A leisure industry veteran, Tony Kelly has been involved with luxury cruise liners, hotels and leisure clubs and runs major race day events such as the St Leger Festival in Doncaster before moving, in 2015, to China to become Executive Director Racing of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, responsible for the racing operation of the organisation including 1,250 horses, their housing and care, a £22 billion turnover business. Prior to the role, he was Managing Director of Arena Racing Corporation in the UK. After moving back to the UK from Hong Kong in March 2018, Kelly was appointed, via Nurole, as MD of Howletts Wild Animal Park and Port Lympne Hotel & Reserve, run by conservation charity The Aspinall Foundation. He is overseeing the UK operations at Howletts and Port Lympne and developing their luxury short breaks offers, whilst overseeing the UK fundraising arm, which supports the Foundation’s international conservation activities.
You’ve worked in the UK for decades before moving to run the world-famous Hong Kong Jockey Club - what were the main contrasts between doing business in China compared to the corporate UK life you’d grown used to?
I was doing business in both Hong Kong and China and they are both different to the UK. Hong Kong, of course, has the same language and laws as the UK - one country two systems - so doing business is similar albeit hierarchy is very important. In China, though, I found everything to be different: language first, it’s Mandarin or occasionally Cantonese in China. Respecting the chain of command is critical there too: building relationships and understanding the cultural impact of what you are doing.
Then finding your way around the various government departments and dealing with the bureaucracy could be a challenge. From a ‘people perspective’, the workforce is different too. Most administrative staff are graduates, many have MBAs. They demand training, benefits and career progression, and have no loyalty at all. If the employer down the road is offering 5% more, they’ll go. Offer a poor bonus, no training or promotion or pay rise, and they’ll go. It isn’t unusual for an employer to have 60-70% staff turnover for certain grades of staff each year. But only after the bonus is paid at Chinese New Year.
What Chinese business practises will you be adopting in your style of work now that you’re back in the UK?
One aspect that I enjoyed was the emphasis on taking a longer-term view. I found in Asia there was less insistence on a short-term payback, which can often be at the detriment of long-term value being created. Customer satisfaction is often compromised in the UK in order to meet hurdle rates of returns required by PE firms, public markets and the like. Currently, the UK restaurant and hospitality sector is awash with failed businesses, all blaming rent, rates and costs, but actually, the real problem was it became a race to the bottom as they all had mediocre offerings, no differentiation, and business models which demanded huge returns on highly geared vehicles.
And what were you glad to leave behind?
Chinese tea – seriously, it’s the worst place in the world to get a decent cuppa! Oh, and the bureaucracy.
How has your international business experience helped you in NED and board roles?
The ability to see different angles, understand different cultures and the broad range of experience I’ve had means I can add value on a variety of levels. I have my strategic and financial background, coupled with my time in sport, media rights, hotel and hospitality operations and with an International outlook it enables me to contribute fully to all board matters.
What skills are most useful in the leisure/hotels industry?
You can have core skills - mine is being an accountant and having the ability to understand the business through its performance and numbers - but without the ability to translate that into action, to build a team and make them buy into, and deliver, your vision then whatever your core skill may be it doesn’t count for much.
What's your advice to someone considering a board role in leisure, but whose career has been elsewhere?
Understand that this is principally a people business and that the customer is becoming ever more discerning and ever more demanding. Staff, likewise, expect to work in an environment that respects, rewards and develops them. Ignore either at your peril.
And now for some quick-fire questions…
What’s your favourite book?
I love the Bernard Cornwell historical novels but read less now than I’d like.
“Don’t quit” – anon.
The Algarve in Portugal with the family.
What do you do to have fun?
Catch up with our girls as they get older and spread their wings, and socialising mainly, but watching Liverpool FC is right up there when it’s just on my time.
When does your alarm go off and how many hours of sleep do you have on average?
No need for an alarm, haven’t used one in decades, my inbuilt clock and black Lab have me awake by 6.00 am. I usually get six hours most nights. If I need to get up earlier, say 5 am, I bang my head on the pillow five times it seems to work.
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