Becoming a general manager at 30 can be intimidating, but taking over the reins of a new luxury hotel on one of the country’s ritziest streets was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that Juan Leyva, GM of the LondonHouse Chicago, could not pass up.
Leyva, now 33, started out hoping to be a musician, playing trumpet in a 16-piece Mexican band, but he knew this was not sustainable for a long-term career. His girlfriend’s mother (now his mother-in-law) worked at a nearby Embassy Suites in the suburbs and suggested Leyva join the team once he graduated from high school. “I talked to the front-desk manager and he really didn't have anything [except] a parking attendant position available, 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. three days a week.”
Leyva took the job and quickly advanced to the front desk when he was asked to cover for coworkers on vacation. “I started learning a lot and speaking to new people every day,” he recalled. “It just really intrigued me.”
Within nine years, Leyva was the director of operations for two hotels by Chicago’s O’Hare airport, but the management company he was with had started to shrink. Looking for a change, he considered Destination Hotels. “At the time, they were looking for a director of operations or director of rooms for the [Embassy Suites] in Deerfield, Ill., and I decided to take that role,” he recalled. In hindsight, he thinks it was the best decision he could have made. “A lot of people told me that it might have not been a wise move because I was going from an O'Hare property to a suburban property [with] 200 rooms, a very small property. But the reason I did it was for the management company.” Spending 18 months with Destination Hotels & Resorts, including a week at the company’s leadership academy, prepared him for the next step in his career.
Looking to get back to the city, Leyva saw that an upcoming hotel along Chicago’s Magnificent Mile—an adaptive reuse of the historic London Guarantee and Accident building—was looking for an opening director of operations. At 452 guestrooms, the Chicago LondonHouse would be a larger hotel than he had ever worked at, but the chance to open a brand new luxury property in one of the city’s toniest neighborhoods was enticing—especially when, as part of Hilton’s Curio collection, it would let him remain part of a company he knew. “I applied, I interviewed and it worked out well,” he said. He got the job as the opening director of operations in late 2015, working as the construction team liaison and overseeing procurement and management hiring as the property neared its opening date.
Once the hotel opened in 2016, he oversaw human resources, revenue management, payroll administration and conducted food-and-beverage training. The shift from traditional brand standards to the more relaxed model of a soft brand was a bit unnerving at first, he acknowledged, but he was more focused on building the right team to open the hotel. “We had a critical path every week, things I need to get done by this date or else we're not going to open on time,” he said. “I took a lot of the training materials that I had from Destination—whether it was at the leadership academy or just through my previous experience—and I developed a PowerPoint presentation that was three hours long. Every employee had to go through this onboarding. We talked about our pillars, our culture, our mission statement and our vision and our goals for the hotel.”
With the team in place, the management team prepared to open, but found last-minute details that kept them running around the property until nearly dawn. “We got up at 7 a.m. to do the walkthrough with the [quality assurance] inspector and she gave us the green light that it was OK to open that day,” he recalled. “I always tell everyone, if you're opening a hotel, get as much done as early as possible because we shouldn't have to be screwing in light bulbs the night before.”
He stayed in the role until April 2017 when he was promoted to general manager at 30, a position he had hoped for since he started in the industry, and for which he had trained at all of his other positions. He credits Chicago-based development company Oxford Capital Group’s confidence in him for the opportunity. “They could have easily said, ‘No, you're too young. You don't have the experience at a major asset.’” For his first three months on the job, Leyva recalled, the hotel’s SVP of operations attended every meeting alongside him. When Leyva complained, the SVP noted that he needed to build trust from a number of people. “We have investors, we have partners, we have Hilton. There are so many people that don't know how you operate, so we have to build that confidence first.”
As the hotel continued to operate smoothly, the confidence grew, and Leyva was left to run his hotel his way. “When you get to this level, the thing you’re managing most is personalities,” he said. “Every single person, including yourself, deals with something differently. Yes, financials are important. Yes, service is important. But if you're not a people person, you're not going to be successful because this is a people industry and this is a people business.”
As he rose up through the ranks in Chicago’s hotel sector, Leyva had one other goal in mind. He had dropped out of college to gain job experience and approaching his 30s, he still didn’t have his bachelor’s degree. “Every GM position that I saw a posting for, they all said, ‘four-year degree and or equivalent experience’” he recalled. Being so young, it was very difficult to get the experience that would equal a degree. Thanks to his wife’s job at DeVry University, he was able to take reduced-price classes, and decided to complete his formal education in business administration. “I wanted to do it for my sons,” he said. “I have two young boys and I don't want them to get to a certain age and then say, ‘Well, Dad did [OK] and he didn't have a degree.’ I don't think college is for everyone, but I do think everyone should give it a try.”
Juan Leyva's Advice
Be patient, because so many things are out of your control, especially promotions, demotions and things like that. [And] trust the process. If you're good at what you do and you work your butt off, it's going to come, but if you don't have the patience, then you're going to jump around and jump around until you burn yourself out.
Challenge: “Stepping into a leadership role at a young age was one of the biggest challenges I have faced. Having to prove yourself not only to the team you are leading but also to management and people outside of your organization can seem intimidating.
Success: “I've encountered two camps upon stepping into a high-profile leadership role at my age. Those who see it as progressive and bridging the gap between millennials and the later generations, and those who doubt my capabilities or anticipate challenges due to lack of experience. My mindset is the same for working with both: With hard work and patience, the proof will be in the results.”
Juan Leyva's Secrets to Success
Be kind: A lot of people feel that once they’re a boss or once they’re a leader or manager, they feel like they have to be mean or they have to exert their authority. And I don't believe that. If they see that you're a kind person that genuinely cares about them, they're going to work harder for you, which makes you look good.
Develop your replacement: Do not make yourself irreplaceable. Make the people around you better. [I’m] only be as successful as the team around me and the people that I developed around me.
Stay in it for the long haul: It's a 24/7/365 job, and if you don't take the time to either build equity with a company or learn from mentors or find mentors because you get frustrated because you worked a 16, 17-hour shift, you're going to very easily burn yourself out. It's not a sprint. It's definitely a marathon.
Owner: Union Real Estate Investment | Operator: Oxford Hotels & Resorts | Rooms: 452 | Opening year: 2016