Bob Warman's road to Langham: luxury, longevity and a love of hotels

Bob Warman

Just two years ago, Robert Warman left Capella Hotel Group to join Langham Hospitality Group as CEO. Since his appointment in March 2014, Langham has launched Langham's lifestyle Cordis brand, signed deals to enter the Middle East and announced broad expansion plans for Asia. Several properties announced under his watch are slated to open in 2018.  

Warman’s connection to the hotel industry goes back to his childhood. His father was the architect on the addition of the Continental Plaza Hotel in Chicago. “My first job when I graduated high school, before I left to go to college, was to work at the front desk,” he said. While he planned to become a banker and studied economics at the city’s DePaul University, he worked part time at the then-2,000-room Hyatt Regency for three years, taking night classes so that he could work during the day. “When I graduated, they offered to make me a full office manager,” he said.

And in spite of his economic studies, he opted for hospitality because bank trainees made less than office managers at hotels. Several of Warman’s Hyatt coworkers joined Ritz-Carlton, and at 24 years old, the hospitality veteran was invited to join the growing brand—but only after learning that industry heavyweights like Horst Schulze and Ed Staros would be part of the project. “I said, ‘I guess if it's good enough for them, I'm in.’ So I joined.” He became the 10th (he estimates) member of the Ritz-Carlton team, and was there from the first hotel in Buckhead, Atlanta, through the brand's expansion to 50 properties around the world.

But even at 24 years old, Warman was thinking ahead, and he still remembers Schulze’s suggestion to consider long-term growth: “Can this company get you where you want to get to in five years? If they can get you there, then why go around and look?” And so he stayed with Ritz-Carlton for 18 years, but would take stock of his career path every five. “They were getting me to where I wanted to go, from being an executive committee member, being a general manager, working in the corporate office, having a senior executive office job, spending time in development and in investments and so forth, and then ultimately heading up operations for the company.” 

And while there is something to be said for longevity in a company, Warman appreciates the value of change. “Some people [say], ‘Oh, they left and went somewhere else. What's wrong with the company?’ I kind of look at it the other way. I think that's a natural progression. Besides, I would have never gotten a promotion if nobody ever left.” Higher positions, ofcourse, mean fewer promotions, but even if the every-five-years plan becomes every 10 years, the mindset is still the same. “It's not ‘Is this company any good?’ It's ‘Where do I want to be?’ And if the answer is, ‘I don't know if this company can get me where I personally want to be at that time,’ it's time to move on.”

After nearly two decades with the company, Warman didn’t see his career with Ritz-Carlton going any further and was eager to pursue something new. Together with Schulze, Warman left the company to found Capella Hotels. “It wasn't that Ritz was a bad company. Ritz was a great company. But when I left, it gave somebody else an opportunity to move into these jobs. It was less them and more the opportunity to do something unique and become passionate about,” he said of the decision to leave Ritz-Carlton and form Capella.

And while the company did well, it had a decidedly rocky start. “We formed it in 2001,” he recalled. Four months later, the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks plunged the country into an economic downturn and devastated the travel and hospitality industries. By the time the industry as a whole and Capella as a company emerged from that chaos, the global financial crisis of 2008 derailed development again. “So we had some rough years,” Warman said, “but I think we did some great things. We created something unique.” 

But as before, Warman took stock of his career path every five years, and after 12 years at Capella, he began to seek something new. “I looked at where I was in life and had an opportunity to leave Capella and divest my ownership, which made sense for myself and made sense for the company,” he said. “I got a phone call one day from a gentleman who said, ‘Would you like to meet our chairman, Dr. Lo?’”

At the time, he was not familiar with Langham, apart from its purchase of its namesake New York hotel. When Lo Ka Shui, executive chairman of Langham Hospitality Group, visited the city, the two men met in a park for what Warman thought would be a friendly chat over coffee. “It turned into a two-hour discussion about the hotel business, about brands, his brand, my brand, my perception, his perceptions,” Warman recalled, noting that the two businessmen disagreed on quite a few points. “But it was a very positive conversation, and from there, we had a number of other Skype calls. He's an incredibly intelligent man, but a very courteous person.” In spite of the time differences between Langham’s Hong Kong main offices and Warman in New York City, Warman was never expected to take 10 p.m. calls with Lo. Instead, the two found time to talk on Warman’s schedule. “And that says a lot about somebody like that. Very courteous,” he said. 

After numerous conversations, Warman was invited to join the Langham team. “And I've got to be honest, I was hoping that would happen because I became consumed with the dream again. And I think that's important throughout life.” When he and Schulze left Ritz-Carlton to start Capella, the project evolved from their own thoughts about what would make hotels great. Joining Langham, he would have that chance to build a brand again. “You become obsessed with it and you start thinking about all these pieces and how to put it together,” Warman said. “And I think probably the biggest compelling reason to join Langham was that Langham wasn't broken. I didn’t know if I wanted to come and try and do a turnaround. Langham was a great company. I felt Langham could benefit from some expansion in some different areas. I thought there was a little confusion on how it was projected and positioned,” he acknowledged, and cited the brand’s new website and marketing initiative. “We have an incredibly talented human resources department that took all these concepts and drove in some very defined training for our colleagues, so that we could communicate it and replicate it more effectively going forward.”

Langham, he continued, provided “a neat mix” with its English origins and Chinese home base. “It turned out to be a good mix to be able to say ‘OK, how do we take this company that started basically from nothing and grew to these 15 or 16 hotels, and now how do we put it into a company? How do we define our brand and then how do we communicate that and then grow?’ It was a good company that wanted to grow—and I got consumed with that desire to grow.” 

After building three brands, Warman has come to understand some universalities about the hotel industry. Chief among these, he said, is to support the staff and make sure they can provide guests with the best possible experience, and to promote the team as a whole. “We have to understand that our job is to create an environment so that each one of those individuals wants to accomplish the same dream. And I think, morally, you have an obligation to give that to them—and businesswise, it only makes sense that if we all came to work for the same dream, look at how much closer we would get.” 

Working toward the same goal makes everyone’s job equally important, Warman said. “We all know our individual piece, and at the end, we're all rewarded. It gets into, why do people leave the hotel business? Very few people leave the hotel business to make more money. People leave the hotel because they haven't found a place to belong yet. Because, unless you're going to change your life, why leave? It comes back to the five years. If they can get me to where I want to get to, why would I leave? The only reason I would leave is I didn't feel like I belonged.”