Jesse Pohl ’20 had a chance to interview Warren Fields ’85, Principal and Chief Investment Officer, Pyramid Hotel Group
What does a “typical” day in the office look like for you?
I run the new business group of my shop, and what that means is we focus on growth. As a partner, I have some administrative duties, but the majority of my time I spend figuring out how to grow the company, dealing with existing owners we have and existing assets, and there’s always some internal “people” issue you have to deal with. We run numbers, I’m on the phone a lot. Monday’s are a long day (it’s our meeting day), we get the entire organization together and meet, mostly by phone because people are all over the place. I wouldn’t say there’s really a “typical” day because we have so many assets – you’re refinancing something, you’re buying something, you’re trying to get something sold, you have a management contract you’re dealing with – you know, for someone with “Adult ADHD” it’s perfect (ha-ha).
Are you working on any exciting new projects or initiatives that you can talk about?
Well, I have a big hole in the ground in Berkley, CA, we’re building a hotel. It’s a 330-room Residence Inn at the entrance to UC Berkley – first hotel to be built there in 42 years, and maybe the last high-rise to be built there, so that’s a good project.
We’re building one of the few full-service Marriott hotels in the country in Chandler, AZ – it’s a 300-room Marriott hotel. The reason we’re there is because Intel has a billion-dollar plant there, Yoya Financial is adding over a thousand jobs to the area – so, you’d ask ‘why are you building a full-service hotel?’ but there are good demand reasons why we’re doing it there.
Our portfolio, we go from Maine to the Caribbean, we go as far west as Hawaii, we have stuff in Ireland and England, we’re trying to grow in Europe, so… we’re trying to buy other companies, we have all kinds of crazy stuff going on! Who knows if any of them are going to hit, but just put as many balls in the air as you can, and some hit some don’t.
What’s your favorite thing about your job?
Oh, without a doubt, it’s the people that we have in our organization. First, we only succeed based upon how well the hotels that we currently operate do. We’re primarily a management company, so my role pales in comparison to what the people in the hotels do every day, because without them, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.
So, what I do, I have a team that scours the globe looking for opportunities, as long as we have the right people in those positions, it makes my job easy. So, it’s really more fun to have them have success – you know, we have this team concept where if the team wins, I win, and it’s just more fun when everyone’s engaged. If everybody’s engaged, and everybody’s contributing, and everybody feels like they’re adding value, it’s a fun environment.
How do you view the future of Pyramid Hotel Group?
Well, ’99 we started, so twenty years later I think we punch a little bit above our weight in our space: We have 100 hotels, and we’re ranked somewhere in the top five or six by revenue or number of keys, even though the number one spot is somewhere around 800 hotels. So, the variance is far from a number of hotels perspective but from a revenue perspective it’s actually pretty close, because we have bigger hotels.
I never wake up in the morning and worry about what I’m going to do next, because there’s 55,000 hotels in the U.S., we have 100, so in my lifetime the numbers will always be in my favor – the opportunities are infinite as long as we do our job. Capital is readily available from an equity perspective, right now debt’s easy to get and it’s relatively cheap, so I’m optimistic. You know, if I could get rid of some of my competitors it would make my job easier, but… (ha-ha).
What is your perspective on where we are in the cycle [February 2019], and how does your current investment strategy reflect that?
There’s no doubt that we’re long in the tooth on the current cycle. I would say because the economy is fairly stable it’s actually a little boring – because, when there is upheaval and there is displacement, a little bit of a recession creates a raft of opportunities, and it’s actually more fun when there’s a little displacement. It works both ways, though. We’re going to have some hotels that might have a problem, so we’ll be trying to rustle those to the ground as well, but it also creates a huge amount of opportunities: people are either over-levered, or they don’t want to ride the cycle out again, or they haven’t spent the money they needed to spend to keep up, so there’s a whole host of opportunities.
I have yet to hear anyone, in the past 24 months, tell me why they think the current cycle’s going to end, other than that it’s been going so well for so long. So, I’m not going to chase ghosts and say that the cycle’s going to end… there’s usually some signs, or something happens, and there’s just nothing out there right now. We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing. I wouldn’t mind, even though I don’t like development, having one or two more things in the ground, because there’s nothing wrong with building through a recession, and we’ve done that in the past, but you know you can never time it. But in our world, if we have a few things in the ground, or in permitting, we have a bunch of acquisitions, we’re always chasing management contracts, so whether the cycle’s good or bad we have enough balls in the air where we’ll survive.
You’ve done a lot of impressive things throughout your career with Beacon [Hotel Corporation], Doubletree, Promus, and Pyramid. What are one or two of your proudest accomplishments?
I think the thing that I’m most proud of is: we have this analyst pool, where we take five or six kids and they run numbers – probably similar to what you guys do in your RE classes, they run pro-formas, they become experts on the specific deals they’re working on. It’s really like a two-to-three-year gig, because once you’ve run your hundredth model your eyes start to glaze over, and you just don’t want to do it anymore, and quite frankly I don’t want anybody who wants to do that for their career. So, it creates some challenges because we always have to find people, and sometimes some kids don’t work out, etc. But what’s really rewarding is that there’s been a lot of them who’ve come through now and gone on to do some really interesting and unique things, and I’m happy for them.
And the other stuff, I’ve been doing for so long… You know, the problem with my job is that there is no instant gratification, and so I sort of know, like this thing in Berkley, it’s going to get built, it’s going to open, it’ll be great, but that deal’s over as far as I’m concerned and I’m already working on the next thing… so that’s why the people side of the business is really fun.
In today’s climate, I think this next question is an important one, and it comes from a place of great respect and admiration: As a black man in the business world, and who’s gone so far in the business world, what has your experience been with racial bias?
I would tell you a couple things: One, there’s always some bias in people, there just is. I remember distinctly, when I was graduating from [the Hotel School], Intercontinental had this analyst job, and you know they were this big British firm, and I remember the guy telling me distinctly in the interview, “very few people wind up being ‘deal’ people, and you probably won’t end up being one.” I didn’t get mad or anything, I said “OK, fine,” we continued the interview, I was asking him a bunch of questions, how he got to where he was, what makes a good “deal person,” etc. he answered all the questions, and I left there and I said I’ll never work for that guy, even if they gave me the job I’d never work for them.
Fortunately for me, in the organizations that I have worked in, it’s never been a problem, at least with the individuals who made all the big decisions. You know, I had some bosses who were a pain in the ass, but I figured out how to deal with them. There was one boss I had, and I didn’t want to be on his team. I didn’t complain about it, I just figured out how to get off his team. I realized early on that I was not going to succeed with the guy, so I did my job and I did it well, and then I applied for something else, and because I had done everything I needed to do I got moved. As they say, why be a victim? Just change the situation.
But I believe, even though there are all these negative things in the country today, I still believe we’ve come a long way, and I think there are probably more like-minded people like you and I than not. I mean, you’re always going to find those other people, even at this university for example. And it won’t necessarily have to do with being black or white, it could be against Jews, or Asians, or Women, you know there’s a whole host of things it could be. I mean, there’s even people that feel white males are being discriminated against now, and that’s a hard case to argue, but people claim that. So, there’s all these biases today that I think, well, some are well-founded, and some aren’t.
I think it’s a hard question to answer, but there’s no doubt that in my lifetime I’ve experienced it. But I’ve never let it jade who I am, only because, “OK, fine, you don’t like me? Move on.” For example, that Intercontinental interview, I laugh about it, but obviously I had a little chip on my shoulder, but it doesn’t define you.
The single biggest reason for my success is that I’ve been able to actualize and create an environment where I can be successful. I don’t know if I’ll ever be a billionaire, but I really like what I do, I have fun with it, and I do lots of interesting things, and that defines success for me versus having a gazillion dollars. You know when I was a student I didn’t have two nickels to rub together – but that’s part of the experience isn’t it?
What would you say is the most important professional or organizational skill for a major business leader such as yourself to possess to be successful?
The first thing you have to do is communication. You have to be able to do 360 degrees. I have people that I have to report to (we have a board), I have owners, but I also have people at my level and people below, and you have to be able to communicate effectively with all of them, and you have to make sure that you treat all of them with dignity and respect. You have to make sure that your direction or communication is clear, so the message you’re delivering is on target and clear. I’d even say that over-communication is probably more important today, because of all the information out there, and the world is going so fast that- ‘how do you get your message across without all the other noise interfering?’
I think communication is one, I think some of the basic things – yes, please, and thank you – go so far. I would tell you that performance dictates a lot. I would also tell you that when you have bad news, SHOUT IT, immediately, regardless of what it is; trying to hide it is the kiss of death. I can’t tell you how many times one of the hotels, every so often, has a bad month and I tell the teams ‘guys, have you told the owner? Pick up the phone and call the owner, don’t let him read the statement, tell him now, it just diffuses everything.’ And when you tell the owner you’ve had a bad month you’ve got to tell him how you’re going to fix it, too. Don’t just call and tell somebody bad news, offer them a solution, too, or at least ‘I’m working on the solution’ if you don’t have everything figured out yet.
So that communication, honesty, thoroughness, doing your homework, making sure you have good people around you, are important. Business isn’t that complicated – a lot of it is common sense. One of my faults is that, while I get into detail, I like to focus on 50,000 feet to see the big picture, that’s how I can move the organization forward, but there’s times you must drill down and get into the minutiae.
I would also tell you that being successful also has to do a lot with longevity; I don’t think you can be in a position and change jobs all the time – I mean I think that’s changing with the younger generation – but having a little bit of longevity means you’ve learned your craft and you understand what you’re doing, and you’ve had some success, which allows you to have longevity.
Going back to your Hotel School experience, which was the most useful class you took at SHA?
I don’t know if there was one specific class that sort of jumped out for me, but I will tell you that the thing the Hotel School does is that there’s a lot of critical thinking that goes on. And because of that, it allows you to take in and analyze a lot of information and dissect what’s important and what’s not. That’s one of the good things about the Hotel School, is that they give you a lot of stuff to do, and you must parse through it, and you find that, ‘alright, I got all this stuff, but the teacher’s really going to focus on [X].’ So, it’s the same kind of thing in the business world: you’ve got all this data, all this information, and you must figure out what’s important and what’s not. And that’s what I think – the critical thinking aspect of the Hotel School – is a vital skill, whether you’re in the hotel business or not. And look, in today’s environment, if you’re not computer literate as well you’re never going to make it, so that clearly today must be part of the program.
Also, no matter what business you’re in, you must be able to understand the numbers. You don’t have to be a CPA, but you have to understand the numbers, to know ‘are we making money?’ or find where the problem is.
What advice do you have for Hotelies getting ready to start their careers?
The number one thing is that the first job you take is not your last. Whether it’s the ideal job or not, it’s not going to be your last job, so I wouldn’t get frustrated or worry about where you are in the pecking order. Get out there, do something, and if you don’t like it then figure out how to change it. Of course, though, don’t leave until you’ve done the job. I interview lots of people for positions, and I always say to all of them, ‘look, if the job doesn’t work out for you, or if it’s not what you thought it was and you don’t want to be here, tell us so we can in an orderly way help you find something else, and so that we’re not leaving the organization in a lurch.’ I get it that not every time we hire somebody it works out, but let’s, as professionals, talk about it and either figure out how to make it better or how to help you exit, and that way you don’t leave here with a year under you belt and we can’t really give you a good reference – that’s just silly.
It’s very few and far between that you rule the world immediately when you come out of school – I mean it does happen, but when it doesn’t, I wouldn’t get frustrated about it – and again this comes back to communication. There’s a term: “you have to be able to manage up as well as manage down.” And managing up means that if you’re in a situation that you’re not crazy about, you have to deal with it and you have to communicate with the people that you’re dealing with and you have to try to deal with it in an effective manner, i.e., if you have a job and there’s something that you don’t particularly like about that job, you can’t just go to your superior and say ‘I don’t like this,’ I’d go to them and I’d say ‘I have an idea on how things might be able to work a little bit better.’ And hopefully you’re in an environment where people are open to suggestions, and if you’re not then that’s not a good situation and you’ve got to figure out how to get out of it, but communication is a big part of that. And the great thing about coming out of the Hotel School now is that there’s so many different things you can do, so I wouldn’t worry about finding a job, but finding a job that you’re interested in. Because that’s where you can be excited and perform really well, but it doesn’t always happen that first job.
Outside of the office, what are your favorite hobbies or activities?
I will tell you, the most funnest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life was raise my kids. Without a doubt the funnest thing. Between the highs and the lows, figuratively “beating them up,” supporting them, yelling at them, all that stuff – I just love being a parent, it’s really a lot of fun. I should have had more kids… my wife was right; she wanted to have three, we have two, we should have had, probably five (ha-ha). So, one’s a freshman [at the Hotel School!], and I have a junior in high school.
I like to travel, I play a lot of golf, I have a good group of friends, I go to the gym a fair amount – I stay busy. And, you know, I’m tickled pink to come back here and go to lax games, and meet a whole bunch of new parents, so all that stuff is good.
Any final thoughts you’d like to share with current students?
The Hotel School is very well thought of within the hotel industry as well as outside of it. I think Cornell students sometimes get a bad rep in that people think that some Cornell students believe they know more than they do when they first get out, but our network is so strong and so deep, we as Hotelies need to continue that, and so I would encourage all of them to figure out how to give back to the program, because you will find over time that the network is very beneficial, and it works.
When I first became an analyst, this was a few years after I got out of school, I had the Cornell Directory, and I’d go travel somewhere and I’d call people out of the directory and say, “hey, I’m doing XYZ project, who should I talk to? Where should I go? Who should I meet?” I don’t recall anyone – I mean they may not have had a suggestion for me – but no one ever said ‘I can’t help you.’
The [Hotelie] network is more powerful than you guys realize.
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The Cornell Hotel Society Executive Board thanks the Cornell Hotel Society – Collegiate Chapter for initiating and conducting the “Conversations with Alumni” project.