Kayode Aina: From Dishwasher to General Manager


Super Saturday story

Not many men beat the odds the way he did. A firm believer in hard work, creativity, and integrity, life didn’t give him a fair deal. But he beat the odds not only to live but to live life at its best. But for Kayode Aina, there’s no resting on his laurels. Having lost his father to the cold hands of death, he became the family’s breadwinner at a tender age. Unshaken by the vicissitudes of life, he financed his education abroad, in the United States of America where he studied Accounting. To survive in the US, he worked as a steward in the hotel, Holiday Inn – an experience which would later prove pivotal in his business. Now the General Manager of Park Inn by Radisson, Aina discusses with Adedayo Adejobi the travails of his sojourn in the US and how he found fulfillment. As a hospitality guru, he also made a forecast for Nigeria’s hospitality business in 2018

• My Park Inn by Raddison Experience

• Why I Came to Nigeria and Took Up Job with Park Inn By Radisson

• Nigeria’s Hospitality Industry Still at a Formative Stage

What was it like growing up?

I grew up with my disciplinarian grandmother in a small town called Ikun-Ekiti.  My father died, my siblings and I were young, so it was my mother and my late grandmother, uncles, and aunties, who brought me up. Maybe that’s why I gravitate towards the caring side aspect of life. If I wasn’t in the hospitality business, I would have studied Medicine or something that involves caring for people. The major occupations were farming and teaching. We didn’t have much but were happy. We had friends, family, hard work, simple life, communal living and a good values system. We moulded blocks to build our schools. For me, those moments are nostalgic. I have fond memories of my growing up years. Those precious moments shaped who I have become. It helped me thrive outside the country – I went to the United States as a self-sponsored student. The spirit of hard work helped me survive, go to school full-time and still graduate within three years. Through it all, I feel thankful to God that against all odds, I am where I am today.

What motivated you to go into hotel industry?

When I was in school, I needed a part-time job to get extra income, so I worked in the kitchen of a Holiday Inn in the United States. Back then, they were called dishwashers, but now they are called stewards. I started as a dishwasher; I was trained to be a cook. One white man observed and liked me, and asked if I would love to learn how to cook. After a year as a steward, I was trained to be a breakfast cook. By the time I graduated in Accounting, my intention was to come back home and go back into banking and work at First Bank Marina by Niger House at UAC Building. By the time I graduated, I decided to stay back and do my master’s. I still had the job.  By the time I had finished, there was a gradual decline in the economy, and so I waited, sent out my resume and got a job as the Assistant Financial Controller, of a newly open Radisson hotel in California. After working for Radisson, I got promoted to the Financial Controller. I got more involved in operations. Luckily, my background was in the kitchen which is 50% operations of the hotel.  The reason why I fell in love with the hospitality business is that there are always activities- it’s never a boring moment, at the management level.

It became a natural part of me to work through the kitchen and get involved in the other parts of hotel operations.

The owner of Los Angeles Raddison noticed me every time he came to the hotel.  I wasn’t the General Manager at that point, so when the opportunity came to hire a new Manager; unknown to me, he had done his background check, and found me well-liked and respected by all staff, so I was considered Acting General Manager while the search was on from a substantive Manager. From acting, I became permanent. I moved on to Starwood-four point hotels and was on the job for a while until I decided to come back home. On returning, my first gig was in Abuja, I was recruited from the United States by the owner of Hawthorn Suites. I then moved to Transcorp and then Park Inn by Radisson, Abeokuta.

With a comfortable job and interesting career in the United States, why did you leave for Nigeria?

If anyone had told me I’d come back to Nigeria, I’ll say no way because so many things work there. I was restless. Somehow, can’t really place why I returned to Nigeria.  A lot of my friends asked me why I would give up my job for a country where nothing works. Each time I came was during my annual leave, to spend a week or two.  I never had the intention to stay back. But over the cause of three years, I battled deciding whether to come back or not. I finally summoned the courage. The opportunity came up, the recruiter found me and I was hired. And I gave it a shot.

What has the experience been since returning to Nigeria?

I never knew how crucial generators are to a hotel until I came back to Nigeria. We didn’t have a generator in my hotel in the United States, so it never occurred to me. There is always water. Suppliers always delivered. In the hotel business, power, water, infrastructures, are important for its survival. I took those things for granted. I guess what made me stay back in Nigeria after my return was the nostalgia of my growing up in the village.  When I was growing up, there was no electricity in my village. In secondary school, we read with lanterns although we had a generator which was turned on and off for a particular study time.  I probably raced through nostalgic moments of going to the farm, growing up, working miles to the farm, and then sank into the reality called Nigeria-home in order to make an impact. The hospitality industry in Nigeria is still at its formative stage.  The joy for me is that I am able to influence people who aspire to be general managers, financial controllers of international hotels. It’s not been easy dealing without the conveniences that I was used to, but I am driven by a higher calling than more. I am driven by value, meaningfulness, influence, purpose. Thankfully, I’m in a job that can take care of my family. But there has to be something I can contribute beyond money.

There were times I asked myself, ‘Have I made a mistake?’ I have the opportunity to go back to the United States anytime I want. I, however, go back once in a while when the ‘frustration’ sets in. Sometimes I can escape for two weeks, and then when I’m there I’m longing to come back. I am still trying to find what’s tying me down here. Maybe it’s the Yoruba myth of my umbilical cord. I hope there is a scientific proof to that. I tell my friends who ask me how I survive here that- Nigeria is a matter of the mindset. There are issues but sometimes you emphasise what you want to emphasised. Nigeria is a work in progress. There are bright sides of it that can help compensate for its dark sides, and help live with the challenges that you may come across. There are people who are massively successful in Nigeria, even without political connections. It’s a matter of what you find meaningful.

As the first internationally branded Hotel in Ogun State, there are expectations. What do you stand for and what are you doing for the community?

As the first internationally branded hotel in Ogun State with over 160 employees, there are huge expectations from the community and as a global brand. There are things that are taken for granted, for us it’s a given. We try to live to that promise.  We see ourselves as a destination from Lagos for corporate and individual clients. We’ve had a lot of families here. As a hotelier, seeing kids run around the hotel makes me happy. Business is growing and we are lucky we have a very understanding owner. We have a corporate social responsibility initiative ongoing. We are in the first phase of the school debate amongst Secondary schools in Ogun State.  The impulse behind it is education. And once they are educated, by and large, they can fend for themselves.

You worked for Transcorp briefly. Comparing Transcorp to Park Inn by Radisson Hotel, they have entirely different brand images and possibly different target markets. What prompted you to work for Park Inn?

I worked at Transcorp Hotel in Calabar. It was a wonderful experience. Why I came to Park Inn, my very first job after university education was at the newly opened Radisson Hotel in California. When this opportunity was presented to me, it was like a homecoming. I still remember my friends, colleagues who had risen through the ranks and never left, and my bosses at the United States headquarters. The attachment to taking on the job at Park Inn by Radisson was to relieve those memories. I remember I had a memorable experience for the few years I spent there.

What do you enjoy most at work that makes you lose track of time?

Every single day I lose track of time, but what I enjoy is mentoring.  Working with my staff, moulding, shaping the future, and dealing with our guests-I lose track of time. With 173 rooms, and guests almost every day, every guest is different with perspectives, worldviews, and challenges. The boilerplate formula changes and it’s never a boring moment for someone who loves being engaged.

If you could relive one day of your life, which day would you choose?

Positively, the day I met my spouse. For the environment where I come from, if I don’t have an understanding spouse, it’s nearly impossible to work in the hotel or hospitality business.  I am particular about anything that significantly affects the health or safety of my guest, I don’t care what time of the day, you have to call me. I’ll rather you call me if not sure than not call me even when unsure. Meeting a spouse that understands and doesn’t hold it against me that we’re not spending time together, is the best thing. We met in school as friends and it graduated into a life partnership. Thank God for technology, when I’m not here, we stay in touch by phone constantly. I also travel to see her and the kids in the United States, while she visits frequently.

In the eyes of your employees, what is the single most important quality you should have?

Care -that is hospitality. The business is about caring for staff, guests, and suppliers.

What is the single best quality your employees can possess?

You have to genuinely care about people to work in this Business. It might sound cliché- hire for attitude, train for skill. If you have the caring attitude, I can teach you how to cook, check in- and check out guests, how to operate the laundry equipment.  Ultimately, this business is about caring.

What are the things that you do not like to do?

I don’t like to sit idle. If I’m not working, I’ll be reading, watching the global or national news.  There is time to relax, but relaxation just doesn’t come second nature to me. There has to be something I am doing except I am sleeping.

Some people say that a GM is not important to his frontline employees. Do you agree?

I don’t agree. The general manager is as good as the people who work for him or her. Nobody was born with the paraphernalia of office. You are as good as they are.

What misconceptions do people often have about your job?

They rate you as high and mighty. It’s just a title. In practice, it’s all about the people that work for and with you.  It’s about the teamwork and the team. It’s good to respect, but there’s a difference between respect and fear. I love my people to respect me.

What are your average work hours?

If there’s any such thing, I’ll do about 10-12 hours a day. I am creative with my rest. Although my day-off is working around the hotel, making sure things are in place. For me, it’s a form of exercise. I try to get seven hours of sleep every day and wake up refreshed.

What do you do differently from your co-workers or peers in the same profession?

Everybody has their style. I am approachable, caring about people who work for me.  To be successful in this business, you must have a good personality and thorough in paying attention to details. I also watch my numbers- the profit and loss account.

What’s the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?

The most challenging part of the job is the business of moving parts in terms of the different touch points from the service continuum. From the greetings to the porter, staff that would check you in, room service.  Making clients happy could go wrong with just a staff forgetting to do one thing, and that for me is a big deal. Coordinating the people- part of the business is the most challenging.

What’s the most enjoyable part of the job?

Taking care of people, looking back and seeing guests and staff happy.  Seeing guests give good reviews and making good numbers.

What do your customers under/over value?

You can’t say they over-value because they are the boss and define value.  It’s our job to give them a memorable experience from check-in to check out, ensuring that everything works out perfectly. Value is the experience. For us, we try to understand guest intimacy. We go the extra mile to transcend the expectation of our guests.

If you must make a choice, would you do the things right or would you do the right things?

I would do the right things. The results may be slow, at the end of the day, it’s sustainable.

At work, what puts a smile on your face?

Going around seeing my staff doing what they need to do, seeing them happy. If they are smiling, that mentally means they are happy with the job, and guests would be happy.

What puts a frown on your face?

Occasionally, when people don’t do the right things, it puts a frown on my face.

If you didn’t know how old you are, how old would you like to be?

Age is just a number. I could be any age as long as I’m happy.  Happiness entails work-life balance, care of the guest and being able to contribute positively to the society. At any age, I can be happy.

What advice would you offer to those who are inspired to become successful in the hotel industry?

In any industry, define clearly what happiness is to you and pray for guidance. There is nothing wrong with chasing money, but it’s not necessarily happiness and fulfillment.

What trends should we expect in the hospitality business in 2018?

The outlook looks positive. The bread and butter of the hotel business are the business travellers because they spend more money and require less maintenance. They are in and out. We make more of our monies from business travellers. The economy is improving and we are going into an election year. As such, there’ll be a flurry of activities.  The hotels will make more money and the owners are happy.

What’s your philosophy of life?

Care for people, work hard and infuse some spirituality into what you do. I don’t go to church every single week, but I make time.  Most times, I kneel and pray in my office. The church is important, but my spiritual connection with God is more important.