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François Delahaye, Chief Operating Officer, Dorchester Collection – President, Hôtel Plaza Athénée, Paris

François Delahaye can enchant you with the extraordinary trajectory of his exceptional career and still make it seem somehow less than satisfactory. To him.

François Delahaye

The purpose of my interview was to inquire about the role of motivation, which I often find eludes my students and coaching clients, in a career that deserves the limelight it’s enjoyed for many years, at least among hoteliers.

Is a “successful” and thus supposedly satisfying career like Delahaye’s born whole from a moment’s inspiration? Does it require Cartesian planning? Does it emerge from a series of opportunities – identified and seized as such – on the yellow brick road of life?

While all those models may be valid, it’s still energizing to explore a model that is as brilliant and passionate as that of François Delahaye’s with the intent of passing some advice on to those waiting in the wings.

What are the “motors” in your career – the people and events that inspired you to become who you are today?

François Delahaye explains to me that he was one of four children born into a well to do family in Lille, in the North of France, where his father was a dentist. Without wasting a moment, he cuts to the chase by explaining that his parents put him through considerable psychometric testing (and, I read between the lines, emotional anguish) in search of an explanation for the young François’ dissatisfactory scholastic performance.

“My parents wanted to see if I was normal, ” he says, with a straight face.

Without missing a beat, he identifies the motivational factors in his life as being a “series of accidents”, the first of which was the unfortunate loss of his father when François was only thirteen years old.

Feeling totally alone without his father, he quickly realized that he would have to be the sole architect of his success.

The traditional path of achievement through scholastic success seemed out of reach to him. He can still hear the cutting edges of his mother’s voice intoning disfavor: “You’re stupid! You just don’t get it! You’re not concentrating!”

Convinced that her son was doing it on purpose, because no one who knows him could doubt François Delahaye’s native intelligence, she punished him for his poor grades by forcing him to do two months of training in a kitchen, to teach him how to make an effort.

And that was the young François’ second motor. As he says so charmingly, he was pleasantly surprised when his deviled eggs were successful and even happier when he got paid for making them! To this day, he swears he learned more in those two months of kitchen training than in a year at school.

Afterward, he completed his scholastic obligations at the EPA Saint Cergues boarding school in Switzerland. That new, supportive environment allowed him to complete his studies, preparing him for his first job, in England, as head waiter at the Chester Grosvenor Hotel, Cheshire.

There, another “accident” occurred – a happy one this time that worked in his favor. When the hotel’s prestigious owner, the Duke of Westminster, chairman of the Grosvenor Group, asked the hotel to identify an employee to replace the Duke’s butler for six months, Delahaye was their choice. (He smiles at the irony that later the duke would become his client at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée, Paris.)

Fortuitous “accidents” seem to follow Delahaye throughout his life.

The next inspirational motor – not necessarily chronological – was Delahaye’s long-lasting friendship with one of his classmates whose father was a successful and wealthy businessman in the textile industry. François and his friend were often guests of his friend’s father, accompanying him in his private plane on business trips and enjoying nearly free run of the family chauffeur.

“Above all,” recalls Delahaye, “my friend’s father actually talked to me, and I learned a lot from him!”

Delahaye credits this felicitous father figure with instilling in him a taste for a life of privilege and ease, thus inspiring him to pursue a trade where he would be
surrounded by wealthy people.

Later, he would join the Savoy Group in London in their management program, which brought him back to France, to the Hôtel Lancaster Paris, where he ran the gamut of departments, from concierge desk to the restaurant, until he had to leave to complete his compulsory French military service for a year.

That was followed by nine years in a variety of jobs with increasing responsibilities at the Sofitel, from Paris to Marrakech, Bamako, Timbuktu and Mopti. He then joined the Warwick Paris until he was named managing director of the Warwick Hong Kong. He would also spend two years at the Warwick New York before returning to Paris as the managing director of the Warwick Paris.

Finally, it was as managing director of the Parc Hôtel Paris that he had a chance to implement one of his major creative ideas – one that would follow his career through to today. Instructed to reguild the hotel’s flagging restaurant, he initiated a first – a unique partnership with the famous chef Joël Robuchon, which proved immensely successful and lasted until the latter’s retirement.

In 1995, he anchored the principle of associating a premier hotel with a prestigious chef by signing Alain Ducasse to continue the partnership – an association that followed Delahaye to the Plaza Athénée in 1999 when he became its managing director.

Originally, the Plaza Athénée belonged to the brother of the Sultan of Brunei, who was in turn owner of the prestigious Dorchester Hotel in London as well as the Meurice in Paris and the Beverly Hills Hotel in California. All properties were eventually merged into one group in 2002 under the name Dorchester Collection, and Delahaye was named its Chief Operating Officer (COO) in 2004. Under his egis, in 2005, the group purchased the Principe de Savoia in Milan. Then, in 2011, they reopened the former Helmsley Palace in New York, which they later sold (and has been known since 2015 as the Lotte New York Palace). In 2013, the Dorchester Collection purchased the Eden in Rome, resulting in a bouquet of properties that reflect Delahaye’s impeccable taste.

Today, Delahaye counts his success by the number of people under his responsibility at the Dorchester Collection – a progression that went from two-hundred-and-eight employees in 2004 to more than six hundred in 2018.

He considers that he has had a good career, although it would seem that total satisfaction regularly escapes him.

He hesitates for a minute and then adds, with a little smile of explanation, “Well, you understand, I am not the owner of the hotel.”

What advice would you give to young people entering the hospitality field?

Delahaye thinks that young people these days have more opportunities that in the past. He explains that the work environment in general has improved, that it’s easier to succeed now than when he was young and starting out. He worries that there are growing gaps in hospitality schooling, that a tendency to favor academic theory over practical training has introduced needless imbalance into the trade and instilled an attitude of entitlement in young people who are unwilling to invest their energy in their own success.

“Today’s youth hasn’t suffered enough,” he asserts without a trace of irony. “They think they are being exploited if asked to work shifts of 15-hours, but that’s the rule in the hotel business.”

Obviously, the hospitality field is not for the weak of heart or feet.

What do you think about the future of Project Management and Teamwork in the hotel business? (I ask because these are some of my specialties.)

Delahaye answers without hesitation that he thinks project management in the hotel industry is doomed to failure.

“Everyone wants to have his or her own say in project management,” he laments.

“In reality, they just criticize and destroy. On top of which, it’s well known that hoteliers don’t want to take any risk – risk that would seem to be inherent in the so-called “democratic” practices required in modern project management. And teamwork sensitivities can sometimes slow down the process. Investors have too much at stake to risk poor or low yield. And that holds true for the Sultan of Brunei.”

Top-Down Management appears to be the rule.

Do you have any other advice you would like to offer those starting off their careers in the hospitality sector?

Delahaye says he has two big recommendations: First, don’t get married too young, and, second, don’t bother going into the hotel business unless you have a passionate desire to render service.

“You have to like working while others are playing,” he clarifies.

On a buoyant note, he adds that he thinks women are essential for the hotel business because they have a “better esthetic sense” than men do.

“Moreover, even at the relatively early age of twenty-five, both men and women can attain jobs of responsibility – true management jobs – but the down side is that means they probably won’t have the time for marriage until after thirty.”

A slight veil of melancholy crosses his face, which spurs me to risk a more personal question about his own marriage. He smiles and reassures me that his marriage has survived the rigors of long work hours and interminable weeks because his wife has also had the benefit of a career she is passionate about. Nevertheless, he regrets not having been able to spend more time with his children.

In some ways, his employees have become his children. At the Plaza Athénée, his is a family of forty-three nationalities and eighty different trades.

When I ask about Millennials, he shrugs his shoulders: “Well, we just have to live with them, so we need to make the effort to adapt.”

He maintains that the Millennials are, in effect, more impatient than even the Xers and Yers, and that they expect a “good salary” immediately. He feels that these expectations have been inculcated into them by parents who have scarified to give them a “good education” from “good schools”.

For a fraction of a second, a shadow of discontent crosses Delahaye’s sunny countenance.

“I think they are all taught by former hotel professionals who left hotel work for the cushier job of teaching, with regular schedules and days off. In the old days, you used to have to please the employer. Nowadays, it’s the opposite. Potential employees all want to extract promises from the employers.”

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