Quest for excellence
Published: 21 Aug 2015
Name: Roula Samaha
Job title: General manager
Company: Malmaison Aberdeen
YOU ARE ORIGINALLY FROM BEIRUT. WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO GROW UP THERE?
So obviously in Beirut since 1977 there has been a civil war so for the first 16 years of my life it’s always been unsettled. I’ve lived in a proper war zone for at least seven years. We would sometimes sleep in the bunker for weeks on end and I became a bit of an expert with artillery. You know that if you hear it and you hear the whizz, it means it has gone past you. If you hear it and don’t hear the whizz of the bomb, it means it could land near you. So I think you learn a lot of things that you maybe wouldn’t learn in peaceful environment. But I also think it makes you resilient and hard-skinned from a young age.
The one thing that is a credit to at least the environment that I grew up in was that even though we were in a war, it didn’t stop the education so we would get homework at home, when there was a ceasefire we would get intensive lessons so we did our school years as normal as possible.
WHAT HAPPENED AFTER YOU FINISHED SCHOOL?
I went to university. I thought I wanted to be an architect to start with so I did a year of architecture at university until I fell out with a teacher because I am a bit hot-headed sometimes. So I then decided to move into psychology. So I have a degree of psychology from the American University of Beirut.
I really liked criminal psychology so I wanted to do you know your CSI and all that. But I realised that to do forensics I would have to go work for someone for nothing and I thought no that’s not going to happen. I’m not going to spend a year poor and be an intern in someone else’s forensic lab. So I started to look for a job.
I left Beirut and went to Dubai where I had family. I applied for around 15 jobs.
IN ANY PARTICULAR INDUSTRY?
I tried everything. I got about 11 job offers from the 15 applications and I thought ‘OK this is interesting, now I have to make a decision’. But I then decided to go into hospitality.
I remember someone asked me when I was confused about what job to go for, where did you feel most comfortable? And I didn’t need to even think. I immediately said with the hospitality company I interviewed with. I ended up working for a Radisson regional office so I was in charge of sales and marketing for 10 different countries.
I worked in Dubai for four years and then decided I wanted to come out of the office which to anyone else is pretty mental. They must have thought why would you want to go from a nice cushy office job to an operational job?
So then I moved to Birmingham and I stayed there for five years. Then to Glasgow for nearly two years, Edinburgh and then I went to Paris for a year.
I speak fluent French because it was part of what we learned at school; Lebanon used to be a French colony so that is still the second language in the country. We learned English when we were maybe six or seven. Three languages is the norm at home.
So I went to Paris and I worked a stone’s throw away from the Champs-Élysées.
Every time I moved for a bigger and better role. It was a development plan because you don’t get to be a GM in two or five years, it’s all about how you prove yourself in the different jobs.
It’s very much a transitional role. Most people think they can do a degree in hospitality management and graduate, they’ll get a manager’s job. That’s totally not true.
To succeed in hospitality, you have to have the experience, to have worked from the bottom to the top of the chain. That’s the only way you can learn to be not only to multitask but be multi-skilled.
SO WAS IT ALWAYS THE PLAN WHEN YOU TOOK THAT FIRST JOB TO BECOME A GENERAL MANAGER?
I think from my second week in hospitality that was the plan. And I am very much a dog with a bone. If I get my mind set on something ... in a sense what Roula wants, Roula gets. It would be hard to stand in my way sometimes.
SO WOULD YOU CONSIDER YOURSELF QUITE AN AMBITIOUS PERSON THEN?
Very much so. I am very ambitious but I think it is from childhood. If I got 96% on something, my parents would be like where is the other 4%? For me, 96% is not good enough. But this is how I grew up in an environment and culture where you have to do better than good. You always have to achieve or perform something and so I have that in-built. I am very competitive and driven, like I will fight you to the finish line.
WHAT IS YOUR PARENT’S BACKGROUND?
My dad works for an airline company and he’s a purchasing manager. My mum works in financial services for a university. I don’t think it’s purely my parents that have made me the way I am. I think it’s a culture thing too. It is expected in Beirut that you go to university. If you don’t go you are a failure basically. There are no colleges, the normal progression school to uni. The perception is if you don’t have a degree, then you can’t work anywhere. I think this is the type of culture I grew up in. It just pushes you to do more because it is the norm. I think your background definitely impacts on you.
Only when I first moved to the UK and people started applying for jobs and I was the manager recruiting, I would look at CVs and go, where’s the university? And then I asked people around me and they were like ‘Roula not everybody goes to university here’ and I was like ah, OK. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with it but it’s just a totally different culture.
WHAT SKILLS HAVE YOU TAKEN FROM YOUR BACKGROUND TO YOUR GM ROLE?
Everyday here is like a psychological assessment, whether it is with guests or staff. I’m good at reading at people and understanding them. I had to work a lot on my patience level – 10 years ago patience didn’t exist in my dictionary, there was a ripped page where it should have been. I am also very fair. I think my background and my psychology degree makes me more human because I can easily put myself in another person’s shoes.
SO HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN THE GM OF MALMAISON FOR?
Two and a half years.
AND WHAT MADE YOU TAKE THIS JOB?
I came here because I wanted to move back to Scotland because I was planning my wedding to an Ayrshire man – Steven. He works for a private company in the Middle East.
Malmaison was always my dream company because they are quirky different and a very good employer with high focus on food and beverage.
Best place to play, eat and stay
HOSPITALITY HAS A BIT OF A BAD REP FOR HAVING LONG HOURS. HOW DO YOU HAVE A WORK / LIFE BALANCE?
To me, if you love what you do, it doesn’t matter. If I sit here and tick hours, I’d go out of my mind. This would not be the job for me. If hospitality is something for you, the hours are part of the job. We’re like family here. Most people here spend more time with me than their parents or with their friends.
DO YOU THINK AT THIS TOP LEVEL YOU ARE STILL LEARNING NEW THINGS?
Always. I think sometimes I wouldn’t say it is an everyday opportunity but even in my spare time I like to research new things. Like I love cooking and things like a new meat thermometer I think are exciting.
YOU MUST HAVE MET A FEW CELEBRITIES IN YOUR CAREER...
Yes I’ve met Pink, the Spanish football team, and Liam Gallagher from Oasis and I were drinking when I worked in Birmingham. He asked me for a cigarette when we were sitting outside and then sat next to me on the steps. I think coming from a hospitality background we don’t make a big deal out of meeting celebrities because it is the norm for us. I’ve met Snoop Dog ... to me, it’s weird but it’s just a day-to-day thing.
We’ve had Biffy Clyro stay in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Here the main one is Alex Ferguson, he loves coming here. I love him, he’s an institution.
WHAT IS THE HIGHLIGHT OF YOUR CAREER?
I think when I became a GM and finally got the job. Also I think at such a young age, I was 21 and I had a job in Dubai and I had a company car and things I maybe wouldn’t consider at that age.
SO YOU ARE OFF NEXT MONTH BACK TO DUBAI. WHAT WILL YOU MISS MOST ABOUT MALMAISON AND ABERDEEN?
When you move to somewhere so big, while you would love to have a close relationship with your guests, you mainly have transient ones that come once in a while. You don’t have repeat customers as much as you would like. But for us here a Monday to Thursday we can see the same faces from guests and locals from the neighbourhood. The locals have been a great support to me. It’s important to feel like you belong somewhere and I truly feel like I belong here. So I’ll miss seeing them and I’ll miss the madness of it all.