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Master of his own destiny

Robert E. Slater's story begins with a summer job that would change his direction in life. Working as a busboy at a hotel in Las Vegas taught him that a smile and a good demeanor could result in both financial and personal rewards. However, discipline convinced him to continue his route through college, and he graduated with a degree in accounting. Although he became a successful tax manager, Slater began to realize that he had a passion in life that was lying dormant: his love for hotels.

Slater is making headlines these days as chair of the American Hotel & Motel Association (AH&MA). With his accounting days behind him, Slater is making up for lost time in the industry by rapidly building a solid reputation. His credentials include being past president of the Oklahoma Hotel & Motel Association and past chairman of the AH&MA political action committee (AHMPAC), not to mention president and CEO of Oklahoma City-based Southern Hospitality Inc.

Slater has compiled a long list of contributions to the industry and, more specifically, the state of Oklahoma. As chair of the AH&MA, he has specific goals for the association, including one that might ruffle some feathers. Recently Slater sat down with NREI to talk about his dreams, his attempt to awaken a political sleeping giant and the passion that changed his life forever.

NREI: How did you get started in the hospitality industry? Slater: I started out as a busboy in a hotel in Las Vegas. I had an aunt and uncle who lived in Las Vegas, and I wanted to go there. I really connected to the job I had because that hotel had a lot of junketers from New York City. The typical New Yorker coming out to Las Vegas was a demanding customer, but the waitresses at this hotel were sour-faced, and I'm from Arkansas. There I was pouring the coffee, and [the customers] ended up tipping me instead of the waitresses. I thought, 'How stupid. These [customers] are willing to give you money, and you won't give them coffee, and you won't give them good service.' I got a charge out of what you could do if you gave people good service: There was a financial reward and there was the pleasure of seeing people appreciate what you were doing.

I ended up graduating from college with a degree in accounting. My first job was as a CPA with Pricewaterhouse in the tax department doing public accounting. I was in public accounting until 1977. What really drilled me was it was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. There I was with a great firm with great clients. As a tax manager, I had a lot of responsibility and interesting tax questions and problems, plus a very motivated and smart staff. However, what I was beginning to realize was that if I was going to do that for the rest of my life, I would not be happy. So it really was the best of times and the worst of times and that depressing realization that I had gotten myself into something I was regretting.

My uncle - who was seven years older - and I were like brothers. He was in the hotel business in Oklahoma City and was growing his company - he had three or four hotels at the time. The financial side of his business was weak, and he knew I was unhappy at Pricewaterhouse, so he asked me to be partners with him. I moved my family from Houston to Oklahoma City. I think my wife cried for a year. There I was getting out of this respectable, professional business, and was getting into the hotel business. Houston was pretty sophisticated, and Oklahoma City didn't quite have the same amenities. It was a very tough move for her, but she being the trooper she was, made it.

NREI: Did you have any regrets? Slater: That move was absolutely the best thing to ever happen to me. I never looked back - not even for a minute. My uncle and I were partners until the mid-1980s. The combination of two Type-A personalities and the turmoil of the oil bust caused our company to split. My biggest driver and fear was that I would have to go back to public accounting. Therefore, I formed my own company, Southern Hospitality Inc. Fortunately when our old company split up, I had a couple of hotels that I took with me.

Like it is in so many cases, where there is negativity and disaster on one side, there's opportunity on the other. For me, the opportunity was that, at the time, you couldn't pick up a paper without reading about a hotel being foreclosed. Unlike other owned real estate that a bank might have - an apartment building, office building or strip shopping center where their asset manager may try to manage inhouse - a hotel, because it is so management intensive, looks to outside management. In the 1980s, we were strictly a management and consultant company, and my CPA background helped that. When the banks had a loan that was going bad, they would ask us to look at it to evaluate that loan and the property - should they foreclose or shouldn't they?

So, we were a management/consultant firm in the 1980s, but I never really liked it. What I didn't like about it was that, one, we would come in and do the real work of turning the hotel around. When the hotel sold, we would get a pat on the head, and go down on the line. Two, it was very difficult for me to put together the kind of management team that I really wanted to put together because you have to surround yourself with people who are better and smarter than you are. I couldn't tell people if the hotel was going to be there one month or one year. I didn't like those aspects of the third-party management. My strategy was that we would manage these on a fee basis, but for the hotel that I thought had the real opportunity, I would try to put the equity and financing together to up them so I could be in charge of my own destiny.

NREI: What is your opinion of the image of the hotel industry? Slater: The former chair of the AH&MA, H.P. Rama, was addressing [the industry's image] head on with a task force called, 'Experience Lodging.' We're looking at how to attract and retain the work force. (For more on labor, training and retention, please see p. 84.) Every hotel we own, we have critical labor issues. It's affecting every hotel company. It's very similar to, 'Mommas don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys.' It's that same image about the hospitality, restaurant and hotel industry. It's really the wrong image.

We've done a very poor job of communicating the real professional careers that are available in the hotel industry. When you think about the hotel industry, it's not about making beds or checking people in, this is a whole professional career opportunity. It's nothing like necessity is the mother of invention. For us, necessity is where do we get our work force?

Unemployment, in some markets, is at 2%. That is forcing us to really get out and get this message across. I changed from a very respectable career to a career that is the most rewarding thing I've ever done. Where are you going to get an opportunity to be an entrepreneur, to really own something? Other professions don't allow you to do that.

NREI: What are some hospitality issues that Capitol Hill is tackling today? Slater: There's been some real apathy about what does it take to really be proactive and move your agenda forward on Capitol Hill. When [1999 AH&MA Chair] H.P. Rama talks to his students, he makes the analogy: How high do you want to build your hotel? It depends on how solid the foundation is. You can take it as high as you want to as long as its foundation is strong enough to handle it.

The same thing applies to us as far as trying to awaken this political sleeping giant from the Capitol Hill side. We don't have the pieces to the puzzle or the foundation yet. Our congressmen and senators - while they do want to hear from our paid staff and lobbyists - they really want to hear from the hoteliers who are out in that district who are creating those seven million jobs, that payroll and that economic activity.

To do this grassroots lobbying effort - which is what that is - you've got to reach out to the expertise. We have experts in running hotels, there's expertise in establishing a grassroots lobbying effort. We're not inventing the wheel here; this is something that has been done before, but if you go out and try to do it on your own, you're going to make mistakes that have been made before.

Putting in a grassroots lobbying effort is a real piece of that foundation that's missing. The other piece is AHMPAC, our national political action committee (PAC). You can't keep asking our congressmen and senators to support our issues and then for us not to be there when it comes time for them to get elected. Whether we like it or not, it costs a lot of money to run a federal election campaign. Newspapers and radios like to be paid, and televisions like to be paid for their advertising. You can imagine, what it must cost a congressmen to run for re-election.

It's an expensive proposition to be re-elected. We [hotel industry] should be there to show that we're an industry that will come in with resources that will help them get elected when it comes time for elections - building that reputation that we're there when it counts.

NREI: At the end of your term as chair, what do you hope to have accomplished? Slater: One, to get the foundation set in place to build our governmental affairs effort as high as we want to take it. I would like our association to have that kind of perception of how strong our industry is from a political side to match it to how strong we really are.

Two, I called for a change of our name. While I think that's a symbolic thing, I also think it's important because we're dealing with so much change in our industry. Our name is a dated name. No one calls the property they operate today a "motel." I think it conjures up the industry as it was in the 1950s, the 1960s - roadside motels. I don't think it accurately reflects who we are. There are so many different segments. What can be a niche product today can really be the industry of tomorrow. So, our name, in some ways, limits us.

I want to change our name to the American Lodging Association, and I know it's an emotional issue with a lot of our members, especially losing the name "hotel." I think if we look toward the future, one, we're known as the lodging industry, and if we call ourselves the American Lodging Association, we won't have to worry about how the industry changes in the future, we will be there, and we'll have a place under our umbrella. If I got that name change, I would feel very good about my term.

What was the best advice you ever received? "Surround yourself with the smartest and best people possible. You can't do it all yourself. Surrounding yourself with people smarter and better than you makes you raise the bar of your own performance. You need to constantly remind yourself that you are only as good as the people around you."

What was your biggest accomplishment? "Putting together the financing and equity to purchase my first hotel. The first deals are the hardest, and it tried to fall apart many times. The other acquisitions were much easier."

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