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An Interview with Shaikha Al Nowais, Vice President of Owner Relationship Management, Rotana
The knowledge that we will inevitably face circumstances beyond our control is part of being a business owner. The steep changes caused by the recent global pandemic showed the capacity of whole industries to pivot at seemingly a moment’s notice. The hospitality sector is particularly sensitive to these global ebbs and flows. Few nations know that better than the UAE, whose hotel industry has been significantly reshaped by the region’s rapid growth over the past 30 years. For Shaikha Al Nowais, Vice President of Owner Relationship Management at leading hotel management company, Rotana, successfully addressing her industry’s transformation has meant investing in people and drawing on the powerful internal constants of attitude, approach, and perseverance.
In this episode, Shaikha discusses how investing in the development of people leads to dedication, commitment and, ultimately, success. Shaikha also details the many important lessons she learned from her father, company co-founder, Nasser Al Nowais, and how he helped shape her strength and conviction, especially when facing adversity. Shaikha believes that accessibility and engagement are key to generating the new ideas that businesses need to confront the inevitability of change.
- Shaikha credits the growth of Rotana in part to her father’s passion for the business and thinks his humility, approachability, and open-door policy speak to his belief in the value of people. Shaikha maintains that investing in people is tantamount to investing in a company’s future success.
- Shaikha joined Rotana in 2011 and was assigned the challenging task of establishing an internal audit function for the company. With the help of a mentor, Shaikha was able to create her corporate auditing framework. In doing so, she discovered the importance of mentorship and the advantage it brings at every stage of a career.
- Technology is an essential tool, and its uses are only increasing. AI and data can enhance the guest experience, but technology will never replace human engagement. If a customer isn’t satisfied, technology won’t be able to remedy the situation. Real, personal interaction remains the cornerstone of the hospitality industry.
- The global pandemic forced the firm to think creatively and has contributed significantly to Rotana’s evolution in its 30-year history. As the travel industry slowed, the company approached other organisations that were surging under the difficult circumstances and successfully found employment opportunities for many of Rotana’s team members. As a result, they built strategic relationships that would strengthen the business.
Ramia: Sheikha, welcome to Women in Family Business. We’re so happy to have you on the show today.
Shaikha: Thank you so much Ramia. It’s a pleasure to be with you today.
Ramia: We’re gonna dive right in exploring what it all means to be in hospitality today. I’m really excited about this conversation, especially in a post pandemic world. I always like to start a journey, especially with people who have like, you know, the family legacy aspect of it, like the family entrepreneurial side. We like to go back to the beginnings and sort of like understand more about how you got where you are today, like, you know, how your career shaped up. Let me start by asking you something very simple. Like, you know, when you were a kid growing up, do you remember having… role models when it came to your job prospects or what you wanted to be when you grew up?
Shaikha: You know, I can’t think of anyone but my father, but generally, especially in this part of the world, the father is always the breadwinner of the family. It’s always been like that. So by nature, it’s my father. And I’m very proud to say that it is my father, working with him now.
He’s very dedicated. He started his career in the government. So he worked very closely with late Sheikh Zayed Allah Yerhamo. And he worked with him on… several positions. He was the undersecretary of the Ministry of Finance. He was the managing director of Abu Dhabi Fund of Development, where he got the opportunity to be the chairman of Abu Dhabi National Hotels. And that’s where he started off his career as well. I think he took the idea of Routan Hotels from there. And there’s a story behind Routan. Routan did not emerge out of out of nowhere. It’s there for a reason. So his dedication, his love, his passion to what he does, he likes to do it and he likes to give 100% in everything he does. And that’s one of the things I love the most about him and he’s very humble. He has an open door policy. He’s very approachable and all these traits I’ve learned from him.
Ramia: That’s amazing. But like such a different situation, right? Like, so at the time, obviously, he took on a very pioneering role, right? Like, so he was given this opportunity, but also responsibility because things had to work out, of course, because at the time there was a lot depending on these individual entrepreneurs to make a go. Actually, not just build a brand, but build almost a whole sector from the ground up, right? Like, how do you contrast your experience coming in as a second generation to what you saw him do?
Shaikha: Let me give you a bit of the background of Rotana. Rotana was founded by my father and his partner, Salim Aziz, whom he worked with in Abu Dhabi National Hotels. It’s not a family business, but they founded it together, because it’s a private joint stock company. It started off as an LLC, and he chose to bring people like Saleem and back then it was Nael who was the CFO of Rotana and as partners and equity partners because and he did that for a reason because he said if I got them in and made them my partner they will give 100% plus 100% and they will make sure that our growth is very strategic, our growth is very sustainable.
So that was in 1992. And the reason he decided to create the company is when he, during his role in Abu Dhabi National Hotels, he was in the shoes of the owner or the developer or the investor in that hotel. And he had the opportunity to work with different operators, like
Continental, Sheraton at that time, which is now Mariott and a couple of operators and he worked very closely with them and he was able to tell how they were treating owners. Okay, and there was a lot that they could have done, but they didn’t because they’re international, they have plenty of hotels. So they did not give him enough attention as an owner. Okay, and when he left, when he left, and that’s where he met the co-founder, which is Salim Al-Zir. He met him in Abu Dhabi National Hotels. He was, I remember at that time, the general manager of Hilton, Hilton Abu Dhabi. And when he left, change in the transition happened, changes in leadership… A lot of people from the good ones left, including Salim. Salim, who’s now the co-founder and the vice chairman of the company. So… They came up to him, they said, you know, we’re leaving, and we’re not happy anymore. So he said, I, you know, I worked very closely with those people. And I, you know, I don’t think it’s the right idea for them to leave. At that same time, his best friend, who is His Highness Sheikh Suror, and… He also used to be in Abu Dhabi Fund of Development as the number two guy, was building his hotel. And it was supposed to be a Marriott.
So he said, he kept on thinking, he said, you, I have good people, and my father always believes in people. He says, if you have good people, you will always be able to be successful. You have to take care of your people. And he believes in talent. I have a handful of talented people who are not happy where they are, and I know what they’ve done. So why don’t I create a company? Okay, and he went to his highness and he said back then, I don’t know if his highness was a bit shy or not, but he said, yes, you can take it. You can manage it yourself. And they started off in 1992 with one hotel.
Ramia: We have to paint a picture of what 1992 Abu Dhabi UAE actually looked like, because like we’re talking pre all of the things that we’re seeing now, of course, like pre the hundreds of hotels that are there.
Shaikha: I’m telling you that he chose, if he were to create or establish a company like that now, it wouldn’t be a success, I think. He started it at the right time.
Yes, in two years’ time, they managed… to I remember because he said obviously he had an investment. He managed to return the capital in two years time. That’s all because of good people, dedication, commitment, and they were offered a challenge and he had to pay him back. He had to show them that, yes, we can make it. We don’t have to be an international chain to make it. We made it. And that’s how we started.
Ramia: Did you take a conscious decision that you were like, I am going to go into the same sector. I’m going to follow my father’s footsteps or I’m going to like join him in business?
Shaikha: I think it was meant to be because in 2008, I graduated from university, I graduated from Zayed University in 2006, seven. I started my career in KPMG. I chose KPMG because it’s an international company. It’s gonna give me enough exposure I always wanted and I studied finance and I thought that’s the most relevant field for me. So that’s the reason I chose KPMG. I then was approached by him in 2011, I remember. He said, Sheikha, it’s about… It’s been three years with you and I wasn’t satisfied yet. I was a fresh graduate. I had a lot of expectations From my experience with KPMG and I don’t be I didn’t feel back then that it was fulfilled. You know, I wasn’t satisfied.
So I then decided when he said come I said let me do it and He said you know what because you’re so into audit why don’t you come in and establish an internal audit function for the company? Which was a very challenging thing for me because only me, I was three years in the job. I didn’t have the experience, but I had a mentor. And he still is my mentor. He was the partner in KPMG, and he guided me. I was lucky to have a mentor like him, but I think also everything in life happens for a reason. I think I went to KPMG for a reason. I wanted to meet people that would stay with me till now, till today. That would always be there for me, no matter what. And regardless who I am, I am Sheikha. He’s going to be there for Sheikha, not for
Ramia: Whatever position.
Shaikha: exactly. So I had, I honestly still have very high regards for this person because he was… He was always giving me his unbiased opinion and advice. It’s very important, whether it’s a father, whether it’s whoever, it’s important to have a mentor that will be with you all the time throughout your career.
Ramia: I love that advice. And I think again, to like, so you entered this, um, this environment in 2011. And 2011 was interesting time for many reasons, also in the middle East. And then you entered a hospitality sector of all places. And it’s, there’s so many macro trends that shape hospitality, of course, like, you know, the most recent one being, I mean, the pandemic, honestly, is just one of many things that constantly shape hospitality, right? Like, so it might have been one of the most obvious ones, but then there are many things that have been changing in hospitality over that time that you’ve been working in this sector. So like when you started out and then you had this huge task of creating basically a new department as well, which is like crazy,
Shaikha: And resistance as well because people were resistant having a department like that.
Ramia: Well, I mean, audit is not popular at the best of times. So like I imagine like creating it must have been very hard.
Shaikha: I feel if you have the right approach to something and if you approach it with the right attitude, you’ll get it done.
Ramia: But tell me about that though, how did you overcome that resistance? Because was it, was the resistance based on what you had to do, or was it also based on who you were in terms of like, you know, as a family member, what was the main thing and how did you personally overcome it?
Shaikha: Three things, a very simple answer. Attitude, approach. perseverance. So you have to be very persistent and you have to follow up. And this is something I still do till today.
Ramia: Where did you get your strength?
Shaikha: From my father. He told me to always be, you know, you have to always follow up. You have to always. You have to be there. But I think a rule of thumb and something that will stay with me for life is approach and attitude.
Ramia: What did you do on days where you wanted to give up?
Shaikha: I had a lot of days where I wanted to give up. I would go to, maybe I would cry maybe sometimes. I would, but there will always be someone, whether my mentor, whether my sisters, that, because I have a very strong bond with my sisters and they would put me back. I would never go and complain to my father. Till today, not a single day I went and complained to my father about anything, and this is something I think he taught us, that we have, we’ve always been very independent. And we always have to find our own way when it comes to things related to us.
Ramia: He started this in 1992. Now, the UAE was a totally different country at that time, but also the sector was totally different. Like, hospitality was entirely different in the 90s than it is today. So your career also has spanned such marked changes. And so to keep up with that and to constantly be on top of that, it… It’s a lot and it’s very demanding. Describe to us a little bit more, maybe like the mechanisms that make it so fast paced, Sheikha, tell us what are the forces that shape it the most in your view.
Shaikha: Look, I think you can, when it comes to technology, you can use what will allow you to be on par with the competition, whether by gathering data, whether by AI stuff, things related to robotics. But there is one thing. technology will not be able to replace is engagement. Technology will never be able to replace a real interaction. If a customer is not happy, technology will not come and fix it. I have to go and fix it. Because you will only be able to know how to approach a human being. We’ve been in the business for 30 years now, 30 years plus, we have evolved big time. And what shaped us also, I think the most is COVID.
It allowed us to think outside the box. There are many, many things that we did as a company that I’m, till today, very proud of and will continue to be proud of because you deal with people all the time, whether it is developers, owners, colleagues, guests. You deal with people all the time. So imagine how challenging this can be. So I remember one of the things that we did during COVID and it’s one of the things that I have, I was very, very involved in personally. We, obviously because travel has stopped, people were unable to travel, this affected us. This had an impact on our colleagues. We had to let go of a lot of people. But this allowed us, because we were very attached until today, we are very attached to our people emotionally. Without the team and without how engaged we are to our team, we wouldn’t have been where we are today. I was thinking, oh my god, Sheikha, you know, we will be closing a lot of homes by letting go of those people. So let’s think, what can we do? They’re skilled, very skilled people, experienced, they’ve been with the company for a long time. How can we let go of them? So we had to repurpose them. So I remember we approached health organizations, we approached logistics supermarkets because all the demand shifted to health supermarkets. If you remember, delivery was up, e-commerce was up, everything was up. We approached them because we knew that they will have a lot of demand. and they will be under a lot of pressure. And believe it or not, it actually worked. So we saved money for our owners and at the same time, I remember we had our housekeeping staff cleaning hospitals and field hospitals in the UAE. By doing that, we retained their jobs with us. and at the same time we reduced the payroll cost for the hotel.
Ramia: That’s incredible.
Shaikha: And we kept their homes open. So I think when it comes to this and what differentiates us as a company is that. Because we really care about the people that work with us.
Ramia: It is such a challenging moment, isn’t it? When you are faced with that kind of real time crisis. What did you learn about yourself in that time? Like, you know, what was the biggest thing that you learned about yourself?
Shaikha: When you set your intention right, you just have to go for it. my intention or the whole company, not only me, because I wouldn’t have been able to do it myself. Okay, I managed to get the lead, but it’s delivery. Delivering that service was not easy. So we provided them with training, we provided them with support. I remember one of the services we had to provide was a core center, where we had to mobilize more than 150 employees from our side. But we had people who was responsible for training, for ensuring that the calls were taken at the right time, the calls were taken right. We had to provide them with the right training and the right support to make sure that the service delivered is right, to sustain the contract for the longest time. Because it took them, it took more than a year and a half. And we, believe it or not, we were able to show them we are able to deliver an exceptional service, and they couldn’t do without us. And that’s the reason they kept on extending, you know? Because we showed them that with training, with the right people, obviously those people had experience, they were skilled. You can accomplish.
Ramia: It’s hard to bet on a people-focused strategy during a pandemic, but generally also, but during a pandemic, because people are vulnerable, right?
Shaikha: This is why we gave them the choice to either lose your job or you take this temporary job. And this is why when we post the pandemic and when we started reopening the hotels and actually opening new hotels, we were able to keep a lot of our trained people.
Ramia: Tell us about the post-pandemic reality of Rotana and the industry.
Shaikha: I think it’s even stronger now. As a team, we’re stronger because we were able to overcome this pandemic together. So we have a stronger bond now than we ever did, I think, because of what we went through and because we went through it together, you know, as a team. It wasn’t me, it was the team. You know? So we are stronger. Okay, we adapt to change. Things are moving so fast now because of the demand and because of, because people are so hungry to travel again.
Ramia: What are you doing to ensure that innovation, that culture of innovation also is maintained when the pressure is maybe not a pandemic, when it’s not like a crisis moment?
Shaikha: It will continue because you have the people that have their heart for and on the company, you know. They’ve given us from their heart and they will continue to do so because we have a lot of loyal people that have been with the company for a very long time. They’re there for a reason, right?
Ramia: How do you capture their ideas and sort of like, how do you sort of like compute the feedback?
Shaikha: We’re always open to these ideas. And this is why it’s the ease of access as well. Because we’re a small company, we’re accessible, and we’re very engaged. So accessibility and engagement are very important for you to keep up and capture these ideas and make sure they’re being executed.
Ramia: Tell us maybe about the impact that, for instance, AI or like other technologies, what is going to be the biggest change for you as a sector that you have to, you know, accommodate really because of the consumers’ behaviors?
nt-weight: 400;” data-mce-style=”font-weight: 400;”>Shaikha: I think data, through data we’re able to know our guests better. It also goes back to the guest. Because through data, you can make sure that you’re providing an exceptional service. You’re making sure that you’re able to create memories that will last forever.
tyle=”font-weight: 400;” data-mce-style=”font-weight: 400;”>Ramia: Tell me about that a little bit more though, Sheikha, because data sometimes tells us things we maybe don’t want to hear or we did not expect, right? Like, so how do you make sure the decision-making in, you know, your leadership or like in your teams, is a good blend between what the data tells us is happening and what our experience teaches us we should do. How do you enable that?
=”font-weight: 400;”>Shaikha: By execution. Sometimes we do pilot stuff as well. Before we roll things out and before we execute it to the mass, we like to pilot. We do a lot of piloting. And this allows us to see firsthand results and firsthand experiences as well. So that’s the only way you can make sure that things are done and things are we’re able to capture the right ideas at the right time.
Ramia: You said in the beginning, your role model has been your father. And like, you know, but then you’ve also mentioned your sisters who have been a big support in, you know, in, in empowering you in certain transitions in your career and, and maybe when things got tough, do you have advice for young professionals and maybe particular women who like, you know, who, who have the same situation as you do, maybe a founding parent who has created something that they would like to continue or that they would like to add to. What is your advice in terms of personal growth and steps people can take to ensure that they can make a success of it the way that you have?
Shaikha: Have the right knowledge. Knowledge is key. Ask the right questions. Asking the right questions is very, very important. And no matter how small the question is or how silly the question is, you shouldn’t care about how people would perceive it. You should have to ask it anyway. And. Dedication is very important as well. For me, I like to set my goals and make sure that they’re achieved. And just love what you do, simply love what you do and do what you love. And not only that, Ramia, but even if you don’t love what you do, by asking the right questions, that means you’re interested. And you will eventually love what you do.
Ramia: Thank you very much, Sheikha, for coming on the podcast today. We appreciate your time.
Shaikha: You’re most welcome.
This interview is part of the special series “Agile Minds: How Family Enterprises Evolve” in collaboration with KPMG Private Enterprise.
About KPMG Private Enterprise
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