|By Marty Whitford H&MM Senior Editor
It’s close to midnight on the last night of Motel 6 Operating LP’s recent annual convention in New Orleans Georges Le Mener, president and c.e.o., is relaxing in the hotel lobby with company spokesperson Tom Bodett; David 0’ Shaughnessy, executive vice president of quality and franchising; and Eric Studer, vice president of marketing.
Le Mener and company are about to prove they can play as hard as they work.
“Excuse me, are you Tom Bodett?” a woman standing by her husband asked Le Mener.
Le Mener stands up, pauses about three seconds as everyone eagerly awaits his reaction, and replies, “Yes I am’, with not the slightest of smirks. The small crowd begins to crack up.
The woman goes on and on about how nice it is to finally meet the face behind the voice after all of these years of hearing Bodett’s award-winning “We’ll leave the light on for you” Motel 6 radio spot. Just when everyone thinks it can’t get any better or worse - Bodett stands up to the calling of none other than Le Mener’s name.
Now, the husband is pulling on his wife’s elbow, asking her to leave the execs alone. Just then, O’Shaughnessy says, “No, no. It’s quite all right. Do you mind if I ask your name?”
After the woman introduces herself, O’Shaughnessy kicks it up one last
notch. O’Shaughnessy stands up. extends his hand and says. “It’s been a
pleasure to meet you. "I’m Sven Boinet.” Boinet oversees the worldwide
hotel business for Motel 6’s Paris-based parent company Accor SA.
“Two years ago, I was sitting in Georges’ office, receiving my annual performance review, and you wouldn’t believe it,” Sebban said. ‘At the end, he gave me a list of goals for the coming year. My first goal was to take golf lessons and play golf at the next Motel 6 conference.”
Le Mener said he was just trying to send a message that Sebban should relax and enjoy life a little more.
“I’m not sure many company presidents have the sense of humor and seriousness to pull that off,” Sebban said.
Forget about it. That’s small potatoes compared to the turnaround that Le Mener pulled off at Motel 6.
When Le Mener took the helm at Motel 6 in 1993, the company was hemorrhaging at the rate of $40 million a year.
“I wanted to come back to the United States, so I asked for the job,” said Le Mener, who had worked in New York from 1983 to 1989 as president of Accor North America. “The fact that I was the only top Accor executive with a broad understanding of the United States made me an obvious choice.” Just two years later, the company broke even. In 1996, Motel 6 made a modest profit. In the next two years, the company recorded $75 million and $110 million, respectively, in net income before non-operating items - 20 percent of Accor’s net income in 1998.
“The previous management was of the opinion that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with Motel 6,” he said. “They blamed it on the economy, but a lot of it had to do with deteriorated product and short-term managing.”
Le Mener pushed for and got the green light in 1993 to embark on a six-year, $600 million renovation program for Motel 6’s then - 86,000 guestrooms. Then he formed a new quality division to protect the investment and battle back from Motel 6’s tarnished brand image. Public perception related Motel 6 with a lack of quality and security when Le Mener took the reins, but just a few years later, the chain was emerging as a leader in price - value lodging, company officials said.
Accor recently put more chips on red - the big red 6 that is - and backed Le Mener and company’s new Studio 6 budget extended-stay concept. Although most brands left the starting gate years ago and consolidation in the segment already is beginning, Le Mener and company - and several industry analysts - said the timing is perfect to cash in on Motel 6’s restored national brand recognition with a new launch.
All the work that went into developing a new Motel 6 prototype a few years back certainly didn’t hurt when considering entering extended -stay, said Emmett Gossen, Motel 6 executive vice president of corporate affairs and development.
Le Mener’s inner circle all point to his contagious character rather than his leadership style when explaining the turnaround.
Put simply, Gossen said Le Mener possess the unique ability to truly deal with people.
When describing Le Mener’s strong character, Gossen said four words come to mind:
Grassroots: “He really will go down to the baseline of an operation. He understands it all-the people and the jobs they do at every level-and that’s extremely important because we’re an operator.”
Authentic: “There’s really a feeling of 100-percent believability with Georges. It’s a personal quality that’s very enviable.”
Humble: “It may seem like a surprising adjective when talking about a c.e.o., but Georges is completely unpretentious. He in-spires performance because of his authenticity and because of the genuine respect he shows everyone.
Realist: “He’s the only c.e.o. I’ve worked with who is both big picture and detail oriented-and that doesn’t mean he micro man-ages. Often c.e.o.’s take refuge in the big picture, but Georges will jump right in there. If you’ve taken something as far as you can go and need help, he’ll work beside you to get to the bottom of the problem.”
The consensus is that Le Mener makes things happen. He’s a real doer, and gets every one working with him (not under him) to perform at 100 percent. Sebban said Le Mener truly is leading the charge at Motel 6, not just a part of it.
“When Georges came aboard, he came with a vision and a clear action plan,” Sebban said. “We knew where the company had to go from Day One.”
O’ Shaughnessy concurred. “He’s not one of those high-powered autocratic leaders,” O’Shauglinessy said. “He has a very quiet style, but he’s a truly inspiring leader. “One of the things Georges first said was the corporate office was a dangerous place to run a company from:’
O’Shaughnessy added. “In the early days with Georges, we found ourselves re-discovering America - literally. He's physically been to every proeprty and is making his second round now."
One of the key reason for our success is that we're very hands-on,” Le Mener said. “We are not ones who only see problems from high elevations.”
Le Mener said his openness and people skills have been major tools instrumental in building a new team and new culture at the corporate level and driving it home to 800-plus properties.
It wasn’t always easy, though. Some things - like building a cohesive management team and garnering positive brand recognition - took a great deal of time and effort.
“I’m very much a team player,” Le Mener said. “I always believe you don’t succeed alone. You succeed in large part because of the people you’ve surrounded yourself with.”
Of the five officials that comprise the company’s executive committee with Le Mener; three of them came from outside Motel 6.
“It takes at least two to three years to build a good, strong team,” he said. “Of our top 50 people, probably half of them weren’t here when I got here.”
One thing Le Mener said he found counterproductive in many American companies, including Motel 6, was the fear some have of openly expressing feelings. Since his arrival at Motel 6’s Dallas headquarters, Le Mener said he’s tried very hard to get and put everything on the table.
“At the beginning, it’s sometimes very difficult (for some) particularly when expressing a negative opinion,” he said. “For me, on the other hand, the positive feedback comes more slowly. “I tend to think people are going to grow only when they accept their weaknesses,” he said. “Once you’ve got them to do that, you’ve won half the battle”
Le Mener said his vision is no less than Motel 6 becoming the leading multi brand company in the U.S. limited-service lodging segment.
“With strong support from Accor, and the strong team we have at Motel
6, I really believe we will become the leader in providing a comfortable
stay for the value-conscious guest - and we’ll have fun doing it,” he said.