Josef Forstmayr — keeping Round Hill at the cutting edge
Business Leader: Executive Steward Nominee #1
Today the Jamaica Observer publishes the first of 12 stories on the nominees for this year's Business Leader Award being held under the theme “Business Leader: Executive Steward”. The nominees are among the top CEOs in Jamaica.
By the time Josef Forstmayr set foot on Jamaican soil in 1979, the island was already deep into its convulsive transition from a niche market winter hideaway for the rich, to a hotchpotch of tourism offerings that reflected the evolving social environment.
Round Hill Hotel with its idyllic ocean view and undulating topography was among the few that clung tenaciously to the original template.
For whatever reason, this was not to be the playground for the adventurous Austrian's first foray in our travel industry; and perhaps, fortuitously so.
When Forstmayr eventually landed at Round Hill after 10 years of honing his skills within the local culture he quickly rose to become its managing director, and thereafter John Pringle's vision became that much more secured.
Pringle was the peripatetic visionary who in the 1950s took a quick glance at the gently rising bluff overlooking the Caribbean Sea at Hopewell in Hanover and saw in it, its full potential.
Just five miles west of Montego Bay it became, beginning in 1953, the Round Hill Hotel — 110 contiguous acres of blissful real estate to which deep-pocketed jetsetters were invited to build villas that doubled as their private getaways and the 1950s version of the modern-day Airbnb concept.
If Forstmayr was to burrow his way inside the heart of Jamaica's leisure sector, Round Hill was the obvious place to be — at the very least, that's the way it turned out. For one, Austria — his place of birth — with its slavish fidelity to traditions and its lavish boutique properties, not dissimilar to that of Round Hill, had provided the perfect training ground for his Jamaican ambition.
“I think the Austrians and Jamaicans get along well because we are more easygoing,” he offers.
“We are also perfectionists; we want to be the best in the world, and Jamaicans are the same. We have a good synergy.”
Forstmayr inherited an unorthodox ownership and operational structure that de facto placed him as managing director at the very centre of decision-making in a way that is uncommon within the corporate world.
At Round Hill, each cottage is individually owned, and the owners in turn are shareholders in the entire resort. By agreement, whenever the owners are not occupying their villas, or cottages as Forstmayr prefers to call them, they are automatically placed in the rental pool. There are 26 cottages ranging in size from two- to six-bedroom units — amounting to 98 bedroom suites. In addition there is a conventional hotel building with 36 oceanfront rooms. Altogether there are 134 rooms at Round Hill, many of them in direct view of the breathtaking peninsula and the resort's two private bays.
Round Hill Development Ltd — to use its accounting name — has a board which each year elects a chairman and vice-chairman. There are quarterly board meetings and an annual general meeting — all suggestive of a fairly engaged directorship.
This resort, like many others in Jamaica, has had to adapt to the vicissitudes of the tourism industry in order to thrive. Make no mistake about it — most of this transformative work has fallen squarely on the shoulders of the managing director.
The starting point of the systemic challenges has been Jamaica's changing, and many have argued, deteriorating image abroad; it should come as no surprise that the national brand has not remained unscathed by the high levels of crime here. The inability of the country's social infrastructure to meet the growing demands and what some believe to be lack of adequate investments in attractions have not helped.
Thankfully, given the nature of its ownership and capital structure, Round Hill has traditionally been a bit more insulated than others within the sector with more conventional business models and which are subject to unyielding profit pressure from shareholders.
But the hotelier with whom the Round Hill owners have entrusted their company is an irrepressible, self-driven man.
“I am in full control of all operations, including sales and marketing,” Forstmayr unabashedly declares.
This is an overt acknowledgement that the burden to transition from what was essentially a retreat for the rich and famous to a self-sustainable, profit-driven operation was largely his to carry, and he began with an ambitious marketing drive.
“The biggest challenge,” the managing director lets on, “was to bring Round Hill into a full-year operation since it was only operating as a winter season resort from its inception in 1953. We had to develop new markets which were not familiar with the 'typical' winter season clientele which knew of us and were prepared to pay the high rates…. as well as to build the infrastructure to support a year-round operation.”
Forstmayr's self-declared tendency towards perfectionism may very well be a personal characteristic that is woven into his DNA. What is also clear is that at Round Hill, perfectionism is a deep-seated operating strategy that went into high gear once the service mantra became not just a way of life but a way of doing business.
The customer-centric culture unambiguously announces itself from the moment a visitor pulls up at the guardhouse at the foot of the hill — and is greeted and assisted in a manner that evidently assumes he/she is a valuable customer on a good-faith mission.
Enthusiastic workers with exaggerated Jamaican mannerism, perfectly manicured lawns and the explosion of colourful flora along the driveway towards check-in provide further subliminal text to the scrupulous attention to detail that could have emanated from nowhere but the very top of the organisation.
“We train people!!” Forstmayr declares emphatically, belabouring the obvious. “I strongly believe in… providing upward mobility to our staff and the surrounding community by paying good wages, subcontracting most of our building, furniture-making and general investments locally.”
The décor at Round Hill is a perpetual conversation piece.
America's legendary designer Ralph Lauren, whose name has become a metaphor for high quality, has his handprints all over the place.
In the first instance, Lauren owns two units: one, a 20-plus-acre estate with a mini mansion and the other a Gatsby-like beach house that sits at the edge of the resort like a giant white wedding cake.
Forstmayr sports Ralph Lauren chinos and polo shorts, which unsurprisingly have been adopted as the resort uniform.
Lauren also had a hand in the design of the 27 breezy white 'Ocean Front' rooms of Pineapple House, the hotel building that is so called as a nod to the estate's former status as a pineapple plantation. The designer's crisp linens adorn the four-poster beds that deck out the rooms. Visitors must be prepared to fork out between US$319 and US$700 per night depending on the season, and a host of other factors.
And that's the entry-level accommodation.
An overnight stay at a two-bedroom villa could set you back US$1,400, while for those who have set their sights on the six-bedroom unit, between US$6,000 and US$8,000 per night will suffice.
Lauren shares membership in this exclusive club with past titans like Sir Noel Coward, Lord Rothermere, Oscar Hammerstein, Bill Paley and contemporaneously, iconic entrepreneurial personalities like Stephen Schwarzman (Blackstone Group), Bob Pittman (i-heart media), and Caroline St George.
Still, Forstmayr makes the case that the most important common bond within the ownership class is not wealth, but their avowed love for the country.
“All of them are madly in love with Jamaica,” he argues. “They enhance our visibility in their respective circles.”
Forstmayr's journey to Round Hill was admittedly unremarkable, if predictable. Fresh from the University of Salzburg where he studied economic sciences and tourism, his career began as an assistant manager at Coconut Cove in Negril. He moved up the ladder when he later served as resident manager at the prestigious Tryall Golf and Beach Hotel in Hanover about three miles west of Round Hill. He followed this posting with the job of general manager at Trident Villas and Hotel in Port Antonio before settling in at Round Hill.
“Jamaica has been very good to me,” he confesses.
Given the ease with which he himself came to embrace the local culture, it is not surprising that this European understands very well the value of providing his guests with an immersive Jamaican experience. He says he has sold the entire management and staff on this mission and that the hotel is now profiting from it.
At Round Hill, the local food, the music, the “vibes” engender a family atmosphere with an unmistakable local flavour — all layered on top of a first-rate physical infrastructure.
“I feel very passionately about all things Jamaican,” says the hotelier. “I strongly believe in sourcing most of our food products in Jamaica.”
That conviction has played out in one interesting way. Eight years ago Round Hill began an organic vegetable and herb garden, which is now a primary source of produce for its restaurants.
“We train people to work in the hotels as chefs — and it's not just a job, it's a profession,” explains Forstmayr.
This passion led to the poaching of executive chef Martin Maginley from Grand Lido Hotel, with the end result, from the vantage point of the Round Hill boss, justifying the means.
“I wanted the best for Round Hill,” he says.
That Round Hill as a major employer of labour in Hanover is embedded within the community should come as no surprise.
“I am a firm believer that we must get involved in our community and be a positive influence for improvements of these communities,” declares the managing director.
This is no idle promise: the company actually commits substantial resources to this corporate mantra, donating tens of millions of dollars each year to good causes throughout the parish, from education, to health and community development — funds that are raised from its annual charity ball.
With such an enlightened outlook, it is no wonder that Round Hill, under Forstmayr's stewardship, has been such a prolific winner of some of tourism's most prestigious awards.
For six consecutive years, the World Travel Awards' 'Best Villas' went to this company. It has copped the AAA's 'Four Diamond Award of Excellence', the Brass Key Award for 'Most Romantic Resort', and has been featured on Conde Nast Traveler's Gold List and Travel + Leisure's 'World's Best List'.
Forstmayr says that, through all of this, all hands have been on deck — from management, to the owners, to staff.
“I have an incredible management team which is just as passionate as I am,” he says, singling out the general manager, Omar Robinson, for special praise.
“My management style is very inclusive,” he adds. “I tend to lead from the front and ensure that all our team gets full recognition and clear responsibilities. I also tend to be a perfectionist, hopefully in a positive way. I have been very fortunate to find and build an incredible management team.”
The owners, too, have played their part. Over the years, they have had to commit millions of dollars in capital to the facility in order to, in the words of the managing director, “polish the jewel”, and to maintain its marketing and branding programmes.
Yet Forstmayr's role within the industry has not been limited to the hotel he serves. For many years, the western Jamaica hotelier with a central European accent and a name that defies the laws of phonetics, has been one of tourism's most visible and ardent advocates.
“I am certain that tourism will continue to thrive and provide an engine for our economy,” he says. “I would like to see more efforts to share the benefits of the industry with our communities and to provide better and more employment opportunities for middle and upper management positions. This holds especially true for some of our newer entrants into the hotel industry… after all, it is the very special Jamaican sense of hospitality, entertainment and overall experience which bring our visitors back year after year.”
As president of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association (CHTA), between 2010 and 2012, Forstmayr raised public awareness on the importance of tourism to the Caribbean through an advocacy campaign dubbed 'Tourism is Key'.
Currently, he is a director of the Jamaica Tourist Board and chairman of the Montego Bay Arts Council Limited (Montego Bay Cultural Centre).
The dual citizen is the Honorary Consul for the Republic of Austria in Jamaica, and in 2005 was awarded the Order of Distinction in the Rank of Officer for his contribution to Jamaica's tourism industry. He was named Hotelier of the Year by the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association in 1993 and 1996 and Caribbean Hotelier of the Year by the Caribbean Hotel Association in 2007.
— Moses Jackson is the founder of the Business Leader Award programme and chairman of the Award Selection Committee. He may be reached at email@example.com
— Freelance journalist Nazma Muller contributed to this story.