IHG's new CEO groomed for the top job

Keith Barr, CEO of InterContinental Hotels Group, assumed the position last summer, after Richard Solomons' six years at the helm. Photo credit: IHG (IHG CEO Keith Barr)

There is something rather dejecting about a Bostonian who has lost his accent; the non-rhotic diction a captivating curiosity to many a non-New Englander. Keith Barr, who became CEO of InterContinental Hotels Group last July, falls into this category: a Boston native, Barr once dropped his Rs with the best of them.  

No more; not after a career filled with stops far and wide, from San Diego to Sydney to Shanghai. Barr’s accent now is a self-described mélange: one part European with some Australian mixed in for good measure. His elocution should suit him well in IHG’s Denham, UK, headquarters, where he presides over the company’s 5,300 hotels and 13 brands.

Barr’s career in hospitality stretches more than 25 years, 17 of which have been with IHG, where he has worn a range of hats, from CEO of IHG’s Greater China business to chief commercial officer, and, as noted, lived throughout the world. His role now might provide the permanency that has eluded him and his wife. “We’ve moved so many times, we realized at one point, when we were into our fourth year in China, it was the longest place we had lived in our adult life since we left university,” Barr said.

The peripatetic lifestyle has rewarded him; in a sense, Barr has been groomed for the top job. Before joining IHG, Barr held senior positions with U.S. management company Bristol Hotels and Resorts, which, in a serendipitous stroke, was acquired by IHG in 2000. In 2004, Barr left the U.S. and moved to Australia, coaxed, in part, by IHG’s CEO at the time. “I made that move because he was really focused on my professional development and told me, ‘If you ever really want to be a leader in this company, you have to work internationally; you need to understand the breadth and the scope of this business,’” Barr said. That advice had a cascading effect on Barr, who subsequently moved to positions throughout the South Pacific and Asia, and into Greater China.

The Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa in the Cayman Islands opened in November 2016.

Now CEO, Barr admits it can be lonely at the top. “I had really been in the thick of it,” Barr said, referring to his previous positions. “You step into the chief executive role and recognize you’re one step removed from what’s happening a bit more.”

To deal with that disconnect, Barr turned to his predecessor, Richard Solomons. “He and I have worked so closely together that it was a bit of a passing of the baton,” he said. Solomons’ advice: Pick and choose your spots. “Many decisions will benefit from some level of your involvement, but you have to figure out which ones to get involved in; there are certain things that only you as the CEO can do—make sure you recognize those,” Barr paraphrased Solomons.

While more than 5,000 hotels open globally is nothing to sneeze at, Barr recognizes that the company needs to grow faster than it is, as generating fees and building scale have never been more important. Around 75 percent of IHG’s business is in the Americas and China: “How do I make sure that we win Australia? How do I make sure that we win in southern Asia, in the Middle East, in Europe? It’s really been very focused on that,” Barr said.

He has instituted structural changes to achieve his goal, including hiring a new CMO and combining the commercial and technology organizations, which previously operated separately. The company also launched a new midscale brand in Avid Hotels and, after a slow start, is expanding the international footprint of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, with signings in Bali, Paris and Shanghai and “working on London, right now,” Barr said. In a monumental move, and a process that began six years ago, IHG this year will officially sunset Holidex, its decades-old central-reservations system, replacing it with a new cloud-based system that, as Barr put it, removes barriers and frustration. 

IHG was the first U.S. hotel group to break into China, in 1984, with the Holiday Inn Lido Beijing. 

Its core flagship brands, Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express, continue their ramp-up in China, where IHG currently has more than 300 hotels. In late 2017, IHG extended its franchise model in China for Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza. “The model’s working for us, like I had projected it would 10 years ago. It would be a bit embarrassing if it didn’t,” Barr said.

Executing and growing, Barr said, is one way to stave off a trend that is becoming all too common in the hotel industry: mergers and acquisitions. IHG has been the subject of speculation, and while CEOs rarely comment on rumor, Barr is not deaf to it. 

“Any public company is for sale at the right price,” he said. “That’s just a reality. The best way to make sure that you don’t get bought is to keep performing better. The better we do our job, the more security that we’re going to stay independent. Our multiple is at an all-time high.”