He spends every summer cycling in France, he runs 250k races in remote locations across the globe and organizes extensive treks in Nepal, China, Mongolia and beyond. An extreme-sports junkie? A die-hard triathlete? No! A lawyer, an entrepreneur and a philanthropist – these are just some of the things that can be used to describe Gordon Oldham, the owner of Pavilions Hotels & Resorts.
We sat down for a chat with him at yet another groundbreaking moment in his life, as he prepares to launch residences projects in Niseko and Phuket, and expand Pavilions into a globally recognized brand.
Maciek Klimowicz: You have been and still are involved in a plethora of businesses, charities and other activities. If you had to keep just one, which one would it be?
Gordon Oldham: Running; and it wasn’t until two weeks ago that I discovered that after 65 years of running, my knee has finally gone, so I’m checking into a hospital to have a little surgery on it.
I have this project that came out of my publishing days when I was publishing Action Asia, a regional magazine on adventure travel. It’s called Action Asia Events and we organize runs…or walks, it’s not easy to run in Nepal! We go to Mongolia, Nepal, China and other locations. But these are only three-day events and I needed something longer, so I joined an organization called Racing the Planet. They are based in Hong Kong and organize 250k runs in the middle of nowhere, with the next one coming up in Patagonia in November.
Seems like Phuket – with all its roads for cycling, all its running events as well as great hospitality and food, is the place for you!
It’s a wonderful place, one of my favorites after France because nothing beats France, and Bali which is impossible not to fall in love with. Phuket is a different place altogether. I love it here, I love the open spaces; you may think that it’s congested, but go to Hong Kong or Bali and you will know what I mean; for me, it’s open here. I love jungles so I do a lot of running here too, on the east coast.
Do you prepare a lot for the runs?
Not at all. The good Lord gave me two very strong legs which, up until now, gave me no trouble. And as you can see from my waistline up, I don’t do a lot of training. But I still do finish a lot of races, and not badly too!
I’m guessing that time management is another thing you’re good at?
It is extremely important because, and I don’t want to get philosophical, the only sin is wasting time. And as you grow older you realize that life and time aren't infinite. So, I try to make the most of mine.
My secret is getting good people to whom I can delegate. The two main failings of businesses are staying in power, as it takes much longer to get the business up than most people imagine and secondly, it’s lack of management. Entrepreneurs want to do everything because they think they can do everything the best. I was the same until I realized that there are people out there who, if managed properly, can do your job better then you. You just need to find them, nurture them and train them.
Before you became an entrepreneur, you were a lawyer. Why did you turn into a businessman?
You don’t turn into a businessman, you just start doing it more and more. But the truth of the matter is that lawyers cannot sell their business. I have a nice practice now, but I cannot offer it to the world at large, only to another lawyer. It’s not something you can sell. For me, law practice is still a good income generator, and I also think it’s a lazy man’s profession. There is no warehousing, no inventory, no headaches. These people who make big money in big business do so because they work for it.
I’m surprised, I thought you’d say that business generates income and law is maybe some sort of a passion?
It’s the other way around. The businesses that I go into, I love them. And if I love them, it means I want to work on them and I see there’s scope for improving them.
What about the Pavilions, why did you start that?
That’s a whole different philosophy. The world has become so homogenized that when you walk on the main street of Moscow or Paris, you find the same shops, the same way for displaying good etc. And hotel rooms, as beautiful as they are, they are often lacking any local flavor. That’s what we are changing with the Pavilions and that’s what we are expanding now.
My first objective is to build the Pavilions brand, this is the challenge. So, we acquired property in Rome, right in the heart of the city, we acquired in Amsterdam, in Madrid. We acquired two old listed buildings in Lisbon and it is the jewel in the crown. And then in Japan, where I’m building a hotel and residences. We have a chateau in France and we are busy cutting it into apartments that can be rented for maybe two weeks, to enjoy the whole experience of life in a Chateau; I have a beautiful liveaboard boat for diving off Bali; next year I will have a pop-up hotel in Mongolia on the Everest route. It’s not just hotels!
Sounds like you want to place your guests in the Pavilions ecosystem.
Exactly! I will quote you on that! It’s not just hotels, I’m creating a Pavilions lifestyle. What I’d like to get my guests in the habit of doing, is belonging to a family that has the same sort of a lifestyle. I’m not selling a guy a house. I want him to know that when the rainy season comes to Phuket, he can go to the wellness centre that I’m opening in Bali in place of previous Aman Villas. He can enjoy France in the summer, snow in Japan in the winter, come to Phuket in December and take a boat out for a week in Bali. I want the guest to enjoy the lifestyle, not just one property.
How come that after all you’ve done and achieved, this still excites you? Why not just relax, play some golf?
I’m a man of logic. And if I did that, wouldn’t I be just hanging around waiting to die? It sounds morbid but what else is there to do? The only thing that I would maybe like to do, is to focus more on what we are doing in Nepal, the charity. You know, the Jews say that the unofficial 11th commandment is that you give away a 10th of all that you get.
Is giving something that makes you happy?
It’s not that it makes me happy. It’s just something you’re supposed to do! If there is somebody standing in front of you, you know you’re not supposed to slap them and you know it since you are maybe six years old. It’s innate. It comes from our genes. So, if you see someone who really is in need and you have too much, you help. It’s natural and should be with everybody.
Tell me more about your activities in Nepal
I have a friend there, his name is Douglas and he is the only person I call a brother, even though I have a real brother. When I first met him, I had read a wonderful article in a newspaper in Hong Kong about a man who was looking for money to open his second school in Nepal. So, I tracked him down and I told him I wanted to see his project in Nepal, to which he said no problem. So, I called another friend and I invited him to come along. And as we sat together on the plane, out of his wallet he pulled out the same wonderful article that inspired me a few months earlier!
Up until now we started 13 schools and a hospital in Nepal, which is used by the Nepali government as an example. And every time I go there I just wish I had more people with me. Because to see what difference we can make for those people and at what little cost to us, is so worth it! That’s what excites me the most. It’s definitely helping people.
But didn’t you say that running would be the one activity you would like to keep?
Well, where I come from, if you do good things, you don’t talk about it.
Then let’s talk about it some more. What are your ideas for doing good in Phuket?
My idea for Phuket is that there are a number of retirees here, they live on pensions so don’t ask them to give money. But what they do have are two things – free time and an ability to talk. So, I want to focus on those who speak English well and who have free time. The idea is to establish a centre which has a commercial side and a charity side. On the commercial side every hotel here has an English teacher, usually a Thai and the standard is pretty low. So, the idea is that we send our teacher to the hotels to teach English and computers and we use this income to subsidize for kids who have no access to computers and English classes. The problem with charities is that you have to go every year and ask for money. But people want to see results, they don’t want to donate year after year. And making it sustainable is the way to do it. The buzzword is social enterprises, how to look after those kids without asking for donations.
To wrap it up, tell me what do you think made you successful? And what kept you going over the years?
I think what kept me going is my career as a lawyer. On the business side, it helped me not just to learn what to do but what not to do. I’ve learned from the mistakes of other people. And as for success – it’s all thanks to good luck and a sense of humor! Some people say it’s talent, but you can be talented at one thing and crappy at another. Some say it’s intelligence but then why are there so many poor university professors? So, it’s about being smart, about being lucky and seizing the opportunity. And then doing the things you like. It's not work then!