Getting to know: Pro-invest’s Jan Smits

Jan Smits is CEO and Deputy Chair APAC at Pro-invest Group, Asia Pacific’s largest hotel investment and acquisition specialists with AU$2 billion assets under management and development. He’s also the Director of new management group, Vista Hospitality Group, a joint venture between Pro-invest Group and Next Story Group.

Here, Smits reflects on some of the highlights of his hospitality career to date.

Tell us about your first job in the accommodation industry?

My very first job was a result of a practical placement when I was studying a Bachelor of Business and Hotel Management in Brisbane. I was sent to the Brisbane Park Royal – the only international hotel in the city at the time (it was the 80s!). I was placed as an Assistant Banquet Manager, then promoted to Banquet Manager, and within four months, at the age of 22, I was Food and Beverage Manager. It was the place to be in town – every visiting celebrity and rock band stayed there, so there was never a dull moment — and I never returned to university. It was the beginning of a long career in the industry and a time I fondly regard as the happiest in my working life. 

Did you have any important mentors that were instrumental in your career or any inspirational figures you look up to?

I’ve had the opportunity to learn from a range of different leaders and some great talent across the SPHC, IHG and Rydges Hotel Group over the past 40 years. Sometimes, you’re fortunate enough to work with people who show you how to do it; other times you work with people who highlight to you how you don’t want to work — but each has taught me something valuable throughout my working life in this industry. 

When it comes to inspirational figures, I’m always drawn to those who challenge the norm. To keep me developing, I prefer to seek inspiration from pioneers, thought leaders, and innovators outside of the hotel sector. Drawing on lessons from others working in technology, start-ups, airlines, automotive, community industries and so on is important to help my thinking. 

What memorable moments stand out when you look back over your career?

There are many memorable moments, but some career achievements I look back on with pride and fondness. I was sent to Penang in Malaysia to open Penang Park Royal as one of my first hotel opening projects. Having grown up in Malaysia, coming back to work there was very special.

I had a 17-year long, incredibly satisfying tenure with IHG, culminating in a role managing 60,000 people across 50 countries and 350 hotels. It was a privilege. 

And my current role, with Pro-invest Group (and recent new joint venture, Vista Hospitality Group) to become the largest independent hotel operator in Australia. In particular, the important journey we’re on establishing a market leading ESG platform for hotel operation, including Australia’s first carbon neutral hotel. I know this will become another memorable, and significant, moment.

What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in hospitality?

Ultimately, we’re in the people business — whether it’s an owner, a guest or employee. I had a very multicultural upbringing, living in more than 20 countries, but the unifying aspect of working anywhere in the world is people. My most valuable lesson is that success is about building deep and lasting relationships through trust, integrity, and respect. Inspiring and empowering people is my core value. 

What career advice would you give your younger self?

I’ve always been – and always will be – very driven. But I’d tell my younger self to be patient and more tolerant! 

This interview was first published in HM’s bimonthly magazine. Subscribe here.

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