His heavy work schedule and travelling appointments did not make it easy to pin him down for a quiet chat. But I finally managed.
Fifty-four-year-old Ignace Bauwens, Corinthia’s Chief Operating Officer (COO), looks somewhat younger despite the stress. He smiled when I commented on this. “Perhaps I do not have time to grow old,” he quipped.
Ignace Bauwens joined Corinthia in 2021 after working in various hospitality groups, most recently in the Gulf. He was CEO of Abu Dhabi National Hotels, Vice President of Operations at IHG responsible for the UAE, the Middle East and Africa, and Senior Vice President (Hotels & Hospitality Development) with the Dubai World Trade Centre. He also spent almost ten years working for Accor, holding various positions from Director of F&B to Vice President (Operations).
I noted that he holds a bachelor’s degree in Hotel Management from HTI in Brugge, Belgium. Was this always his preferred profession?
“Initially, my favourite subject was mathematics. I majored in that subject in high school. Numbers have always charmed me.
Then when I was 17 years old and started university, studying business studies, my father suddenly passed away. He was a businessman. My mother opened a restaurant when I was in my first year of university, and I stayed home for one year to help her. During that time, I went to evening classes to learn the etiquette of serving people and developed my knowledge of wines. The teacher at the time asked me if I would be interested in pursuing a career in hospitality and introduced me to a hotel management curriculum.
So I started hotel management. It was a three-year course, and on completion, I started my career in a private luxury hotel. Then I joined Intercontinental Hotel Group (IHG), moved from one place to another, and grew in my job experience. At the early age of 30, I became general manager and was asked to head the opening of 2 hotels in the Middle East, my first ex-pat experience.
When I look back, sometimes I wonder how I managed to overcome the unknown. Everything was so new to me when I went to the Middle East. But the direction I was given was simple: “Go and do it.” And I had to grow and warily overcome unfamiliar hurdles, but I enjoyed the sweet experiences and pleasures of success.’
But how did he end up with Corinthia? ‘Well, the Chairman, Mr Alfred Pisani, the CEO, Mr Simon Naudi, and I engaged in conversations before COVID struck, and we reached an agreement. I started work in May 2021 in my current role as COO.’
Did they make you an offer you could not refuse? Ignace concentrated his look. ‘It was not the offer that I could not refuse, but those who made it. The Chairman and CEO were the key reasons why I accepted. They bowled me over with their vision and exciting passion for realising future feats and ventures.
‘I have absolute respect and admiration for these gentlemen with whom I have developed a fruitful relationship in this exciting Corinthia journey.’
Where does Corinthia want to go? ‘I see a 10-year journey, raising Corinthia to the top rungs of the luxury hospitality industry. I feel proud to be part of this initiative and drive where I know I can participate and be part of the adventure.
‘In 10 years, we will look back, relish, and enjoy the result. We are not a chain of hundreds of hotels with thousands of employees who may be lost in numbers. We have a very family-oriented spirit. Everybody knows everybody, and we connect easily and identify ourselves in the leadership’s determination who knows where to go.
‘I chose to be part of this journey and the leadership making this happen. It is a niche market where we can do things uniquely.
‘True, we can build beautiful hotels, but we have a magnet to attract talent through the philosophy of uplifting lives and the spirit of Corinthia. That differentiates us from other Brands’
Ignace then touched on an interesting point. ‘I would also like to highlight both the international and the local aspects of our hotels, in the sense that I would like them to emphasise certain services, such as Restaurants & Bars and Spa, as an attraction for local people besides of course for an international clientele. In other words, I would like to create also a local community niche for certain services the hotels offer internationally.’
I was curious to understand the difference between the duties of a CEO and a COO. ‘The CEO is the strategist; he is responsible for the growth of the business. He keeps constant contact with the board and interacts with investors and financial institutions. The COO is responsible for running the day-to-day business. He must see to implementing strategies, optimising opportunities, financial returns, quality, guest satisfaction, colleagues’ well-being and improving the brand. I work in very close contact and cooperation with the CEO, CFO, CCO, and Chief Culture Officer. It’s all teamwork. I try to coordinate all these efforts into a harmonious, positive result.
“Figuratively, I am in the middle of a circle, surrounded by specialists, as well as the wider CHL team. I channel all these efforts to make it happen. I am an overseer of strategy. The CEO writes the music score. The COO sees that the orchestra plays it well.“
So, what imprint does he want to leave in Corinthia? ‘I want to look back and say that we have uplifted the brand into a collection of luxury hotels as a team. I want to leave a clear message: If you want to have a great experience in the luxury segment, come to Corinthia. And if you are an investor, look at Corinthia with great interest because Corinthia prides itself on its own particular identity, which distinguishes it from the rest. Corinthia is different; it is not a copy-paste result.’
Moving on to personal matters, I asked Ignace to describe himself. He laughed and invited me to talk to the people who work with him or even ask his wife. Then he added: ‘I think I am highly passionate and well-driven in everything I do. In my position, listening, analysing, and getting out the best in people is important. I am always conscious that I must follow the whole orchestra and discern which parts need to lead or follow to create a harmonious result. It is vital for me to make all this happen.’
He conceded, ‘I am quite demanding, but the management style has changed. Twenty years ago, you would order, and it would happen. Now, one is to act as a mentor, a facilitator or a coach.’
And what about values? ‘I am always guided by five personal values: trust, transparency, respect, integrity, and family. Family is not only my personal family but also the family I work with. Everything I do, I act on these values.
‘I try to lead by example in everything I do. I do not possess the answer to everything. As the saying goes, the more you know, the more you do not know. But the important thing is to be humble in the presence of the unknown and unfamiliar, to reach out, discern and grow in knowledge and experience.’
And hobbies? Do you have time? ‘Spare time has become quite a rare commodity. I used to be a good swimmer. In my school days, I successfully took part in many competitions. When I worked and lived in the Middle East, I could easily access pools and train 3 to 4 times a week. Swimming is a wonderful experience. When you swim, you must focus on your breathing, movements, and every part of you. It is like going into a swimming meditation. So, though physically stressful, it is mentally reinvigorating. Nowadays, with much travelling, these moments of relaxation have become rarer, and I must confess that when I have some spare time, I prefer to spend it with my family.”
And that brought me to the following query. Would Ignace like to speak about his family? His eyes shone. “My wife, Nada, is my inspiration, my beacon and the person who keeps me on track. It is a true partnership from every possible aspect. I am also blessed with two daughters, Morgane, 21, and Camille, 28.
‘I try to be there for them when they need me. The youngest is still studying; the other is already working. I am also close to my brother; even though we do not meet often, we communicate regularly.
‘Unfortunately, being an ex-pat for some 20 years, life has not been easy for my family or me, but I assure you that my family is the most precious thing I have.’
A man of passion in his work must also have his strong aversions. Which traits rub him the wrong way? ‘I loathe lies. I prefer people who admit their mistakes, misunderstandings or ask for help. I loathe lying, over-puffed ego and bluff.’
Onto the spirit of Corinthia. Does he participate in this process? ‘I am a big supporter of this concept. Together with uplifting lives, this is of key importance. Large companies would have their motto, but we have this uniqueness which makes us Corinthia. It is wonderful to see people growing and passing on the torch of the Corinthia Spirit. It is, I think, one of our biggest trump cards.’
I was about to wind up when Ignace added a concluding point. ‘It would be disastrous for us to become separate islands; we are connected as one team; we work as one team and speak with one voice. Indeed, in football, the striker would score, but he cannot play football independently, and he depends on his colleagues to pass on the ball. So also, the Formula Uno driver who steals the show when he wins has behind him a large team of mechanics and others who make it happen. In Corinthia, this team unity is a philosophy of life. The spirit of Corinthia can only thrive in such an atmosphere.’