L-R: Matthew Faull, Edward Faull, Gavin Faull and Oliver Faull

When Gavin Faull purchased Swiss-Belhotel International in 1999 with his Hong Kong business partner, the group had just three hotels.

But from humble beginnings, he turned his vision of a branded hotel company into reality. Today Swiss-Belhotel International has close to 135 hotels and operations across 20 countries and over 12,000 staff.

Over the course of those years, the Swiss-Belhotel International Chairman and President has been joined by his three sons – Matthew, Oliver and Edward – as executive directors in the business; but only after they had pursued their own individual career interests.

“They didn’t know that they were joining The Firm; a little bit like another famous family,” Gavin smiled, hinting that their involvement was always on the cards.  

In an exclusive interview with HM – with Gavin, Matthew and Edward gathered around a computer screen in Singapore and Oliver dialling in from New Zealand – the executives shared an insight into life in a global family-run hotel business.

Unique skillsets

Hospitality wasn’t Gavin’s first career venture either.

“I was a boring chartered accountant,” Gavin said.

“Straight out of college, I went to Hong Kong and worked for KPMG.”

It was there that a client connection resulted in him working for “the best hotel company in the world, The Peninsula Group” kickstarting a hospitality career that has spanned 45 years to date.

While his experience in the world of finance was valuable, it was an entrepreneurial drive that was needed to grow the business.

“If I sat there looking at numbers, the deals would have gone past my door,” he said.

In 2009, Oliver became the first son to join the business, moving from London to take control of the Hong Kong office.

Formerly a chartered accountant working in New York, Oliver was working in the group finance function for UK-based telecommunications giant Carphone Warehouse when the opportunity arose.

“We probably all realised that we’d end up in the business at some stage, even though we took our own individual paths,” Oliver said.

“We probably resisted it for as long as possible and then got pulled into the mothership – and once you get onto the Death Star you don’t leave!”

Having worked in hotels during his university years, it was a natural progression to eventually return to the family business and as Senior Vice President, Australia and New Zealand and Assistant Chief Financial Officer, Oliver’s background in finance comes into play on a daily basis.

Matthew had a successful career in e-commerce working in Japan, Russia and the Philippines for about 10 years before lending his skills to the family business.

Alongside his position as SVP of Information Technology, E-Commerce and Distribution at Swiss-Belhotel International, Matthew is now heavily involved in corporate management in Indonesia.

“Within the company I’m doing e-commerce, distribution, marketing and so forth, on top of project development with Edward,” Matthew said.

Edward’s background is in construction, having worked as a civil engineer for about 10 years, first in New Zealand and later in Papua New Guinea and Hong Kong.

“When the pipeline and construction side of Swiss-Belhotel International was gathering pace, we needed a cheap engineer – ‘cheap’ not ‘chief’ – I was pulled across for an opportunity to use my skillset and experience to support the family business,” said Edward, now SVP of Group Technical Services and Projects and SVP of Operations and Development, Vietnam and Thailand.

“I got shipped off to the Middle East for six months in 50-degree heat, came back to Hong Kong, and was sent off to Indonesia to pull the project team together – there was a growing pipeline there that needed a little bit of support and structure.”

The brothers’ unique combination of skills has proved invaluable to the success of the business in recent years.

Life on the road

Growing up in the Faull family, travel and hotels were a part of daily life.

“We had all grown up in hotels,” Oliver explained. We actually lived in a Hyatt hotel for six months when we first moved back to New Zealand and had a lot of exposure to travel around Asia.

Today, the travel continues with the family dotted across Asia Pacific and constantly on the move.

“Today we’re in Singapore, tomorrow we’re in Kuala Lumpar; Friday we’re in Hong Kong and probably Monday I’ll be in China. After that, I’m not sure where I’ll be,” Gavin said.

“Gavin rides the plane every other day and flies more than a Cathay pilot,” Oliver said.

“I’m not quite sure how he does that because it’s incredibly exhausting.”

Advances in technology in recent years have made communications much easier and have allowed the business to compete more evenly with bigger companies.

“Things as simple as WhatsApp make a big difference,” Oliver said.

“Instead of having the traditional board meeting every month, we’re constantly in communication, whether it’s phone calls, WhatsApp calls and messages – everything is in real time now, which can be a good thing and a bad thing.

“One of the silver linings out of Covid was our company wide communication improved a lot.”

Working with family can have both advantages and disadvantages, of course.

“It’s a bit like a coalition government,” Gavin joked.

But a shared interest and trust in each other is a clear benefit.

“We all work incredibly closely, we know each other well,” Oliver said.

“We’re all loyal to the family and loyal to each other. And the extra benefit of being family members is we can be blunt. We can call bull***t on people and really speak the truth in the family forum.”

Future generations

Beyond the family and the burgeoning hotel portfolio, Swiss-Belhotel International has invested in hospitality education with hotel schools in China, Australia and New Zealand to nurture the next generation of talent.

The company’s work with charity hospitality school, Sala Baï, is helping underprivileged young Cambodians build a more promising future, a project Gavin is passionate about.

“The hospitality industry is the only industry that can take people off the street and give them a career,” Gavin said.

“With so many others becoming highly specialised or AI based, hospitality will be there forever and is a huge employment and social benefit to most countries.”

When it comes to ensuring the success of the business for years to come, Gavin’s growth ambitions remain high with a target of 530 properties by 2030.

“We probably have different theories there,” Gavin said of futureproofing the business.

“I want to spend more money and they want me to spend less!”