Ascending to the CEO rank of a public company is a capstone feat; one that comes with honor, respect and a whole heaping of responsibility. It’s surprising then, that many CEOs don’t always count the gig as their favorite job ever. Reed Hastings, co-founder and CEO of Netflix, sold vacuums door to door and reportedly loved the job so much that he deferred enrollment at college for a year. Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, took his love of the New York Yankees so seriously that he sold concessions at Yankee Stadium as a boy.
Greg Mount is the CEO of Red Lion Hotels Corporation. He has launched new brands, acquired others and steered large-scale M&A. Remarkable achievements to be sure, but if you ask him about his childhood growing up outside Pasadena, Calif., he’ll tell you that working at Disneyland remains his fondest job. The position: driving the double-decker bus on Main Street. “To this day, it was my most favorite job I’ve ever had,” said Mount, who was named CEO of Red Lion in January 2014.
Mount’s Disney days were his first taste of hospitality, a place where he said he learned many things, none more meaningful than how to take care of customers. “It was very impactful to understand how to translate it into business,” he said.
A SoCal native, Mount’s next move could be construed as peculiar. He traded in the sun and his surfboard for snow and a pair of skis, moving across the country to Vermont to continue his studies in Bennington. There, he worked at a Ramada, cutting his teeth in food and beverage and entertainment—“Those were the days when we had nightclubs in the hotels,” he said.
Mount worked eight years for Marriott in various operational positions before moving to Interstate Hotels & Resorts in 1990, when the now-largest third-party management company was a fraction of its size. It was during his time with Interstate that he ascended to what at the time he believed to be the pinnacle of hospitality success: the general manager role. “In those days, becoming a GM was the holy grail,” he said. “I thought if I could make it as a GM, I’d made it. I’m done.”
But the ambitious Mount wasn’t done. He would stay with Interstate for eight years, as the senior development of development on the West Coast. In 16 years with Marriott and Interstate, Mount had been schooled in operations and development, two indispensable disciplines toward climbing the rungs of the hospitality industry ladder. “That’s ultimately the business we’re in. Being able to marry the two,” he said.
Rising to the Top
After operations and development stints with Starwood and Sage Hospitality, he became president of management company Richfield Hospitality. Four years at the helm there led him to Spokane, Wash.-based Red Lion Hotels, which at the time was a rather provincial hotel group, with 55 hotels, mainly on the West Coast.
Mount’s charge was to grow the company’s footprint. Ten months into the job, he and Red Lion unveiled a new, upscale lifestyle brand Hotel RL. By Q2 2015, they acquired the GuestHouse International and Settle Inn brands and his pinnacle success to now, acquiring the Vantage Hospitality Group last year and its nine brands and approximately 1,000 hotel franchise, membership, and licensing agreements. In two years, Mount has helped grow Red Lion’s footprint some 1,900 percent.
It’s an accretive move, and one that also, according to Mount, assures unrestricted cash flow—something Wall Street, he believes, should take better notice of. “The investment community, to a degree, hasn’t picked up on that Vantage-brand hotels are all flat fees,” Mount said. “In the economy segment, having flat fees is a real advantage because regardless of what happens in the economy, we’re still collecting the same fees. We still have an obligation to make sure that we’re improving and growing revenues for our franchisees, but our own income is not going to be hindered by the economic cycle.”
Americas Best Value Inn, a brand that made up the bulk of Vantage’s portfolio with some 900-plus properties, presents an implementation predicament. While the Red Lion brand skews upper midscale and RL upscale, ABVI is an economy brand. It’s a scenario Red Lion has managed before. “It’s something we are going to have to be mindful of as we go forward—kind of like with GuestHouse,” Mount said.
Long before Red Lion acquired Vantage, the company took an antithetical approach to the accepted norms of hospitality; it was scrappy, unorthodox, heretical. In an era when hotels often portray online travel agencies as the foe wearing the black hat, Red Lion decided to get into bed further with the proverbial enemy by enhancing its partnership with Expedia to offer its Hello Rewards’ members-only rates on Expedia.com and Hotels.com.
Contrarian moves like that gave the then-smaller Red Lion its rebel burnish, but will it continue now that it’s so much bigger? Or will it be forced to act more like a Marriott or Hilton? “If we start to act like them, then we’re going to fail,” Mount said. “We’re trying to say, ‘Okay, if the marketplace is changing, and the battles are going to be won digitally, what do we have to do to win those battles going forward? How can we position ourselves to deliver demand through our systems?’”
Under Mount’s leadership, the future continues to look bright for Red Lion—a once small, localized hotel company turned global 14-brand player with more than 1,100 locations. But as much as it changes, the more it’ll cling to its roots. “We’ll always bring a little bit of that Pacific Northwest ethos to what we do,” Mount said.