a group of people that you respect, and find opportunities to establish relationships.”
Sometimes that means you have to make the tougher decision in the here and now. You may want to go do something fun, but instead, you need to choose to do what will be most beneficial in the long term.
“There’s been times all across my entire career where it’s an opportunity to either go have a dinner or to be in the same room or to go to a meeting or a conference, and you have no idea what you’re going to get out of it,” Shah says. “But spend those times as opposed to saying, ‘Let’s go find the best place to watch the game tonight,’ and really go and find an opportunity to establish a friendship.”
When you meet people and get to know them, it’s important to remember that they’re people just like you, so use that as a base to build that friendship.
“It doesn’t matter if someone is the CEO of a big Fortune 100 company or if they’re just your golfing buddy,” he says. “At the end of the day, when you peel back everything, people are just, if you find good human beings, decent people. They’d much rather go have a barbecue sandwich than have something fancy. They’d much rather have a beer together and talk about your families than always be talking about how you’re going to win market share here and how you’re going to do that. That all comes, but break it down to just finding quality human beings and building friendships with them.”
Focus on your people
During the downturn, Shah didn’t cut his 401(k) match, community service programs or the company Christmas party. Instead, he doubled the budget for his employee engagement committee so it could plan things like bowling outings and have a really nice holiday party.
“Let’s be honest, this is a tough labor market,” he says. “People aren’t jumping jobs right now, so we get that. You can’t use that as a crutch, because as soon as the market comes back, they’ll leave for a better opportunity once available.”
Despite the challenging times, it’s crucial to make sure you continue to focus on your people and how you can support them. Look at the people that aren’t your senior managers — just your everyday, salaried employees — and reflect on what their intentions are.
“Do they have the character and confidence, and then do they care about the company’s best interest?” Shah asks. “If they do, then making that decision is very easy.”
If you have employees that would leave to go across the street for 5 percent more, then Shah understands not wanting to put the resources out to support them, but at the same time, he also questions why that is.
“What does that mean?” he says. “That means that if you haven’t brought in that person who has that character and if you haven’t done the things to promote that loyalty, whose fault is it? Is it the team member’s fault or the employer’s fault that they’re not loyal?”
When you face yourself with this kind of a situation, that’s when it becomes difficult to decide whether to put money toward your people or to keep it for the company.
“If employers are in that situation, then it’s hard for them to part with their dollars because — they’ll never admit it and they’ll never sit in front of a town hall and say, ‘All of you employees are commodities,’ — they would never say that, and if they feel that, they’ll make a decision and say, ‘We’ll just hoard the cash,’” Shah says. “But if you really believe in your team members, and if you really believe they have the organization’s best interest and they’re going to be there for the long haul, then you take care of them. You always take care of them.”
In fact, as 2009 came to an end, Shah was anticipating a surplus in the budget and predicted that they would be creating a supplementary bonus program with it in addition to putting some of that back into the company as a buffer for this year.
“You always go to the denominator of what’s the right thing to do,” he says.
The economy has changed business the past few years, so you can’t just rest on your laurels and expect clients to come your way.
“You’ve got to look through a number of different avenues,” Shah says. “It’s far different than it ever was. Generating business in general is different than what it was before — in any industry.”
Over the past couple of years, Shah has been diligent about looking for new opportunities, and that starts with knowing your market.
“It’s really about having a very good understanding of your marketplace so you don’t have to be a big national organization or global organization,” he says. “We could be just the best hotel group in Atlanta, but we need to know Atlanta like the back of our hand.”
Knowing your market also goes back to your peer group and having people you can talk to about how the market is going so you can better predict how things may shift. On top of that, it’s important to have a niche.
“You have to find a niche in the business,” Shah says. “I think that companies of the future that are going to be very successful will have a niche. They aren’t broad-based companies that do a lot of things. They’ll find a couple things they do really well, and they focus on those things, and they outperform the competition there. It’s way too difficult to be good at many different things.”
For example, Shah knows that his company is good at hotels, but he also recognizes that it isn’t cut out to go into, say, grocery stores or office buildings.
“You can’t just, all of a sudden, wake up one day and say, ‘I think we’re going to be grocery-anchored retail,’” he says. “There’s some smart leaders in our organization, but we don’t know anything about grocery-anchored retail, and I can’t just go hire someone who knows about grocery-anchored retail and pretend we can be a great company overnight.”
Instead, you have to look at what your company already does and what expertise you already have within the organization.
“You have to say, ‘What are you built to go do that’s as good as or better than the best people that do it in your business?’” Shah says. “Based on that, how do you build that if you have not already? If you think you have it already, how do you go and execute around that area?”
If you see that the opportunities aren’t in that area and you do think you have to explore a different area, you need to do it in a smart way.
“If we don’t know how to do something, we always go get the talent first and go and build a model around it, and then start with one and continue to grow,” he says. “That’s what we’ve historically always done.”
The key is you have to be able to live with whatever consequences come as a result of the direction you head.
“Understand what your downside is,” Shah says. “Know what you can live with. It’s hard. How do you be visionary, be aggressive, be strategic and also manage risks without just being completely paralyzed by it?”
How to reach: Noble Investment Group, (404) 262-9660 or www.nobleinvestment.com
The Shah file
Founder, Senior Managing Principal and CEO
Noble Investment Group
Born: Morristown, N.J.
Education: Bachelor’s degree, economics, Wake Forest University
As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a basketball coach. If I can’t be a coach, I want to be an announcer.
I’m first generation American. My parents are both immigrants. I’m the eldest child of immigrants. They think about education and stability, and you’re like, ‘Hey! I’m going to be a basketball coach or announcer.’ They’re like, ‘What are you talking about? You’re going to be a doctor.’ I was like, ‘All right, I guess I’m going to be a doctor,’ — until I got to college and took bio and chem and physics and hated all three with a passion.
Did you get the chance to coach at all?
I used to coach kids basketball when I was in college. One of the first things that really helped me think about what I wanted to do with my life was when a friend of mine was going to be the head coach, and he asked me to be the assistant, and he transferred schools, so I ended up becoming the head coach before the first game, and it was the most thrilling thing to me.
I was coaching these 11- and 12-year-old kids, but these kids were just wide open. They listened, they cared, they were good enough where you could teach them things. I was like, ‘This is really great.’ They’re 12, so they’re going to listen to you, and they don’t care that you’re 18 — they’re 11, so they look at you as a leader. I was like, ‘Wow. This is the first time anyone’s listened to me.’ It got me really excited about the opportunity to lead and the opportunity to be somewhere where I could teach and help people maximize their potential.
What’s the best book you’ve read?
I’ve got a number — Jim Collins’ ‘Good to Great.’ It’s kind of a pat answer. It was the first book I ever read that gave real tangible evidence of what companies did over time to help them not only survive but thrive through multiple periods of economic volatility. It helped me think about my business in ways I never had thought about it before.
If you’re looking for something less business-oriented, ‘The Last Lecture’ by Randy Pausch was a great book because it really touched on things that, to me as a human being, we should always think about.