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Forge Your Career With Education, Passion

The pay-off with an Executive MBA
A basic degree is the stepping stone to establishing your career, says hospitality industry veteran Fong Kah Seng in his Art Deco hotel, The Scarlet

BE COMMITTED to excel in what you do, upgrade your knowledge, embrace change and move forward. This philosophy of excellence drives Fong Kah Seng, 52, who has moved up the ranks in the hospitality industry through education, experience and passion.

Now Group Chief Executive Officer of Grace International, an international management and consultancy group of boutique hotels, Kah Seng practises what he preaches. "I started off with a scholarship studying hotel management under SHATEC (Singapore's hotel and tourism training institute) from 1983-86," he says.

After obtaining a Higher Diploma in Hotel Management sponsored by former employer Westin Stamford and Westin Plaza,  he went on to do a BSc (Hons) in Management Studies at SIM-University of London from 1991-94 and then an Executive MBA at SIM-University at Buffalo from 1999-2001. Thereafter, he also earned a Master of Hospitality Administration from the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

A basic degree is an effective stepping stone for those who want to be in hotel management, Kah Seng explains. In his Bachelor degree, for example, he gained a broad perspective of how management works in business organisations, from HR to organisational theory.

But being a manager in hospitality or any service industry involves more than textbook knowledge. "In the early days of my studies, I was also working as a waiter," Kah Seng points out. "As an aspiring manager, you must learn how the hotel backend operates. You must move around in different departments, from housekeeping to security to F&B. You have to clean rooms, change linens, prepare room services, respond to guests' complaints, and so on."

Kah Seng was assistant front office manager in 1991. He was promoted twice in three years and was a full manager by 1994. After Westin, he progressed to more senior positions, including general manager at The Scarlet, Changi Village Hotel and Goodwood Park Hotel. In his current role as Group CEO of Grace International, he overseas The Scarlet Singapore and the Huntington Hotel in San Francisco. 

Forge your career before you hit 30

Start young if you want to move to the top, Kah Seng says. "When you're in your 20s, getting an entry-level job is easy. This is also the best time for you to find out what you want to do in the long term, and make preparations. You have plenty of personal time after work (not yet married with family commitments), so instead of going shopping or pubbing, set aside time for personal development and enrichment.

"You must visualise what you want to be in the next 10 years. Map out your professional goal, and pursue a degree programme or learn a new trade that will help you achieve it. By the time you hit 30, you should have established your career path on a firm footing.

"When I was pursuing my studies, it was like running a marathon. It required a lot of endurance," Kah Seng adds.

The pay-off with an Executive MBA
Kah Seng outside his office in a converted shop house at picturesque Bukit Pasoh Road

Memorable student experiences at SIM GE

Recollecting his student days, he says, "In my UOL days, some of us formed a study group to help and motivate one another. An informal leader for each subject was appointed and he or she would collate all the important notes to share and discuss prior to examinations. This form of delegation not only divided out the academic workload, but also put all of us on the accelerated learning curve.

"The camaraderie was infectious and even today, our study group members are still in contact with one another via social and professional networks, meeting up and reminiscing on the fun and experiences that we had.

"As for my EMBA programme, the learning was both rigorous and competitive. My study pals and I enjoyed working on and making presentations of real-world case studies. The rich diversity of everyone’s industry backgrounds, nationalities, corporate experiences and life experiences made the group projects and seminars more interesting and intellectually challenging.

"Not only do I value the network of friendship forged in class, I also appreciate the fact that the course was conducted by lecturers who were industry practitioners with a wealth of insights and tips to share. It was such a compelling learning experience to be able to view topics through so many different practical perspectives.

"Thanks to its rigorous curriculum and out-of-classroom learning, the EMBA course equipped me with the theoretical foundation I needed for work and career advancement, and provided me excellent training in soft skills. It was from here that I honed my analytical, problem-solving and networking skills. My public speaking skills also improved in clarity and quality.

Continuous, lifelong learning

Kah Seng's parting shots: "All of us should subscribe to continuous, lifelong learning regardless of how far we've reached in our professional paths. It is important to upgrade yourself, gain new knowledge, learn new skills to stay relevant and add value in your industry.

"Stay inquisitive about things, be observant of developments, and most important, do not be afraid of hard work. There will be a generous pay-off at the end of the day!"

Travellers' choice

Kah Seng feels proud of the 80-room Scarlet which won online Trip Advisor’s 2012 Travellers’ Choice Award for Top 20 Trendiest Hotels in Singapore. The Scarlet which is undergoing renovation and scheduled to re-open in December 2013, is consistently ranked among the Top 40 Deluxe Hotels in Singapore, he says.

The Huntington Hotel San Francisco is an iconic 136-room hotel that won recognition from Travel & Leisure magazine and TripAdvisor. It was awarded the Conde Nast Traveler 2013 Readers' Poll: Top 75 Hotel Spas in the US.

Posted online, 2012, updated on October 28, 2013