Jeffrey Fisher had seen market downswings before, but the utter swiftness and severity of the one that hit the hotel industry following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, required a fresh approach
to the business.
“For the hotel industry, for the travel industry generally, 9/11 was a call to arms,” says Fisher, chairman, president and CEO of Innkeepers USA Trust, a real estate investment trust that owns
more than 70 hotels in 21 states. “We had several emergency executive team meetings, which we never had to have before, to look at our business from all angles, to look at it in a way that was
different than any other preceding recession.”
And for Fisher, that included looking at how he was running the company.
“We just had to look at the whole operating model from A to Z and make significant changes there,” Fisher says.
He looked at everything, including how much soap was put out in hotel rooms, housecleaning practices in the extended-stay hotels and even the free cocktail hour some properties provided.
While it may have taken on a new urgency immediately after Sept. 11, constant assessment has been the key to Fisher’s success. From the time he started the company in 1994, he has constantly refined his approach to get the most out of his people and his operation.
Whether it is adapting his role to deal with a crisis, developing the vision for the organization or finding the right people to work in the right places, Fisher continually re-examines his strategies,
which has helped him lead the organization from nearly $84 million in revenue in 2002 to $247 million in 2005.
“Leave no stone unturned,” Fisher says. “Try to break the paradigm of whatever it is that you live with in your business day to day.”
Examine the measurements
Continuous examination of his leadership, his management team and the company ensures that the team will be prepared to take advantage of growth opportunities.
“We’ve been working on that here, taking a look at our structure, talking about how we do things from accounting functions to sales and marketing functions to make things a little better,” Fisher says.
One tool he uses is benchmarking Innkeepers against organizations that are now where he would like Innkeepers to be.
“Every industry will have its measures of success,” he says. “In the hotel business, there are a variety of those. Every hotel company essentially uses the same measures. We call it ‘RevPAR’
growth, or revenue per available room. You’re looking at how you’re doing, your market share at the property level and how are you doing against the competitive hotels that you measure against.
“We always want to know how our service is.”
Measuring also allows Fisher to reward the company’s best performers.
“In today’s world, most companies are paying people bonuses based on performance, especially at the upper executive level the real decision-makers,” Fisher says. “Without a measure to
quantify how well the company is doing, you can’t really evaluate how the team is doing or how team members are doing. You can’t compensate people appropriately. Most importantly, you cannot hold them accountable appropriately if you’re subjective or gray in the areas that you want to measure somebody’s performance. Everybody’s got to get measured somehow.”
Not measuring has its consequences.
“Any time I’ve seen departments fail in any organization, it’s because they don’t have some pretty clear parameters or criteria set up for how they’re going to measure what they’re going to do,”
Finding the vision
Advice comes from sources including the management team and the board of directors, but there is no substitute for quiet reflection and time away from the distractions of the office, Fisher
“Get away,” he says. “It’s the best way to do it. I’ve been able to do that a lot. Sometimes it’s simply a long plane ride to California. Get some time on your own. That’s what you have to do.”
If a CEO is so involved in the business that he or she can’t find the time to contemplate the big picture, then there is a problem with the company and the person.
“I’d probably tell him he’s not structured right,” Fisher says. “You ought to be able to find the time not to be chained to the office or chained to the desk.”
Sometimes executives need to seek the advice of seasoned industry veterans. Fisher taps the members of his board to get their help to examine the vision.
“Usually, when the board is in town, four times a year, you tend to operate at a different level because, by definition, you’re operating at that [big picture] level with the board,” Fisher says.
“We’re going to pick their brains and utilize their expertise. We take a collective approach on that front. We talk about where we want to be and then we go after it.
“We’re not talking to the board about hiring and firing people at the hotel level. We’re talking about southern California, or we’re looking at something in San Diego, ‘What do you think?’”
The right people in the right place
The board may help with the big picture, but it is the employees of the company who must carry out the vision. And Fisher encourages them by doing his best to make sure they have a fun place
to come to work every day.
“One thing they appreciate is they know my door is open all the time,” Fisher says.
Because many employees are either intimidated by talking to the CEO directly or simply don’t have the time to do so, he looks for other ways to get feedback, such as using the company’s cultural events to mingle with employees.
“We think it is important to have a corporate culture that incorporates some fun into what we do and does show some employee appreciation, and we have plenty of those kinds of special days
or special events,” Fisher says. “There’s an office luncheon once a month, and they celebrate everyone’s birthday that month. We do things that are simple things that make people feel like they’re
working for a company that is not only going somewhere, but is, in fact, a fun place to work.
“I make sure that I show up to those luncheons. I’m there talking to those folks, slapping them on the back.”
The biggest benefit of a positive culture is employee retention.
“(These activities) really come from one or two folks in HR whose job is corporate culture and to cook up these wonderful ideas that do seem to work for people,” Fisher says.
That dedication to culture has created a stable work force at Innkeepers.
“We’ve got a great bunch of loyal people,” he says. “Hold them accountable. Have reasonable, but not softball, parameters and benchmarks that you’re going to use to evaluate performance. If
they can make a lot of money here rather than going down the street, then they’re going to stay.”
As Innkeepers grows, Fisher will continue to examine every aspect of the company he founded, no matter where that may lead.
“Maybe some day the company will double or triple its size, and maybe I wouldn’t be the right guy” to continue leading it, he says. “That’s very, very possible. Where we’re at right now, it seems
to work pretty well.”
HOW TO REACH: Innkeepers USA Trust, www.innkeepersusa.com