Getting closer to Simon Casson

 

The Italians have an expression ‘vestirsi a cipolla’, which means wearing several layers of clothing, like the layers of an onion. I believe that is also how we often get to know people or discover their personalities: by adding layers of information we receive, retrieve, or perceive.

When I first heard of Simon Casson, it was the usual public formal information about him as President of Hotel Operations, Europe, Middle East, and Africa of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, where he oversaw operations for over 40 properties and the development of 20 various hotels, skyscrapers, and beach resorts across EMEA. 

Simon Casson

Then I heard that he had been appointed CEO of Corinthia Hotels Ltd. I surfed the internet, followed some interviews on YouTube, and went through a few more layers. Good luck had it that I met him recently on a visit to Malta. Result: another layer was added. I could appreciate his warmth, direct approach, and genuine casual interaction with all and sundry. I immediately felt his pulsating charisma, an essential requisite for a leader.

When I asked him if he minded speaking to ‘Insider Plus’ about a few aspects of his personal life, he displayed his typical smile and readily accepted. I was particularly eager to know what he recalled from his young days when he thought that work was a game played by others. “That’s going back a few years, but I still recall my Dad’s soft jumpers when he hugged me. And I remember my Mum making us tea and looking glamorous for parties. In those early years, life presented me with many outdoor adventures: fishing, climbing trees and stealing apples from orchards!

Did he inherit his attraction to hospitality from some family member? “No one in my family was in hospitality. When I was 13, I worked a weekend job washing dishes in a restaurant. For many, that would not have been an inspiring springboard but it sparked a flame and set me dreaming of another world outside those swinging kitchen doors where patrons were pampered by being offered what they craved for. The imaginative flame was lit and my eyes opened to a potential career, though much water had to pass beneath the bridge and I had to climb many rungs of the ladder, starting from the lowermost.” 

Would that mean that he was not academically oriented? Simon nodded gently. “I was only 15 when my School Careers Master cruelly blared down my throat that I was a failure and added for good measure that I would not pass my exams. My future looked dim and smelt heavily of failure. Needless to say, I was down in the dumps and waited for Mum’s return home to repeat that gloomy assessment of my future to her. I can never forget my darling mother’s reaction. She held me tight and whispered lovingly in my ears, ‘Simon dear, you are special; do not forget it.’ When my little world was crumbling, she rebuilt it for me. A mother’s love recharged and changed me. Some may believe our life changes direction only due to spectacular forces. It’s not true. The power of love and concern may be the changing force. And this lesson has accompanied me also in my professional life where I have guided others with friendly concern and interest.”

How did he face the many challenges he must have encountered on his way? What is his guiding principle in uneasy or difficult moments? “I keep in my mind the words of Martin Luther King Jr: ‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience and comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,’ I fully subscribe to this precept. Our richest times of growth, of learning come through failure, through pain, through difficult moments.  I’ve had many of them and I’ve come to learn to be thankful for those moments, for the learning they bring.  Nothing great ever gets built in the comfort zone!

I was sure Simon’s passion for his hospitality work must have seeped into his children’s veins. Simon chuckled: “You’re absolutely wrong. I have one son and two daughters but none of them opted for the hospitality sector. They all had a ringside seat to observe but they are pursuing their own dreams and following their own passions.”

Simon with his beautiful wife Dani

I could sense a strong bond with the family. He was visibly moved when he  spoke of his wife, Dani, as “my home, my safe harbour, my best friend” and his children Josh, Lottie, and Abbie as his “pride, joy and the future of the Casson family. My kids are an important source of new generation knowledge for me, particularly in matters relating to diversity, environment, and social issues.  They challenge me and help keep me relevant. Experience has also made me listen, not just hear. Hearing is a sense; listening is a skill.”

Flanked by daughters Lottie and Abbie

They are a big part of the reason why I parted from Four Seasons. It’s a great company and I will always love it dearly. But I am now 56 years – not that old but old enough to miss the closeness of my family. So, having been quite far overseas for most of the past 30 years I decided to move closer to home. My family home is a small farm in Croatia, so I wanted to be closer to that and my wife who is mainly based there. And then my three grown-up children and parents are based in UK.”

And with son, Josh

Surely, when the news of his parting from Four Seasons went viral, Simon must have received various calls from the industry wooing him to join them. “Yes, perhaps too quick! In fact, I was still unsure of what I wanted to do. From a career perspective I was President of the EMEA region for Four Seasons but felt the desire to be a CEO and run a whole company as opposed to an operational region. This was a great chance to shape my own legacy by putting into practice everything I have learned as well as getting closer to the field and my hotelier roots due to a smaller quantity of hotels to manage. Corinthia was among eight opportunities I engaged with. They ended up in pole position for a few reasons: the humanity and family-feel of the company as exemplified by the Chairman, Alfred Pisani, and CEO Simon Naudi resonated with me. It was a smaller company and so with greater opportunity for me to mould and impact. Creating a full leadership team, based in a London office was the right geography. The development pipeline short-term was quite compelling, and I saw real opportunity to grow beyond this. At the end, it comes down to a personal instinct and this just felt right for me.”

Mentioning Alfred Pisani and Simon Naudi, did he see his new entrance as forming a troika? “Alfred is a Founder, an entrepreneur, and a risk taker who, in a hands-on way, created something great from nothing through hard work and power of personality. Simon is a consummate deal maker, an unflappable diplomat, and a broad strokes, strategic thinker. I am a lifelong luxury hotelier, a product guy, a charismatic people leader and communicator of a company’s vision and mission. All quite distinct from each other, but very compelling in aggregate! 

Cheers! With Corinthia Palace Hotel colleagues during a recent Malta visit

Surely, Simon would want to leave his mark on Corinthia. What would that be? “Of course we all strive, perhaps even yearn, to leave a legacy to be remembered by. Mostly, that is based on how we made people feel, the humanity of how we walked the path, the difference we made in other people’s lives. In commercial or more practical terms, I would hope to make good on the mandate the Chairman has given me, namely to elevate Corinthia into a true luxury brand and grow it on a global scale.” 

But going back to more personal stuff, now that he would join his wife at home more often, would he offer any helping hand in the house, such as cooking? Simon slammed his palm on the table and laughed: “Damn right I do! I actually enjoy cooking but I also do my share of household chores. If you seek a real partnership, then it must be eye-level and based on equality and team work.” How could one fault that?

What about relaxing after a day’s work? “I am a voracious reader. I completely immerse myself in books and magazines. And then there is music!  I adore music and always have a tune in my head.  I sing fairly well and play piano and guitar rather poorly!”

Simon appears very often in photos with a broad, genial smile. I sense it is genuine, but I asked him if that smile reflected his inner satisfaction, confidence or friendliness. “I think it reflects more the joy I get from being around people, the teams in the hotels, clients and partners. I’m a lover of humanity and that energises me.” He stopped for a second and then winked and smiled: “I’m of course also smiling for the camera since through that lens I am projecting to my 12,000 followers on Instagram!

I was sure Simon Casson had a motto close to his heart. What would that be? He lost no time responding: “The greatest thing you will ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.