For more than a decade, Michael Beckley has been trying unsuccessfully to retire from the hotel industry. Somehow, every time he was set to call it a day, circumstances and timing colluded to stand between him and a life of leisure. Finally, last year, just as Marriott Hotels announced its acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, the charming 75-year-old hotelier bid adieu to his colleagues at Marriott Hotels, where, for 15 years, he’s been expanding the brand’s footprint in Canada.
Beckley and the hotel industry have been intimately intertwined for the past 50 years. And though he may have finally hung up his hotelier hat, he leaves a lasting mark on the hotel landscape through the countless people he has developed and mentored along the way, his sound business acumen and deal-making and his passion for giving back to the community. As a teenager growing up in England, Beckley knew he wanted to work in the hotel industry. But never did he imagine the legacy he would build with a career spanning five decades and seven countries. Born in Hartfordshire, 20 miles north of London, a stint working at a pub to help his parents pay for his private-school education sparked his love of hospitality. “The pub owner was a mentor and at the time, there weren’t many educational access points for hotels,” he says. While career advisors stressed the importance of a university education, prodding him to become a doctor or a lawyer, Beckley stood fast in his conviction. “My mom encouraged me,” he recalls. “She told me ‘Well you will always have a roof over your head and food in your stomach’” — important considerations for a family that had lived through the war.
After graduating from Westminster Hotel School, Beckley landed his first job as a management trainee for British Transport Hotels, the British version of Canadian Pacific Hotels, with such marquee names as Gleneagles, St. Andrews and the Great Eastern Hotel. During the company’s mandated five-year training program, Beckley worked as a cook in the U.K., a waiter in France and a front-desk attendant and night auditor in Germany. “I had been exposed to every single department,” boasts the always nattily attired Beckley, “and it taught me two languages.”
While working as a junior assistant manager at a Manchester Hotel, he received a call from a hotel manager he knew in Bermuda, inviting him to join the team at the Pink Beach Club hotel; he jumped at the opportunity. “It really had an appeal. As someone brought up in pinstripe suits and button holes with flowers, the thought of going to Bermuda was kind of sexy,” recalls Beckley. He spent two years at the hotel, followed by another six in Barbados honing his skills and learning from mentors such as Sig Wollman, managing director of the Pink Beach. “He taught me a lot. He had escaped from Siberia and got to the U.S. where he worked his way through many New York hotels. When I left Barbados, he gave me a solid 18/24-karat gold ring, and said, ‘Put this on and never take it off; you’re going to be one of the great hoteliers.’”
The Caribbean was pivotal in building Beckley’s resort experience and working in all departments helped build his confidence. It’s also where he met his Dutch-born wife Janet, to whom he has been married for 40 years. He learned several important lessons there that still serve him well — one of which was delivered by the head housekeeper at the hotel who also happened to be head of the union. Only days into the job, she took him aside and told him: “Ask rather than tell; lead rather than manage; and learn to be humble.”
For many, Beckley will always be associated with Commonwealth Hospitality, a juggernaut with strong roots in the U.K., and at one time, Canada’s largest hotel company.The company was a fertile training ground for many of the industry’s top hoteliers. Hired by Ray Yelle, then president, Beckley arrived in Canada in 1981 as the company’s executive vice-president, with a mission to build the Holiday Inn brand. “It was the largest hotel in Canada at the time with about 60 hotels. It was a big jump for me, with responsibility for 14,000 people.” Almost immediately, the personable hotelier began making a name for himself.
Over the years, Beckley’s effusive personality — not to mention his suave demeanor and sense of humour — have pulled people to him like a magnet. In fact, his strong people skills are amongst his best qualities. “Back in those days, we had a good culture and great employee relations. It was like an extended family. We were probably the leader in training programs and social infrastructure. We had a lot of employee loyalty,” he says. Not surprisingly, by 1987, Beckley became president of the company.
According to David MacMillan, now an industry consultant, who worked for Beckley at Commonwealth, “At the start and the end, Michael is a family man …but the family grew to include all of us. Michael had the ability to be fair and challenging, strict but flexible, demanding but forgiving. He’s smart, precise and reliable,” says MacMillan. Aside from dealing with the various challenges of running a large company, Beckley was instrumental in making the Canadian brand more attractive as a marketing destination. Spearheading a discussion with Simon Cooper and Robert De Mone, both of whom ran very large companies (Cooper with Delta and DeMone with Canadian Pacific), the triumvirate decided that with all their contacts combined, they could fuel increased tourism to the country. The result was the launch of an advertising campaign called “Experience Canada,” which spurred big-name stars and Canadians alike to vacation in Canada. The campaign became so successful, the federal government decided to finance it, fuelling the creation of the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC) and earning the trio a Pinnacle Award in 1994. By 1999, after dealing with five ownership changes at Commonwealth, just as the hotel world began to consolidate through mergers and acquisitions, Unihost (now Westmont) acquired Commonwealth and Beckley’s job was eliminated. The Caribbean lured him back for a while, this time as a consultant for the Barbados government.
By 2001, he was ready to pack it in and retire when he got a fortuitous call from Simon Cooper, who had left his role at Marriott to lead the Ritz Carlton brand. Cooper informed Beckley that Marriott was looking to hire someone to build the brand in Canada and urged him to meet with Marriott execs at its head office in Bethesda, Md. Before he knew it, Beckley was hired as the top man in Canada.
He laughingly recalls agreeing to the job with the stipulation that he would only serve a two-year term. Through the years, there were many times when Beckley was set to retire, only to be talked out of it. “I remember once saying to Mr. Marriott, ‘I’m 70 you know,’” and Marriott, who happens to be about 10 years Beckley’s senior replied: “So, what’s your point?”
Fifteen years later, Beckley’s mark on Marriott is far-reaching, and his time there remains the highlight of his career. From 17 units when he joined in 2001, to a total of 162 units upon his departure, the company now has a portfolio of 30 brands, including the homegrown Delta brand, and more recently, the acquisition of the Starwood brands. “To be given the opportunity to grow a business in a country is one heck of an opportunity,” says Beckley.
Over the years, Beckley has learned many lessons and he’s imparted a few of his own. He’s a firm believer in culture. “For whichever organization I’ve been with, culture was as important as the business components of running a company.” Through the myriad ownership changes at Commonwealth, for example, “what always held it together was the culture. It still resembled a family. And, ironically at Marriott, it was a perfect fit because the belief was always, if you look after the associates, they’ll look after the guests and the guests will return.”
Secondly, he says, “One has to give back in as many ways as possible.” He’s done that in spades. Beckley served as chair of the Ontario Tourism Strategy under the Bob Rae government; he was co-chair of the fundraising committee for George Brown College’s expansion almost a decade ago; and he spearheaded the creation of the CTC. “Back in those days, we were competitive but we understood the value of making a bigger pie so everyone would benefit.”
And, says Beckley, “It’s very important to look forward to the future, but equally important to leave a legacy behind you.”
Ironically, while he has spent a great deal of effort over the years trying to retire, not even a year after finally doing so, he’s back at it, albeit in a part-time capacity working with real-estate brokerage CBRE, where he puts in about 15 hours a week consulting on hotel deals.
According to Bill Stone, executive director, CBRE “Michael is an entrepreneur, statesman, deal junky and visionary all rolled into one. He continues to be so well respected and has elegantly expanded our footprint.” While the real-estate stint allows Beckley to be connected to the industry at his own pace, he’s happily devoting the rest of his time to his wife, five children and four grandchildren.
“If you have health, time becomes a very important commodity and I owe it to Janet and the family to spend time with them,” he says. “We go to Europe every year and we love it.” At the time of this interview, he and his wife were set to jet off to Spain. “Last year we were in the south of France, the year before, Italy, and we have a small home in Boca Raton, Fla.,” where he hopes to spend most of the winter, although he’ll have to wait to head south because his wife prefers to spend Christmas in Canada. Oddly enough, he says, while his wife is from the Islands, she’s the one who loves the change of seasons. He, on the other hand, is a professed sun worshipper who would much prefer to spend the winter in Florida, away from the harsh Canadian weather. For now, however, he’s happy making his wife happy, and she’s happy he’s finally retired — sort of.