CHICAGO—As a leader, listening is a vital tool that enables executives to strengthen, improve and grow their businesses and teams. Thomas J. Pritzker, executive chairman of Hyatt Hotels Corp. and chairman and CEO of The Pritzker Organization, knows this to be true. It’s among the best advice he’s ever received as a businessman.
“God gave us two ears and one mouth; we should use them in that proportion,” he shared. “If we then listen empathetically, then caring is the natural outcome. In business, if you can understand the other person’s needs, you have a better chance of contributing to their lives.”
In September 2017, Hyatt celebrated its 60th anniversary; Pritzker noted proudly that he has worked at the brand for 40 of those years. “You might not be surprised if I say that it feels more like a lifetime,” he said.
At the annual Americas Lodging Investment Summit (ALIS) this month in Los Angeles, Pritzker’s decades of business acumen and philanthropic efforts will be celebrated when he receives the 2018 ALIS Lifetime Achievement Award. It is presented to an individual who has made significant contributions to the hospitality industry through their actions, deeds and great accomplishments, according to the organization.
“First of all, it’s a great honor. I have participated in this industry for much of my career and receiving this award has given me the chance to pause and think about that engagement,” said Pritzker. “As I will mention at the ALIS ceremony, I am receiving this award on behalf of our 100,000 colleagues and all of our past colleagues. Those aren’t just words, that’s how I feel about it. We have worked as a team with a single purpose and a company culture that successfully serves many communities. This is at the root of our success.”
“Tom’s professional accomplishments and personal character embody the spirit of the ALIS Lifetime Achievement Award, and the hotel industry is fortunate to call him one of our own,” said Jim Burba, co-founder of Burba Hotel Network and ALIS Chair.
Looking back at his life’s work at Hyatt, Pritzker counts taking the brand public, after having been private for many years, as a major achievement.
“This was a herculean, multi-year task. It involved merging what we called Hyatt Domestic with Hyatt International. These were two distinctly different companies. The effort involved building an independent board of directors whose tone and culture supported the tone and culture of Hyatt. It involved bringing Mark [Hoplamazian] in as our CEO,” said Pritzker. “Beyond those governance issues, it involved broadening our platform to include franchising and select-service. We did this through the acquisition of AmeriSuites and Summerfield Suites. After our IPO [in 2009], it involved driving growth and evolving a number of our activities to fit the needs of a well-performing public company. Most importantly, we did all of that without losing our purpose, our culture and our values. For me, that purpose, culture and values are reflected in our guest and colleague experience, and that is core to our success.”
Over the years, the hospitality industry has evolved and continues to do so to match the ever-changing needs and desires of travelers. According to Pritzker, the way forward is to keep the guest and colleague experience at the core.
“Hyatt has always been a company that’s had an ability to listen intently and, today, it’s never been more important to keep those qualities close. Our understanding of wellness is an example of how we are addressing the changing needs of the high-end travelers that we serve,” he said.
In 2017, Hyatt accelerated its growth into what the brand’s CEO describes as “adjacent spaces” with the acquisition of Miraval Group, a provider of wellness and mindfulness experiences, and boutique and fitness spa brand Exhale Spa.
The enduring sentiment, “to whom much is given, much is expected” is not lost on Pritzker. He sees philanthropy as another opportunity to make a difference outside the boardroom.
“I get my greatest satisfaction from philanthropic endeavors where [my wife] Margot and I are able to add value beyond the check that we may write,” Pritzker said. “About 20 years ago, we created the Pritzker Neuropsychiatric Disorders Research Consortium. It is basically an effort that engages researchers across five different universities. Our purpose is to better understand the biology of depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. We assembled a diverse group of scientific skill sets and forged them into a team around a single purpose. We then provided them with long-term capital that wasn’t otherwise available. All of that has enabled them to work as a virtual team across several scientific disciplines. This has led to some remarkable learning.”
Another philanthropic project of importance to him is the Pritzker Architecture Prize, which was established by his family through the Hyatt Foundation in 1979. The annual award honors significant achievement in the world of architecture and, according to the organization, is referred to as “architecture’s Nobel.”
“I could take you through the Pritzker Architecture Prize and you would see a similar level of engagement. There, the challenge was to create a brand with currency. Creating that brand is how we were able to create value beyond the size of the check that we wrote,” he said. “I would say that caring for people is common to my business and philanthropic life. Hyatt has rallied around a purpose—we care for people so they can be their best—and that’s exactly how I think about philanthropy. It’s an opportunity to help others be their best.”
Albert Einstein once said, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” For Pritzker, there is a similarity of thought. He describes himself as a curious person with diverse interests, explaining that the only way he knows how to pursue an interest is to be deeply engaged in it.
What propels him as an individual? “Passion is probably the right word,” he said. “Perhaps, it could be said to be curiosity that triggers passion. The other drivers are a strong desire to make a difference in the world. Some might say the last part is a drop of paranoia that leads to an overdeveloped sense of urgency.”
In terms of what drives his business style, he shared a lesson he learned in his late teens:
“I was sitting in my Dad’s office with Dad and Pete DiTullio, who ran Hyatt International. They had different views about an issue.
Pete said, ‘Well, I run this company so we are going to do it my way.’
Dad said, ‘Well, I own the company so we should do it my way.’
Pete looked at him, laughed and said, ‘OK, then it’s settled, we will do it my way and not yours.’
Dad said, ‘Done.’ And, everyone laughed.
Pete left, and Dad saw the puzzlement on my face. He said, ‘Look, Pete spends 24/7 on Hyatt, and as CEO, the buck stops with him, not us. If we follow that philosophy, Pete emotionally owns the company, and that is far more important than the issue we were discussing.’
“That story made a huge impact on the way I engage with Mark as well as the CEOs of our other businesses. This makes for a more fun and fulfilling life for them and that is a bigger deal than almost any single issue I can think of. Finally, at the end of the day, they are the managers of these companies.” HB