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Fairmont The Palm GM on work and dreams

Martin van Kan believes in allowing his staff freedom, trying to inspire people every day and writing down goals and career plans on a single scrap of paper.

Image Credit: Dennis B. Mallari/ANM
Martin has worked his way up from the bottom of the hotel industry, to be general manager of the soon-to-be-opened Fairmont, The Palm

Martin van Kan is not shy about revealing his lack of knowledge on a subject. The 49-year-old general manager of the soon-to-be-launched Fairmont The Palm, Dubai says, “I’ve never been shy of asking about something I don’t know anything about.”

And the fact that he is more interested in learning how to take perfect pictures from our photographer than in posing for any, is proof that for Martin, learning is everything.

Having worked in 12 cities across the globe, he says he’s fortunate to have developed a “learn the best from all cultures’’ strategy, during his time working in London, Abu Dhabi, Muscat, Jakarta, Seoul and Surabaya in Indonesia, among others.

But even though he’s spent 30 years working around the world and become a true global citizen, the Dutch national, who’s originally from South Africa, insists he remains a “trainee who is still learning all about life”. Here, he shares his work style, incidents that shaped his character and his dreams with Friday.


Before I joined a catering college, I believed that the best leadership style was what I experienced in an Irish-Jesuit boarding school in Pretoria, where Jesuit priests believed in enforcing rules.

They taught us that fear of authority was the one way to succeed. We were taught that if we wanted to get anywhere in life, we had to take
a good knocking first.

However, as I went through hotel school and my early career and got into leadership roles, I very quickly discovered that what I learnt in boarding school was not the way to go.
So today my leadership style is very much about allowing people to have fun, while achieving their career goals. It is an ethos I share among my senior leadership team, and I feel that it is the core purpose of leadership.

It’s about being an inspirational boss.

I believe one has to be a trendsetter rather than a follower. That’s what I strive to be. I also believe hiring the right people is the first step towards a successful company. I don’t have all the answers, but I do have the ability to hire a great team that can provide all the answers.

I come from a family of bankers, but my educational achievement didn’t allow me to go into banking. I attended a career evaluation day in 1981 just after I had finished school, where the hotel industry was identified as a suitable career path for me, as it did not require qualifications in sciences or maths.

My father was posted in Hong Kong at the time, so I applied for a job at the Hotel Furama InterContinental there, and I was offered the position of ‘busboy’.

I thought this meant getting on to a bus, going to the airport and greeting guests with a ‘Welcome to Hong Kong’ sign board. I couldn’t wait to start.

But when I was given a uniform with an apron, I was perplexed – until I found out what I was supposed to do was ‘bus’ (move) dirty plates from the tables into the kitchen.

But unexpectedly, I enjoyed it, so when my father asked me if I would like to study hotel management, I was game.

By this time my family was moving to Singapore, and I got an opportunity to work at a hotel for six months without a salary, going through the different departments, and also learning French.

The two essential things to succeed then in hospitality were knowing how to cook and being able to speak French. It all goes back to Swiss hospitality schools, which were supposed to be the best.

After my six months, I went to study hotel management at the École Hôtelière de Lausanne in Switzerland for a three-year diploma course, and then got my first job as a trainee in 1984.

The hard fact was that you graduate not as a manager, but as a person with a little bit more knowledge. You still had to go through the grind to move up. Today, a kid comes out of graduate school and expects to be a manager straight away. That’s when dreams die.

When I started my career, I met John O’Shea, the regional director for InterContinental Hotels in the Middle East. He said to me, ‘‘Be a trainee for the rest of your life and just learn. As you go along, your title may change. What you need to do is start setting benchmarks today.

‘‘Put down some hurdle dates, like ‘I want to do this job for so many years, or that job for a specific period’. These are hurdles you can easily meet, but you need to map them out today.

‘‘Write it on a piece of paper and keep it in your pocket to remind yourself from time to time what those goals are, because if you don’t set goals, you’ll be a rudderless ship.’’

I saw him again years later after I became a general manager. He asked if I still had the piece of paper that I wrote on back in 1984, which I did. I’m still achieving the goals too.

A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed a 19-year-old in Dubai. I saw elements of myself in him, so I told him to take a piece of paper and do what I did all those years ago. It helped me stay on course and realise my goals.

I’ve learnt that you have to have a purpose about what you want to do. You have to be able to wake up in the morning and pinpoint exactly what is going to make the day great.

And if you can do that every morning, no matter how bad the previous night was or how badly you slept, it will change everything. It changes your outlook on life. It’s not about you, but about the people you lead.

I use that principle in every aspect of my life – I decide before a meeting that it will be a great success, and I take steps to ensure that it is. And you can apply the same principle to any other activity.

In time, you’ll subconsciously achieve all those milestones as you go through the day. That’s what I do, and I get others to do it too. Invariably, you’ll go through the day and achieve your goals.

As a leader, I think it’s important to make people understand what the outcome is going to look like, and involving them in it. It can’t be a single person’s mission – it has to be a collective thought process.
As long as everybody understands the goal and their role in getting there, you’re on the right track – you just have to make sure they stay on course. If a few of them fall along the way, pick them up and find out how you can help. Avoid blame culture. I do the same at home with my family too.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have met a lot of famous people in my career, including US secretary of state Hilary Clinton and Jiang Zemin, a senior Chinese political leader.


I’ve been to 15 countries, and my family’s been with me to most of them. We have experienced various cultures.

My children, Jonah, 18, and Nicholas, 11, are stronger for it, and now they can go out into the world with confidence – and the ability to speak five or six key international languages.

My wife Mira and I are going to have a lot of fun telling our grandchildren a lot of stories about the good times we’ve had.

I can speak seven languages; English, Dutch, French, German, Afrikaans, Italian and Indonesian. I lived in Indonesia for seven years, and in order to get along with the hotel unions there, I had to learn to speak their language.

I learnt it quietly, as I didn’t want them to know I knew their language until I really needed to speak it, which was in the middle of a union negotiation. I knocked them out with my understanding of their language, and we signed the agreement in five minutes!

When our new staff came from around 45 different nations to our hotel last month, I was able to welcome at least 20 of them in their native languages.

I’ve been in Dubai for just more than a year, but I’m not new to the Middle East. I was here at the beginning of my career as a manager in 1987 at the InterContinental Hotel, Abu Dhabi. Shortly after that, I was in Muscat as manager of the Al Bustan Palace Hotel.

While John O’Shea was one of the most influential people in my life, I must say that my two children also inspire me, especially through their musical talents.

Their rooms are filled with instruments; between them they play the guitar, violin, drums, piano, ukulele, and sing too. They have the ability to pick up an instrument and perform a song they just heard ten minutes ago. And they’re not shy either – I’ve seen them perform on stage, and they’re never nervous.

What I learn from them, is that if you are confident about what you do, you can be bold about showcasing it and ultimately successful.

At the moment I am enjoying playing rugby. Nicholas is also extremely passionate about it. I am involved in assisting coaches teaching children to play the sport. I like the discipline that rugby as a team sport brings to children.


When I was a child, I desperately wanted to be a Formula 1 racer. Probably because our house in South Africa was near a racetrack in Kyalami, and we had great racers like Niki Lauda and James Hunt racing there. Unfortunately I never got anywhere near that dream!

I have a love of motorbikes though, and I’m lucky enough to own a Harley-Davidson, which I ride every chance I get.

I’ve always wanted to find a place where my wife and I can settle, and where we’ll be able to continue to provide for our children, even when they have families of their own.
I can’t see them settling down in one place for any length of time though. We’ve only been here a year and my youngest son reckons we have one year left – he’s not lived in a country for more than two years.

I’d like to learn photography. I have a very good camera, but I’m yet to take a decent picture. One day I am going to learn how.

I’m writing a journal called A life of Journeys, and part of it is about what I always wanted to do, and whether I’ve achieved it.

On weekends or early mornings when I can’t sleep, I sit at my computer and write down memories, then sort them out chronologically. I am not a great writer, so I just hand over what I’ve written to my sister, who’s writing a story around it. She’s also an artist, and draws caricatures of scenes from my stories.

My name may not appear on the book, but it’s based on my experiences. We don’t even know if it will be published, but it gives me an opportunity to record my life – warts and all.