When Jennie Chua was promoted on Apr. 2 to president and chief executive of Raffles Holdings Ltd. and officially became the steward of one of Asia's premier luxury-hotel brands, it came as no surprise to the hospitality industry. In her previous job as CEO of Raffles International Ltd., the group's management arm, she ushered in a strategy shift that pulled Raffles out of a decade-long holding pattern. In April, 2001, she engineered the $250 million acquisition of Swissôtel, an operator of 26 deluxe business hotels. That transformed Raffles overnight from an Asia-centric operation to one with truly global reach, from The Watergate, in Washington, to The Bosphorus in Istanbul.
The Raffles brand has been the Asian hospitality industry's Rolls-Royce ever since the company renovated the 19th-century British-colonial Raffles Hotel in 1991. That inn's illustrious guest list has included Hollywood legend Charlie Chaplin and novelists Somerset Maugham and Joseph Conrad -- whose fabled drinking corner, the Writers' Bar, is a lazy sprawl of armchairs tucked behind a wrought-iron gate in the lobby.
Despite its gold-plated heritage, Raffles remained a small operation until 2001. It owned 11 grandes dames of the industry, such as the palatial Vier Jahreszeiten in Hamburg and Cambodia's Grand Hotel d'Angkor. But it could never break into managing hotels -- a less risky business that offers a steadier revenue stream without the burden of owning and maintaining assets. "With no track record, who's going to trust you to manage their hotel?" asks Chua, a garrulous 58-year-old grandmother who earned a BA from Cornell University's hotel-management school in 1971 and has been working her way up through Singapore's hotel business ever since. Swissôtel gives Chua a chance to show off her management savvy. The company now manages, but doesn't own, two-thirds of the 26 properties that use the Swissôtel brand.
With its broader global reach and reinvigorated management arm, Raffles' results are looking up. After seeing its profits plunge last year in the wake of September 11 and the Bali bombing, Raffles is now in the black in Europe and the Americas. In the first quarter of this year, the group achieved an average occupancy rate of 63% worldwide, down from 67% a year earlier, despite the war in Iraq and the early impact of SARS. "If we only owned Asian hotels, the negative impact would have been worse," says Chua. And without Jennie Chua, Raffles -- and Singapore -- would be worse off, too.