How the CEO of a legacy hospitality group is rethinking what business, and leadership mean
IN the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, Eu Chin Fen was among many of the business leaders battling multiple crises at once.
The deadly virus had sickened countless people worldwide, and as authorities everywhere moved to contain its spread, the global economy ground to a halt. But Eu and her team were busier than ever.
“Let’s save lives, save livelihoods,” Eu recalled the mantra then. At the same time, “save businesses, stem cash flows.”
At the time, Eu was Chief Investment Officer of Frasers Hospitality International, and later CEO of the Managers of Frasers Hospitality Trust, the Singapore-listed real estate investment trust. In January 2023, she was appointed CEO of Frasers Hospitality, the hotel and serviced apartment arm of the Frasers Property group.
The hospitality industry was fighting for survival, as borders closed and rooms lay empty for months. Whatever operations that were allowed took place under strict hygiene and cleaning regimes, that added to costs even as revenues nosedived.
In Singapore, where Frasers Hospitality is headquartered, hotels saw an average monthly revenue of about S$350 million fall to just ten percent of that in the months of lockdown, according to Singapore official statistics. Room lettings did not properly return to the pre-Covid levels for more than two years, in mid-2022.
Eventually, as international travel resumed, Frasers Hospitality recorded a firm return to the black, with pre-tax profit of S$100 million for the financial year 2022, after seven turbulent quarters.
“It was a really, really tough time, and we were just soldiering on, day by day,” Eu tells The Consulus Columnist in an interview.
Those brutal days may be past, but they have brought about a reckoning that is changing how people view themselves and the world around them, Eu believes. “The social compact has changed.”
“Everybody talks about being purpose-driven,” she adds. “People talk about companies-for-good because the world has been shaken. We start to think, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I working so hard? What is valuable to me, what is meaningful?’”
And that is having a profound impact on the way companies operate, even as the various industries recover to pre-crisis levels, Eu says. “Business isn’t just about making the numbers work. It’s not profit for profit’s sake. It isn’t just seeing demand return and going out and hiring people.”
“Hospitality is a very human-centric job that can be stressful. For people with transferable skills and competency – investment managers, asset managers, IT – why would they want to continue in the hospitality sector? This is a very relational business, and you will be tested.”
Indeed, businesses across sectors are facing a global talent crunch, even as the operating landscape becomes increasingly challenging, with cutthroat competition, rising costs, and persistent economic uncertainty and geopolitical instability.
To that end, Eu is leading a transformation within Frasers Hospitality, to position the group and its employees in the new environment, and drive growth at all levels. As an organisation, the team has gone to the heart of what matters – mental and physical health, personal growth, and creating memories with loved ones.
In Eu’s view, they are in a business that is at its core, human, despite increasing applications of technology (robot cleaners and check-in kiosks in place of the more quaint room attendants and the personable concierge). That is a priceless asset to leverage, she explains.
“It is one of the very rare industries where people can truly rise from being a waitress, to food-and-beverage director, or from the front desk to a room director. You can always learn the hardware, but we need people who can connect, and who are empathetic.
“This is a very precious platform where we can rally people, where we can come up with movements that can unite, and get people to throw in their lot with us, to see that they are able to contribute and make a difference.”
And what better platform to bring people from all backgrounds together, than a global, human-focused business? “We really do have the sphere of influence to do this. We want to be able to enrich lives, and to bring it to the communities where we are located,” Eu says.
With 25 years of operations, Frasers Hospitality today owns and manages high-end serviced residences and hotels in more than 70 cities across Asia, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. These comprise more than 16,300 units in operation, and there are about 3,200 more units in the pipeline.
But it is part of a much larger history and entity, as part of the Frasers Property Group, with interests across residential, commercial, and industrial real estate.
The group was once part of the sprawling and storied Fraser & Neave group, one of Singapore’s oldest and most well-known companies that was formed in 1883 by two Englishmen to produce soda water, lemonade, and ginger ale. The business evolved to beer brewing and property development, and the businesses were later separately listed on the stock exchange in Singapore.
In early 2013, the property and soft drinks group Fraser & Neave became part of the empire of Thai billionaire Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi following an $11.2 billion takeover. Months later, the property business was spun off and listed separately on the Singapore Exchange.
For Eu, growth starts at the personal level, though for her it could be just that much harder, as a leader in a legacy organisation with effectively a 130-year history, and powerful shareholders.
“To transform a company, a leader has to be open to growth,” she asserts. “It’s easy to talk about how we want people to be innovative, creative, and to collaborate. But if you are not conscious about the need to see something larger than yourself, it will be difficult to build a collaborative culture.”
“It’s not easy to be a leader. I think the greatest challenge that I have every day is self-awareness, and humility. It’s difficult. Leadership always has to be seen as strong. On the contrary, I think a powerful leader is actually a vulnerable leader.
But how do we grapple with vulnerability in leadership? You must be very self-assured, and very, very secure, to be able to allow yourself to be vulnerable. To be able to allow yourself to not be the best, [acknowledge] that you don’t have all the solutions, and [to be able to say] ‘That’s why I need all of you’.”
Author: Michelle Teo, Contributing Editor