Finding my Dream Team: An Interview with Zach Neumeyer

When you are tasked with finding dynamic and compelling panelists for a conference, it’s helpful to have contacts such as Martin Dubin from RHR International to point you in the right direction. That direction led me to lunch with Zachary Neumeyer, who, at the time of our meeting, had already agreed to be a panelist for a session titled, “CEO Retrospective: What Tested Your Mettle During The Recession?”

As I approached the effort of forming a panel, it occurred to me that the best CEOs to entertain the notion of participating were those with three critical qualities: 1) a desire to share their key learning to help others; 2) the ability to open up and articulate the challenges that really tested their inner resolve and leadership abilities; and 3) those who have strong beliefs and keen insights shaped by life experiences.

Meeting Zachary Neumeyer confirmed my thoughts about the makeup of a dream team of panelists. Zachary is chairman and chief executive officer of Sage Investment Holdings, parent of Sage Hospitality LLC. It comes as no surprise that the hospitality industry has felt the impact of the economic downturn just as the travel and leisure recreation industries have been adversely impacted.

Zachary was gracious in his willingness to be honest and forthright in our conversation about his business and the trials and tribulations of his management team over the past couple of years. Here are some of the highlights of that conversation, which are sure to pique your interest in hearing more from Zachary during the conference.

An economic downturn that has a pronounced and rather sudden deleterious impact on your business causes you to shine a bright light on every facet of the business so you can identify and implement operational improvement programs. Such initiatives actually make your business stronger and put you in a better position to capitalize on opportunities once the economy improves.
It is also the case that you don’t necessarily sacrifice quality of service and customer satisfaction scores when instituting productivity- and efficiency-enhancement programs. Instead, if you focus on what is critical to quality from a customer standpoint you can end up in an even stronger position.

Difficult times also force you to define the reality of the situation you are in. You need to let go of the sacred cows. You need to plan several steps ahead. You need to understand that innovation is often borne of constraints. It is because you are constrained and boundaries are changing that you must be innovative in your approach to problem solving whether it pertains to workforce management, process excellence, new partnerships and alliances, business restructuring or debt refinancing.

There is also the notion of dividing and conquering. It is sometimes important to use comparative advantage as a strategy with the very top executives in the organization. If this is the right answer, it is important to come to that realization quickly because there is no time to waste. Certainly the credit crisis was such an occasion for many businesses, including Sage Hospitality.
In Sage’s case, the result was a chairman who focused on such important issues as recapitalization, business model restructuring and asset management. The president and CEO (Walter Isenberg) focused on basic blocking and tackling in running properties, reducing the cost base of the business, breaking down fiefdoms, taking the pulse on customer satisfaction, knowing where value is created and bringing Sage to the point where it was confident it was out-operating the industry.

There is no dividing and conquering when it comes to the way the company does business in the eyes of stakeholders – employees, customers, partners and investors. The way to climb out of turmoil is to understand core principles and never leave their doorstep. Adherence to core principles that are known throughout the organization is akin to being guided by a compass that shows true north.
At the end of the day it is not about command – it is about culture. A critical aspect of the approach taken by Sage Hospitality is employee training across a 6,000-person work force. Zachary views employee training (sometimes referred to as boot camp) as a critical tool for enhanced job performance and ultimate job fulfillment.

By the time I finished my lunch with Zachary, I realized that I was in the company of a leader dedicated to his business and doing whatever is necessary to prevail. I also saw a man who believes in causes even bigger than his business. Zachary is heavily involved as the Colorado board chair for the National Council – Teach for America as well as a host of related organizations and campaigns to address the challenges of America’s educational system.

His involvement in these areas goes back a long way, but his passion is young and vibrant. Before leaving, he told me that he just completed the New York Marathon in November (having trained for nine months), and he was still feeling a bit tired!

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