When people think of a chief financial officer, many imagine a mathematical wizard tied to a desk, poring over numbers all day to create earnings reports and optimize financial performance. Maybe not the most exciting job in the spectrum of hotel positions. But Michele Allen, longtime Cendant/Wyndham employee and the new CFO for Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, turns the position on its head, putting people first and “spreading her wings” to encompass a variety of skills.
Allen, who grew up in New Jersey with her parents, twin sister and younger brother, was the first in her family to go to college and the first to work in a corporate environment.
“I started actually working quite young as my dad owned a few businesses,” she said. “I learned to make pizzas when I was about 11 years old, I was scooping water ice at about eight or nine. We were just kind of always involved in the family business. It was a small town in Southern New Jersey and very much a small close-knit community with a big Italian family.”
That blue-collar background taught her many of the values that she holds today.
“It was a strong work ethic and commitment to excellence,” she said. “That was just part of my upbringing and something that is very much a part of who I am today.”
Allen always had a knack for numbers and math was her strongest subject, which led naturally to finance.
“From a pretty early age I knew; it was in the back of my mind,” she said. “I didn’t even know what it was, really, but I always had to be the cashier when my sister and I were playing grocery store and I had to be the banker when my family was playing Monopoly. I took an accounting course in high school as an elective and from there, I just knew finance was the career path for me.”
She paired her finance degree with a double major in computer science and coding, graduating from Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pa. Next up: an audit position at Deloitte.
“It was a very value-driven organization that seemed to fit with my value set, and it’ll always have a special place in my heart,” she said. “It’s a very people-oriented culture, very much about partnership with clients, not just about getting the work done. They were very focused on women and how to retain them in the workforce and that’s very much a part of who they are today.”
Allen said the position allowed her to learn a great deal about different industries and their unique personalities, which helped her when it was time to move on to the next opportunity after three years with Deloitte.
“I got a couple of phone calls [from recruiters] and I thought to myself, ‘Maybe now’s the right time to start thinking about doing something different. I only know this kind of public accounting side,’” she said. “I started listening and going out on a couple of different interviews, not knowing where it would lead me, but when I came to Cendant, I just fell in love with them, with the people. The environment was so dynamic and it really felt like it was one where my ambitions would be nurtured by the people that I was working with and by the culture itself.”
Cendant opened up a world of opportunities, according to Allen.
“What I found particularly appealing was the ability to get involved in a lot of [mergers and acquisitions] and I did a ton of that,” she said. “Henry Silverman, our chairman at the time, was on a nonstop shopping spree and everything was up for sale all the time. I got to see and do things in my years there people wouldn’t see in their entire career.”
In 2005, Cendant split into four businesses and Allen became the controller for the hotel business, which then was spun off in 2006 and became Wyndham Worldwide. In 2018, Wyndham Worldwide spun off its hotel business, creating Wyndham Hotels & Resorts. Allen was promoted to CFO in December 2019.
Through all these changes, Allen has continued with her focus on people beyond the numbers.
“Wyndham is a very human company; we’re always putting our owners at the center of everything that we do,” she said. “We’re very mindful of our team members whether it’s work-from-home schedules or flexible hours or other personal demands on their time. I think the level of the dynamic environment, the people, my passion for travel, our owners and really feeling like we were making a difference in their life, those are top of mind [why I’ve stayed with the company].”
People skills she’s honed over two decades in the industry are what make her successful at her job.
“What’s unique about me specifically in the CFO role is my in-depth knowledge of the ins and outs of our operations and how well I relate to our franchisees and what makes their businesses tick,” she said. “Having been part of this company for over 20 years now I’m able to bring not just my finance background to the table, but also what I call an owner-first perspective as well, where we put our owners at the center of everything we do, and we’re almost a little compulsive about it.”
Allen bases her leadership style on open doors and consensus, as well as advocating for what she feels is right.
“What we all want to do is the right thing: the right thing for our team members, the right thing for our business and the right thing for our franchisees,” she said. “I try to bring with me into every interaction a ‘how can I help’ mindset. If you bring this kind of mindset, it puts you in the right frame of mind to have a really constructive conversation where everyone feels respected.”