IHG CEO shares how his early days helped forge his career

Last month in Los Angeles, Hotel Management sat down with IHG CEO Richard Solomons for an intimate one-on-one interview. There, we got a glimpse into his formative years, which helped forge a career that now has him at the pinnacle of his profession for one of the largest global hotel companies. Below is an abridged read of the story; make sure and check out the February issue of Hotel Management for the story in its entirety.

Richard Solomons, the CEO of InterContinental Hotels Group, is acting fidgety. Across the table, he’s tearing up scrap paper, then methodically breaking them down into smaller and smaller squares. At first, the worry is that the seasoned—cagey, perhaps?—executive is performing this antsy act to in some way obfuscate the audio recorder that is documenting his every word.

But hijacking an interview is the furthest ploy from Solomons’ mind. He’s done countless interviews in the past months; just arrived in Los Angeles fresh from a visit to Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum; acquired a new brand business; and accomplished this while plagued by speculative media reports about shareholders calling for the sale of the Denham, UK-based hotel company, spanning 10 brands and more than 700,000 rooms globally.

Formative Years
Solomons grew up in England, where his father owned a motor trade business. “I didn’t get an allowance,” Solomons said, reminiscing about a time when businesses collected cash and deposited it daily to the bank. “Saturdays and holidays were spent pumping gas.”

His father always focused on the customer. On one occasion, a honeymooning couple rented a car from his father’s stable and unwittingly parked it on the beach just before the tide came in. When it did, the car became waterlogged. “We went out, got another car and drove it to them,” Solomons remembers. “At the time, you don’t think about it. It wasn’t a company policy; just him.”

Brand Relevance
For Solomons, each of IHG’s brands is a hub and everything else plays off that, from technology to sales and marketing. Solomons is certainly a CEO of the macro-manager ilk, building up IHG with strong leaders to carry out functions that make the organization strong. “To run a business, you don’t need to know how to do everything,” he said. “You have to have a fundamental understanding of what the business is about. You have to know what you stand for and lead it, but get great people around you.”

Stateside, IHG’s recent acquisition of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants Group for $430 million gives them the foothold they need to grow even further in the coveted lifestyle space. Kimpton currently has 62 hotels in 28 U.S. cities, and plans are to expand the brand into global markets. The Kimpton acquisition complements IHG’s other lifestyle brand, Indigo, around 60 hotels strong. “We bought this business for what it stands for and we are not going to change it,” Solomons said. “We will adapt it and make it better. That’s very important for guests to know.”

Solomons also doesn’t count out launching a soft brand in the same vein as Marriott’s Autograph Collection or Hilton’s recent debut of Curio. But he admits some concern. “We’ve looked at it,” he said. “It’s interesting, though: What are you saying to the customer? If a brand is too soft and unclear, it will upset customers. You must be careful about how to define it. If it is just a device for growth, in the long term it will be damaging.”

Still, Solomons is perfectly fine with where IHG’s business is at the moment, citing its breadth and depth relative to the competition. “We are in 100 markets and we are where the revenue is: not in super luxury, not in economy, and the other big guys don’t have that,” he said. “Our rewards scheme is the biggest in the world. We are unique and it gives us resilience.”

Like a father beaming over a child’s accomplishment, Solomons noted that post-Lehman, IHG was the only large hotel company to not cut its dividend. “We kept ours,” he proudly said.