Saudi Arabia’s first female hotel GM lives a life less ordinary

Maram Kokandi bears the distinction of being the first Saudi Arabian woman to become a general manager of a hotel in the country. (Photo supplied)
Updated 04 March 2018
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Saudi Arabia’s first female hotel GM lives a life less ordinary

DUBAI: They say that the seeds of success are sown during childhood. That would definitely apply to Maram Kokandi, who credits a warm and open-minded home environment during her growing-up years for making her the ambitious go-getter she is today.
“I was exposed to many cultures, both in Saudi Arabia and during our summer vacations, when I traveled with my family, of which I have very positive memories,” she says. “I remember both my parents always encouraged me to explore my potential and discover the world around me.”
Perhaps it was a debt she subconsciously owed to travel, that she ended up in the hospitality industry, which was more by chance than design for this biology graduate.
“I got this opportunity to work as a health club coordinator as my first job, and I loved the interaction with people,” she explains. “I moved into cosmetics sales after that, but heart was always in hospitality. Seeing this, my then boss actually helped me get a job as a sales manager at the Rosewood hotel, which was also a first – I was the first female hotel sales manager in Saudi Arabia.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Hospitality also runs in her blood, Kokandi believes. “This is our culture, especially here in this region (Jeddah and Makkah). We have always been welcoming people here, for religious tourism”, she says. “Plus, I had this potential to be and do something different by joining this industry.”
She has certainly made a difference, as now there are more and more women in Saudi Arabia starting to work in the hospitality industry. For example, Accor Hotels included females in its management training program in 2016, and in 2015, the “Young Hotelier of the Year” award at the well-respected Hotelier Middle East awards ceremony went to a Saudi Arabian woman. Closer to home, Kokandi has seen an impact in her youngest sister opting to get a degree in hotel management, as she wanted to follow in her pioneering sister’s footsteps.
There are some industry-specific challenges that women in hospitality have to overcome, however, which Maram navigated through the course of her career.
“When I first began working in hospitality there were even fewer women in the industry than now, and there were times when it was difficult,” she reveals. “For example, doing night shifts as a duty manager was a big challenge. It was a battle not only with society’s perceptions, but also an internal battle that I had to fight, of whether this was appropriate.”
The spectrum of challenges ranged from deeper issues such as moral code, to the practical – such as wearing her hijab at work, where the norm in the industry is uniforms. But she overcame them with creative solutions such as designing her own abaya! “I got a very modern abaya made, to make it easier for me to do my work and stay true to my culture,” she says.
But the biggest challenge that she had to face as a woman in a leadership role is probably a universal one.
“I had to work even harder to prove myself as a capable leader. And while many male colleagues have been incredibly supportive, there have been periods where I had to convince others of my competencies as a female leader,” she says. “Previously, there were barriers — including a lack of mentoring for women and use of differing methods when it comes to evaluating the performances of men and women in the workplace — which have prevented women from career progression, but it is good that these are being gradually overturned.”
Such challenges notwithstanding, Kokandi is emphatic about the fact that she wouldn’t be where she was without the support of her organization, and the government.
“It was the Balanced Leadership program at Carlson Rezidor [renamed Radisson Hotel Group as of 5th March 2018] and its drive toward improving diversity and inclusion within the business that led me to successfully applying for the General Manager position,” Kokandi says. “They have a leadership program STEPS, which is focused solely on high potential women, encouraging and empowering them to progress.”
Support at a governmental level, in the form of Saudi Vision 2030, which she elegantly describes as “a golden hand leading women to help achieve their dreams” has also played a big role in her success.
“One of the reasons Saudi women are more successful than ever is because of the King Abdullah Scholarship Program [which she directly benefited from, to get a hotel management degree]. This program opened the door for young Saudis in general, and women in particular, to have a better standard of professional education,” she says. “Part of the emphasis of Vision 2030 is also to develop tourism in Saudi Arabia, which necessities a hospitality sector able to accommodate different needs and expectations. Vision 2030 also emphasizes the significance of Saudi women and their role in leading the development of the Kingdom.”
Given the importance of female participation in the nation’s growth, Kokandi has only this to say to other women aspiring to succeed in the business world:
“I would like to ask all Saudi women to step out of their comfort zones and challenge themselves. It is not a choice anymore!”


BMW picks insider Zipse as CEO to catch up with rivals

Oliver Zipse
Updated 8 min 13 sec ago
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BMW picks insider Zipse as CEO to catch up with rivals

  • German giant has lost ground to Mercedes-Benz and Tesla as tech steps up

FRANKFURT: BMW has named Oliver Zipse as its new CEO, continuing the German carmaker’s tradition of promoting production chiefs to the top job even as the auto industry expands into new areas such as technology and services.
Hailing Zipse’s “decisive” leadership style, BMW hopes the 55-year-old can help it win back its edge in electric cars and the premium market  from rival Mercedes-Benz.
But some analysts questioned whether Zipse was the right choice with new fields such as software and services like car-sharing becoming increasingly important.
“What is intriguing is the cultural bias to appoint the head of production. It works sometimes but ... being good at building cars is not a defining edge the way it was 20 years ago,” said Jefferies analyst Philippe Houchois.
Current CEO Harald Krueger, and former chiefs Norbert Reithofer, Bernd Pischetsrieder and Joachim Milberg were all former production heads.
Zipse joined BMW as a trainee in 1991 and served as head of brand and product strategies and boss of BMW’s Oxford plant in England before joining the board.
He will become chief executive on Aug. 16, taking over from Krueger who said he would not be available for a second term.
“With Oliver Zipse, a decisive strategic and analytical leader will assume the Chair of the Board of Management of BMW. He will provide fresh momentum in shaping  the future,” said Reithofer.
Zipse helped expand BMW’s efficient production network in Hungary, China and the US, in a move that delivered industry-leading profit margins.
Under Krueger, BMW was overtaken in 2016 by Mercedes-Benz as the best-selling luxury car brand.
It also had an early lead over US  rival Tesla in electric cars, but scaled back ambitions after its i3 model failed to sell large numbers.
Reithofer initially championed Krueger’s low-key consensus-seeking leadership, but pressured him to roll out electric vehicles more aggressively, forcing Krueger to skip the Paris Motor Show in 2016 to reevaluate BMW’s electric strategy.
Krueger’s reluctance to push low-margin electric vehicles led to an exodus of talented electric vehicle experts, including Christian Senger, now Volkswagen’s (VW) board member responsible for software, and Audi’s Markus Duesmann, who is seen as a future CEO of the company.
Both were poached by VW CEO Herbert Diess, a former BMW board member responsible for research who was himself passed over for BMW’s top job in 2015.
VW has since pushed a radical 80 billion euro ($90 billion) electric car mass production strategy, and a sweeping alliance with Ford.

Other skills
“A CEO needs to have an idea for how mobility will evolve in the future. This goes far beyond optimising an existing business,” said Carsten Breitfeld, chief executive of China-based ICONIQ motors, and former BMW engineer. “He needs to build teams, attract talent, and promote a culture oriented along consumer electronics and internet dynamics.”
German manufacturers have dominated the high-performance market for decades, but analysts warn shifts towards sophisticated technology and software is opening the door to new challengers.
“Tesla has a lead of three to four years in areas like software and electronics. There is a risk that the Germans can’t catch up,” UBS analyst Patrick Hummel said.
Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport car magazine, normally quick to champion German manufacturers, this week ran a cover questioning BMW’s future.
“Production expertise is important, but if you want to avoid ending up being a hardware provider for Google or Apple, you need to have the ability to move up the food chain into data and software,” a former BMW board member said.