‘If people say you can’t, prove you can’
The General Manager, Swiss International Mabisel, Port Harcourt, Mrs. Amaka Michael, recently bagged the Women Leadership Excellence Award from Xperience Online Media, organisers of Leading Women Conference, in recognition of her contributions to the hospitality industry in Nigeria and Africa.
A graduate of Business Administration and Management, Mrs. Michael also holds an MBA from the prestigious Business School of The Netherlands. She has never been afraid to break new grounds, and demonstrated strong leadership in a male-dominated organization. This explains why she is the first female African General Manager of Swiss International in the world. She told Kelvin Ebiri in Port Harcourt at the event that the award should immensely spur women in the hospitality industry to realise that they can be successful and outstanding if they remain focused and determined.
You have carved a niche for yourself in the hospitality industry. What informed this career choice?
I joined the industry in 2005, it was very confusing, not knowing what to make out of it. But after some time, I gained clarity and I knew that it was a perfect industry for me. It was quite challenging and again I never knew I would get to the peak of it, which is being a general manager. People used to see it as masculine job meant for men and that a woman cannot do it. But I was spurred by Joyce Meyer’s statement that if people say you can’t, you need to prove you can.
Tell us about your career progression
I joined Protea, a South African brand as a trainee manager and I was trained in several countries around the world. At first, I was trained in South Africa and from there I was taken to Kumasi city then to Accra both in Ghana. Afterwards, I returned back to Port Harcourt. Back here in Nigeria I was saddled with the responsibility of training other staff of the company. Later, I became the human resources manager. At a point I realised that being at the background I won’t be able to make to the best out of the industry and so I decided to join operations. That afforded me the opportunity to become the food and beverage manager and I did that job for two years. During this period, my boss noticed that I have some inherent potential that needed to be harnessed. From there, the management decided to take me to the sales department where I rose to the position of sales and marketing manager. From there I became the revenue manager of the hotel. For complete nine years I was moving from one department to another. After being revenue manager, I became the Rooms Division manager. From that position I got another opportunity to join Swiss International Hotels and Resorts. I joined as a deputy general manager working under a Netherlands boss. Few months after I joined the company, his contract expired and he also recognized my potentials and that was how I was taken to Ras Al Khaimah – United Arab Emirates where we have the head office for further training. I became the first Nigerian and African General Manager of the brand in 2014.
What are the challenges you faced climbing to the top in this male- dominated industry?
It is very tough. For you to be a resident manager, you must have to stay in the facility. You have to be there 24/7, of course, we all know that it is a 24-hour operations. Being a 24-hour operation, it entails you being at the facility from morning till night for 365 days a year. You oversee the day-to-day running of the hotel and most women cannot venture into that because culture has limited us a lot. If you are a mother, you have to take care of the children and you also have to take care of your husband as well. It is very challenging one and people don’t like taking up this job. But I took it up as a challenge because I know I can make the best out of it. I got great inspiration from the word of the Lord and teachings of my mentor, Pastor David Ibiyeomie and I stood firm. Today, I have won and I am standing
Did your elevation as General Manager come as a surprise?
Definitely not. At every given point in time, the achievement recorded had been by the grace of God. I have been committed to my job and given it my best. I had resolved that this is what I wanted to do and was determined to get the fullness out of it. When people believe they can’t do something, I have always dared say I can and that has taken me to where I am today.
In the course of your career, were you ever victimised or marginalized by men?
Sure. On many occasions. In one of the trainings that I attended in Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates, I was the only woman in the hall. There were many men in the hall and in fact, I was the only African woman. We were taking a team building exercise and when it was time to lead I volunteered to be a leader and one of my male colleagues from Saudi Arabia told me, ‘you a woman cannot lead me.’ He insisted that he was going to lead the team but I refused and referred to the exams we had the previous day where he failed and I passed. While we were arguing, the CEO came in and said who is the leader of the group? He then went on to say, ‘I will suggest Amaka leads’ and everybody kept quiet. At that moment, I told them I am a winner. From inception, I always believed that I am unique and can do anything. I respect men, but I tell you one thing, you cannot look down on me or undermine me in any way. What happened in Ras Al Khaimah made me realise that gender parity cannot deter me. I always tell myself that God created them male and female so there is no difference between a man and a woman. I don’t care how the culture sees a woman.
From Swiss International Mabisel, Port Harcourt, the brand has made inroad into other African countries. How did you achieve this feat?
I can say that we started with a brand that was not recognized in Africa and managing the first hotel for the brand in the entire Africa was a very challenging one. In hospitality business it is an intangible product that you sell. Most times most people prefer going to a property they know, maybe as a result of referral from another property.
But for us we realised that this is an upscale brand and that we can actually stand out and set a pace in the city. What helped us more was that we had to aggressively advertise the Swiss values; that is the products we have, which is definitely unique from every other brand. I can tell you that this branch has given birth to so many other hotels. Swiss took up a property at Asaba recently. After this, another Swiss hotel came up in Nairobi, another also came up at Kigali. We are expecting more. Swiss International Port Harcourt is actually the pioneer brand of Swiss International in Africa. A lot of investors will always visit here. In fact, I have often had one-on-one discussion before they will agree to buy the brand. And today, we have over six properties coming up in Abuja, three in Lagos. We are spreading. Swiss is taking her root everywhere in the world.
How has your academic training in Business Administration and Management impacted your career?
You know that every investor wants returns from his business and if you studied business you will realize that the motive behind every business is to make money. In school, we were taught how to make money. Being a graduate of Business Administration and Management has tremendously helped me in terms of strategic planning, strategic management and financial management. Business and accounting was some of our dominant courses in school.
How do you manage your career and your home?
Very easy. All every woman should pray for is to have an understanding husband. My husband is my first supporter. He is my first fan. He loves what I am doing so much and has given me a lot of support. A man who can allow the wife to work till midnight and sometimes 1:00am without problem is exceptional. One thing I make sure I do is to give the best to him and my children. I take time out for holidays. When I am on holiday, I delegate duties in my office. Nobody disturbs my holiday. It is actually the time that my family have full time to share with me. After that, I return to work and they understand that business is business. In fact, what matters is having a good husband and God in your home.
Is there anything you think Nigerian hospitality industry can learn from the UAE?
A lot. UAE is the hub of hospitality business. An average Arab understands what services is all about and they render the best. They are dedicated to the business. I don’t need to go deep but you know we have problems in Nigeria. The leaders need to help the nation. People cannot do business in this nation because it is not easy to get energy. It is not ease to sustain business. Again, every young person needs to change their orientation. Even when they work for you, they work as though they are doing you a favour. They need to understand that they are developing themselves.
What has it been like running hotel business in Port Harcourt?
Very challenging environment. You will recall that in the last dispensation under President Goodluck Jonathan, this state at a certain point because an opposition state. You know government contributes to about 60 percent of business in every state. So when the state became opposition and it was very tedious era for the hotel business.
Other challenges we had to contend with was that of insecurity and kidnapping. It was not easy. Investors were not coming into the State. Businesses were not flourishing and when oil price went down so many companies began to fold from there. Thereafter came in the Buhari regime, the economic recession, but amid all these challenges we were able to cope. We actually created a niche for ourselves. Bear in mind that where we are located is not the centre of Port Harcourt, we are at the Trans-Amadi area, and a lot of activities don’t happen here because it is an industrial area. But we were able to create a niche for the hotel to be in a blue and not red ocean. It was a very good strategy we used to cater for corporate clients. We created a lot of promos that has made people to recognize the Swiss brand and I can tell you, for now, we are the best in Port Harcourt and we have been singled out. In Swiss International we personalize services. It like a home-away from-home. It is the love we shower on clients that makes them come over and over again. We thank God we survived.
How can government enhance the prospects of the hospitality business in Nigeria?
Government can do a lot. Lets start from taxes, what the hotels pay is too much. They can reduce that. They should ensure we have steady power. What continues to kill a lot of hotel businesses in Nigeria is power. Hotels struggle to pay energy bills such as cost of diesel. This singular factor can cripple a good business. Government should encourage tourism. We have a lot of places that people can visit in Nigeria. Take Kenya for instance, you see people throng into that nation from all over the world yearly and I keep asking myself what are they going to see? They go to resorts to see elephants, antelopes and so on. People go to UAE to ride bike in the desert sand. That same sand is in Maiduguri. Government should revive Obudu cattle ranch which one of the best ranches in the world. They should invest money in promoting tourism and tourists will come. When tourists come and stay in hotels, then, we will make money and we be able to pay the taxes they are imposing on us.
What is your advise to younger ladies who might be inspired by your story?
Just make a decision on what you want to be in life. Even in the hospitality industry you must not necessarily be in the operations side of it. We have human resources, account section and from there you can advance to work in every other industry. But if you want to be in the core industry operation, I advise you to remain steadfast. No challenges should make you waver. Just understand you have a purpose and you must achieve that purpose and I can tell you one thing is certain, you will achieve your goal. They should understand what they want in life, set a vision and have a mission. A lot of young women don’t know they can develop themselves. They should take education very serious. I developed myself in many ways. I took a lot of courses that made me who I am today. They should read. A lot of women don’t read. Aside reading, they should also pray so that God can give them a vision.