Tai, 62, is vice president of Hyatt International Hotels and Resorts for China and Taiwan. He recently met with a reporter to discuss management challenges in China and brought along one of his lieutenants, Hyatt human resources executive Alex Chiang. As the three left a dim sum lunch at the luxurious China World Hotel, Chiang bent down to pick up Tai’s briefcase for him.
The favor not only reflected Asian respect for leaders, but also the way Tai’s 34-year career at Hyatt has made him a kind of revered company clansman.
"My assistant calls me in Chinese, ‘Ge Ba,’ " Tai says. "The words mean ‘brother’ and ‘father,’ a combination of the two."
Tai was born in China but studied in Europe. He joined Hyatt in 1973, returning to Asia in 1981. Managing hotels in South Korea, Taiwan and China has been a demanding career, he says. Because of factors such as the importance of fostering good relationships with government officials and maintaining a high-quality product despite poor public infrastructure, China hotel executives put in 50 percent more time than their counterparts in the United States, he says.
"I am married to Hyatt," Tai concedes. "In America, this can be a job. In China, you’re expected to be here."
Given the nature of the Chinese hotel business—which includes an Asian cultural preference for completing deals in informal settings—Hyatt as a rule does not transplant executives directly from the United States or Europe to China. Still, Tai and his team aim to make sure 70 percent or more of senior managers in new China hotels have already worked for Hyatt somewhere in Asia.
Divorced with two grown children, Tai says his main regret is not spending more time with his kids when they were young.
"My children said, ‘Dad, I think your staff is more important than us,’ " he says softly. But then he smiles and adds with a laugh: "I say, ‘Listen, I don’t give my staff pocket money every month.’ "
Tai treats his smile as a business tool. He has a policy of smiling at every Hyatt employee he sees in a quest to bolster customer service and show other managers they should respect and encourage lower-level workers.
But his satisfaction at Hyatt is genuine. At the end of the lunch, he speaks of the "spiritual" rewards that come from his career—like when Hyatt staff in Seoul come together and have dinner with him during a visit. Or when he sees Hyatt "family" members succeed.
Taking his satchel from Chiang, he gives the younger man a hearty hug. "If I see Alex grow," Tai says, "I will be happy for him.">