"Businesses are not here only to make money. Their role is also to be part of a community, take responsibility, and walk the talk of upholding ethical principles to enhance the quality of life for all.”
“My life was spiced up in a boiling pot of ideas,” says Claire Chiang, co-founder of Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts and senior vice-president of Banyan Tree Holdings Ltd. Trained in sociology, she had previously taught behavioural sciences in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Hong Kong while pursuing her Masters in industrial sociology. Then age 25 and married to Ho Kwon Ping, a former journalist who was trained in economics, Chiang had not thought about starting a business.
But four years spent in Hong Kong on Banyan Cove at Lamma Island forever changed Chiang’s career path. “We were sorting out conflicting ideas on various issues — like development and progress, the contradiction between capital and labour, between profits and justice, between efficiency and equity, between men and women. We had so many arguments. But it was also here on this farming island, without roads and industries and where people addressed another by kin terms, that the idea of a ‘sanctuary’ captured our imagination,” she offers. “In hindsight, that was the genesis of Banyan Tree.”
Ho’s job as a journalist took the duo on countless trips in the region, spending long hours commuting in cars, buses, trains, and even motorcycles and bicycles. They made a lot of new discoveries along the way, while engaging in deep and thought-provoking conversations about development changes, hotel architecture, design, heritage, and culture. Says Chiang: “Those conversations and experiences led us to discover our final vocation — the hospitality business that has since become our theatre for work and play.”
Upon returning to Singapore, the idea of a weekend home on the beach prompted the couple’s search for land in Phuket, where they dreamed of building a lodge by the casuarina forest and the endless beach at Bangtao Bay. But the dream grew into a much larger ambition of building a hotel instead, marking their first footprint in the hospitality sector. “Ironically, we never saw the UN report that declared this area as an undevelopable wasteland,” Chiang says, adding that no one believed in them as they had no relevant track record. “But Kwon Ping never gave up. He persisted, with a limited budget, to build the first hotel, which we invited the Dusit Thani Hotel Group to manage. In a way, our foolhardiness and ignorance served us well; not having a degree in business administration was an asset!” the 65-year-old laughs. “The success of the first hotel in 1987 led to the second hotel, then the third, and finally we had the confidence to develop our own brand in 1995: the Banyan Tree.”
Chiang’s initial plans were to enter the hospitality business through developing its retail track, and an encounter with Shirin Fozdar in the late 1980s paved the route. “It was my late father-in-law Mr Ho Rih Hwa who introduced me to her, whom I found inspiring in her selfless and infectious optimism in realising other people’s dreams. Mrs Fozdar lifted my eyes to village craft as a viable revenue source for village women,” she recalls. “She took an overnight bus to meet me in Bangkok and showed me two triangular cushions made by the Yasathon girls, saying that two of these could help place a young girl in school. I thought to myself [that] by buying more to furnish our hotels, I could support a whole village. I believe, as did Mrs Fozdar, that education and employment are the best safeguards against prostitution and poverty.” A few years later, Chiang left her teaching position at NUS and started her hotel’s retail business, focusing on vanishing craft and handiwork made by rural women. “Two cushions changed my career and started my journey in business.”
That encounter led her to start one shop in Phuket which has since multiplied to 77 galleries in the region where Banyan Tree hotels operate. “Banyan Tree Gallery is about a business with a strong community in promoting indigenous skills and crafts,” Chiang elaborates. “As corporate patrons, we select groups that need support, and offer assistance and skills to enhance their productivity and design work, as well as create a value-adding supply chain based on fair terms and mutual benefit. It is a retail business with a difference, just as the hotel business has become a hospitality product with a difference — Kwon Ping and I lead the business assisted by a team of professionals of over 50 nationalities, so our management team is not only interestingly cross-cultural, it also reflects the same diversity in culture as our resort destinations.” To date, Banyan Tree Gallery has supported more than 100 communities over two decades. But more importantly, it is aboutdelivering what the heart desires, says Chiang. “I responded to the heart-work that produces what is traditional and artisanal, and our gallery serves as the marketing platform to sustain craft businesses. This convergence in business is mutually reinforcing and rewarding.”
Today, Banyan Tree has key businesses in hotel investment, hotel management, architectural design, spa operations, property sales, gallery sales, hotel residences, and club memberships. More than just being a hotel operator, the business has expertise to provide a one-stop service to develop a hotel product for its partners, from design and project development to operation management and sales. In 2006, it became a listed company on the Singapore Stock Exchange, and it now operates 41 hotels, 64 spas, 77 galleries and three golf courses across 28 countries. The group’s primary business is centred on four brands: the award-winning Banyan Tree and Angsana, as well as its newly-established Cassia and Dhawa. Banyan Tree also operates Laguna Phuket, the leading integrated resort in Thailand, through the group’s subsidiary Laguna Resorts & Hotels Public Company Limited. Two other integrated resorts — Laguna Bintan in Indonesia and Laguna Lăng Cô in Central Vietnam — complete the portfolio of the group as the leading operator of integrated resorts in Asia. Additionally, the group currently has 15 hotels and resorts under construction, and another 22 under development. “We have just opened our fourth brand Dhawa with Dhawa Cayo Santa Maria in Cuba on Christmas Eve, which is a fun and cool 4-star hotel concept,” Chiang says. “It is the first of our four hotels in Cuba from the Banyan Tree Group, catering to design-savvy and millennial travellers. The emphasis is squarely centred on contemporary design, creative food and beverage options, multiuse public spaces, and a more approachable price point.” Angsana Cayo Santa Maria is scheduled to open on 1 December 2017, just in time for the year-end festivities. By 2019, the group will also see the opening of two properties on an island in Varadero, Mantanzas.
“Cassia is a bold new proposition in the extended stay sector, offering stylish, cutting-edge hotel residences for holiday and business travel,” Chiang further explains. “The brand was launched in October 2015 with the opening of Cassia Phuket. It is an example of how we are carving out new opportunities. Its hybrid model of holiday home-cum-investment fills a gap in the extended market which has been well-received. The second Cassia Bintan is slated to open in end 2017.”
In running her business, Chiang often takes inspiration from history. Stepping Out: The Making of Chinese Entrepreneurs, the first book she co-authored during her four-year stint at the Centre for Advanced Studies at NUS, reviewed the lives of 47 Singapore pioneers gleaned from 4,500 pages of oral history transcripts from the National Archives, and weaved a composite story about their life goals, failures, and fighting back. “Among many insights which shaped my views about business was the notion of ‘doing good’ which repeatedly surfaced in the transcripts,” she offers. “The phrase often used in the Chinese business community is “qu yu she hui, yong zhi she hui”（取于社会，用之社会 ） meaning ‘contribute to society in return for what you have benefited from it’. Motivated by their sense of duty to serve the community, our early pioneers built hospitals, school, roads and many Singapore institutions. Interestingly, these entrepreneurs were most concerned about their moral standing.”
A firm believer in and champion of one’s heritage and cultural roots, Chiang no longer feels the need to present a case as to why businesses must perform beyond economics. “In the end, it is a leadership call for me to set an example by doing business the way I believe is right. Being co-founders of the company, my husband and I have a duty to set the tone in envisioning what responsible business entails, and how to translate these values to shape our corporate culture, business strategies, products and services. More importantly, it requires guiding our teams in understanding businesses are [about] people and our value systems must guide how business choices are made.”
To Chiang, capitalism is in itself not disillusioning — it is the way a business works that requires reassessment. This prompts her to ask various questions: How can Banyan Tree be more transparent in the way it runs its corporations? What must change in order to reduce carbon footprint, wastage and use of electricity? How should it align its corporate competencies to create local solutions and employment opportunities? How should it design a management infrastructure, including a HR policy, to translate its values into good policies and practices? “These core concerns led our group to set up Banyan Tree Global Foundation in 2009,” she says. “Doing the right thing as a responsible business is a step-wise journey we mindfully undertook. We formed a network of CSR champions in five continents delivering service to those in need. We galvanised our 12,000 associates in committing to doing good as a first principle, and believing the triple bottom line as basic business guidance. In a quick snapshot, apart from an improved financial performance, our 2016 non-financial highlights included the planting of more than 450,000 trees since 2009, mentoring 87 teenage children, setting up two social enterprises to teach vocational skills to 16-year-olds in both Laguna Phuket and in Vietnam, and adopting operational guidance in saving water, electricity and waste.”
“Businesses are not here only to make money. Their role is also to be part of a community, take responsibility, and walk the talk of upholding ethical principles to enhance the quality of life for all,” says Chiang, commenting on the continual sustainability of her business. “Successful businesses focus on asking a pertinent question: How do they operate responsibly to create value for various stakeholders in the community?” she continues, adding that it is paramount for Banyan Tree to stay true t o its path and identity.
Not one to look back on past mistakes, Chiang counts her blessings and does not live with any regret. “In my journey I enjoy the bits of couple entrepreneurship, business achievements, family worklife integration, and personal empowerment,” she shares. “In its totality, I feel empowered and motivated. Being a proud mother of three accomplished children and a happy grandmother of a grandson, and being able to work at a job which I am passionate about while at the same time allowing me to contribute to various social causes I care about, is a life I am grateful for.”