Banyan Tree’s Claire Chiang on Building Evergreen Brands and Bucking Trends

Not only is she a savvy business woman, Claire Chiang, co-founder of Banyan Tree Holdings, was also a Nominated Member of Parliament and went on to be the first lady admitted into the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce. With a razor sharp focus on achieving her goals, she has bucked the trend on female hires and adds that it is useful to welcome a diversity of perspectives, since “having views from both sexes helps [to] achieve a balanced viewpoint and make the right decision about consumer behavior, aspirations and needs.”

The group has since opened 48 properties worldwide since its inception in 1994. Banyan Tree’s vision of driving expansion and retaining talent is simple. They get everyone to see the big picture, as well as promote and groom employees based on merit. Of course, everything is rooted in their core value of sustainability and purpose-driven missions. For instance, through creative collaborations with local artisans such as Lucinda Lawand this is what guides the group’s business forward.

Adopting a learner’s mindset of being versatile and “open-minded about all possibilities” guided Claire to successfully influence the Chinese who were clueless about the Banyan Tree brand when they first opened in Lijiang. She did this by supporting ecosystems which earned the locals’ trust as they saw that tourism created value in a positive way. We learn from Claire on what it takes to be an effective leader, as well as how the hospitality brand pulled through various crises in the past such as the September 11 attacks and the SARS outbreak.

Popspoken: Do you think there is a lack of visionary leaders in Singapore right now?

Claire Chiang: I think you need all kinds of leadership. For those who get the big picture, we don’t need a lot of them because they kill each other and because there are so many big pictures, they may not agree. You still do need people who can see big picture, but with one key person to make the decision. In addition, you need a whole lot more of do-er leaders, people who implement, execute and to do more than just a checklist of duties.

The middle-level leaders who do their job, with dedication and commitment are very important. There is also a whole slew of quiet leaders, who are at the desktop, cleaning your data, finding your data in order to help you make that decision to execute. I do not think we just need big picture leaders. We need to create and uphold on organization’s culture where everyone matters. This way, you facilitate the quiet leaders to come forward too.

I have many hotels in the chain. I listen to the chief and my directors out there in the field as they are closer to the ground. If they only listen to me, I would be so isolated. Furthermore, I could be wrong. However, if they only stick to their little corner and don’t see the big picture, they will not be motivated. We solve this by bringing leaders together and organise a training session where big pictures, small pictures are all shared and people begin to understand what’s the purpose and relevance of what they’re doing. Years ago, we worked on a puzzle where everyone takes a piece and every department worked on their piece. They did not know what they were painting, but when they fit that piece into the big picture, it made sense. They suddenly realized that their little functional excellence made the end puzzle whole.

Popspoken: What is your leadership style? 

Claire Chiang: I was once told that I’m actually quite male. Though, in the male circle, they think I’m very understanding and emphatic and female. So I started to do away with all these descriptions and not think too much of leadership belonging to a male or female type. I look for what the situation needs. If I need to be firm, explicit, clear and assertive – I’ll do that. If I feel I need to be quiet and be a little more understanding – I’ll do it too. There’s no point being the way I am and only have one style, if I don’t get what I want. That is being an ineffective leader. An effective leader is someone who knows what repertoire of skill sets to apply to reach the outcome so desired.

With age, I have learnt that I have a slew of possibilities and repertoire of choices to apply a leadership skill. If there are words to describe me, I think I’m versatile and adaptive. I like to be counseled by the situation in front of me. I am against dichotomizing male and female leadership. We should be acting as a team, to apply all we have to mobilize our resources to reach the outcome, also known as “team leadership” or “collective leadership”.

Popspoken: Describe some challenges Banyan Tree has faced through the years. 

Claire Chiang: In the hotel industry, we are subjected to macroeconomics through no fault of ours. For example, the Thai baht devaluation in 1997. Followed by the September 11 attacks in 2001, SARS outbreak in 2002, subprime mortgage crisis in 2006 and the Bangkok coup in 2014.

We got through with the unity of our staff. When they took unpaid leave, cut down on operational costs and initiate cost saving measures, it was very touching and it helped to keep the company afloat. When good times came, we were able to stay above waters and stabilized. This is all part and parcel of business. Now, how do you anchor and find that stamina to persevere, is the lesson to learn.

How you treat your staff and stakeholders is crucial. In situations of crisis they will support you because you have been good to them. The stakeholder relationship and the ability to hone that relationship is a skill that all CEOs and business leaders should adopt.

Popspoken: Have you encountered sexism in the workplace? 

Claire Chiang: Biases, discrimination, stereotypes and unfair practices – they are all over the marketplace. Even at the workplace, the way we recruit, the organization; at home, with husbands and wives, sons and daughters. It’s all there.

The flipside of it all is positive discrimination where women are favoured. Where being a women allows you to take on certain jobs better. For example, because of being a woman you can sell better using your charm. When you think one woman faces discrimination, you can cite nine other men who feel that they’ve also been discriminated against. So I wouldn’t dichotomize the workplace. As society evolves, women gain more marketplace confidence, the merit of their performance will justify their promotion.

Popspoken: What are your thoughts on women in the workplace? How does it differ across all the countries Banyan Tree has businesses in? 

Claire Chiang: In a way, Banyan Tree bucked the trend. We have 30% of women in our company and close to 50% of women at management level. We have 10% of female general managers (in 4 out of the 40 hotels we run), which is rare in this industry. We have age diversity too, although, I don’t think we are doing good enough as the majority of our workers are still under 45. We want to hit 10% of workers that are aged 55 years and above. Aside from that, we employ conscious leadership to spot high potential staff. The lens is broadened not to only look at men, but also to look at the women.

We also have local culture to contend with. Some cultures are against girls working in the hospitality industry as they think it’s dangerous. To get women talent, we must convince their parents that it’s safe, and also convince women there’s career progression in such an industry.

Popspoken: Do you have advice for mid-level management women who want to move forward with their careers? 

Claire Chiang: If you want to get ahead, you need to be good at what you do. You need to learn to be focused at what you do and communicate content effectively. You may want to be a leader, but it doesn’t mean you can be an effective leader.

Furthermore, effectiveness must be contextualized in an organization that is filled with a myriad of other hurdles. What’s valued is your ability to navigate those relationships, where you don’t see yourself as just a woman and have hangups about discrimination, but have an attitude  focused on solving the problem. These are important qualities over and above gender. Being a woman brings in perspectives and inputs that men may not understand. That is why it’s so important to have a women’s voice and the male’s voices. Having views from both sexes helps me get a balanced viewpoint and make the right decision about consumer behavior, aspirations and needs.

Popspoken: How much of this “bucking of trends” is due to your soft power?

Claire Chiang: Being a co-founder and having a husband on the board helps (laughs). We don’t need to talk about power, we can talk about influence. I think women can be influenced by shaping the leadership.

For example, in my business unit, I facilitate working engagements between and women, this allows men to feel more comfortable. It’s important to have this engagement so men get used to working with women and vice versa. It’s about balance, creating familiarity and that shared experience to boost the confidence of both sexes. This will help them work together.

Popspoken: Banyan Tree has expanded into China rapidly. What are your thoughts on the hospitality industry’s future growth in China?  

Claire Chiang: Eventually, every top company will be in China. When we first went into China in 2006, nobody heard of Banyan Tree. No one understood what hospitality meant. Service culture is really something they aren’t good at but it’s something we tried to get the Chinese to learn very quickly. In coming up with the brand proposition, we focused on creating an enclave of privacy in the upper-end villa structure.

The Chinese initially did not understand this concept. But when we started talking about the way we built as a responsible hotel operator, and the way we supported and commited to getting local Chinese employees to learn English, they began to understand. They suddenly saw that tourism is no longer just about checking out good scenic sites. Tourism also provides an economic platform that gives jobs and creates value in a sustainable manner.

I recall when we started our first hotel in Lijiang, we taught the Naxi group English and hospitality. When the Chinese saw the quality we brought to the table, it propelled us to the next deal. We have 15 hotels now, and in the next 5 years, there will be another 10 more. In my pipeline negotiations, I have another 25 on the way. My job as a business development hunter is to travel through China for the past 10 years, for at least 3 months in a year. In Chinese, they say “遊 山 玩 水, 吃喝玩乐, 都是工作” – for me, travel, work, play and family, it’s all rolled into one.

That in itself, is a new concept, because China’s emerging middle class is looking towards this. Travelling is no longer from getting from A to B. Travel is about retreats, about finding a place where they can go for spa or travel itineraries where you go to polish your mind. I organize workshops and programs where people learn so when they relive memories of travel, it’s not just a stay but what they do there. For example, we get our guests to understand tea culture, Naxi culture or experiment with herbal gardens together with their children. We are creating content in the hospitality business.

It’s tourism with a difference. It’s about creating travelers’ tales where we “edutain”  them. That is where we are going.

The other focus is on wellness in soul and spirit. This is part of Banyan Tree’s lifestyle program, not just for China but for other parts of the world. Our focus in China is because of the rising expectations of demand but we are also in the rest of the world. We are in Mexico, Cuba and Greece. As for South-East Asia, we recently opened in Myanmar. The play is global.

Featured image credit: Banyan Tree 

This article was first published on 23 March 2017 and has been edited on 25 April 2020 to include Banyan Tree’s Sustainability Report. 


Explore latest trends in contemporary culture


Explore latest trends in contemporary culture