Patricia Dwyer is Founder and Director of The Purpose Business. Previously she worked as Global head of CSR & Sustainability for Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts.
Patricia is a very successful businesswoman and one of the most inspiring people I’ve met. She tells her story of professional growth from being an intern at a real estate company, to Global Head of CSR at Shangri-La, and finally an entrepreneur. She also shares her insights on the practical sides of managing and selling sustainability.
Anula: Tell me a little about your path, and how your career started.
Pat: I asked for a job and I was fortunate to get it. There’s no harm in asking – you’ll never get any answer if you don’t! Especially in the Philippines women have to ask, because if they don’t ask – they don’t get.
I have an NGO background and I thought I would never work for corporations .in for -profits. I also thought I would never work with corporations.
During university I joined a real estate company as a sales intern specifically to prove to myself that sales was not my thing. And I was the very first intern in their history who made a sale!
When I then started working with sustainability I realised that you have to be selling and making a business case all the time!
Anula: After university you worked at UNDP?
Pat: Initially I worked with NGOs as I was still thinking that the private sector was evil. But when I was raising funds for exemplary projects with great community impact, and I was running low on funding, I realised that this isn’t wholly viable and that there must be a more steady stream of resources.
It was 2003 and the corporations were at the beginning of starting to look at CSR, focusing mainly on donations.
I felt that I had a much better understanding of what could be done. I came to the company I had worked as an intern for, Ayala, and proposed that I would rationalise their philanthropic investments and volunteering programmes. . To cut a long story short, I became their first CSR person. One of my major achievements was working with the Projects team to getting LEED Gold certification for a mixed use development project with a massive relocation and livelihood component near Manila.
Anula: How did you go from being a CSR person at a real estate company to the first Sustainability Manager at Shangri-La, a leading luxury hotel chain?
Pat: After working with Ayala, I started looking for bigger opportunities and ways to make more impact. I thought about sinful/ wasteful industries and thought- the hospitality sector needed help. I followed my rule “don’t get unless you ask”. I sent an email to the 10 top hotels in the world, including Ritz Carlton, Hilton, Kempinsky, Four Seasons. You know, a simple “Hi, I’m Pat, I know what I can do for you…” I thought no one was ever going to read it. But there it was – a response from Shangri-La’s COO! A few months later I got hired in Manila to oversee the 5 properties there.
Anula: How did you find this new industry?
Pat: In the beginning everyone was asking “OMG who’s this “save the world” NGO chick?!” People were calling me Miss Earth for about 3 years. But all in all, it was an absolute joy!
Hospitality is such a complex industry to understand, with all the luxury standards and policies from health and safety to how the sheets need to be folded. The first month I spent learning what’s going on on the ground, walking with every employee of the hotel, in all areas. It was an intense but incredible time, and to this day I can call them and ask any question I have.
1.5 years later I was moved to our corporate office in Hong Kong. In the beginning it was very difficult to adjust to an intense corporate office style, so different from being on your feet working at a hotel.
My job was to sell sustainability and make the business case. I was very fortunate to have a CEO and Chairman who understood and supported me, but still I had to navigate the corporate bureaucracy. In the beginning, I was understandably idealistic – and naive. I wanted to save every dish from every buffet,
but then I understood that there’s a reputational backlash, that people can get sick from food poisoning, and that I need to sit together with chefs and hygiene managers to see what we can change. I learned to be patient and take small steps.
Anula: And your first step was…?
Pat: I started with the the lowest hanging fruit – we created a strategy, which was needed anyway because there was a lot to clean up.
A strategy was followed by a set of criteria to measure the impacts. It had never been done before. Say Shangri-La hotels would donate a certain amount every year to support charitable programs etc, but we had no idea, or did not need to know, what key performance indicators there were. It was the right thing to do, and that was all that mattered.
Such an approach was almost completely opposite to what business does – the KPIs, targets and all very measurable things we are used to, seemed to be excused when it came to CSR – because the motivations were heart and soul. But actually, there was still the opportunity to measure our impact.
Anula: What did you do differently?
Pat: I looked at the money spent, and the impact it had. I approached it like any NGO would – I did a social needs assessment, project management and then an assessment of what was achieved, and what wasn’t. It was almost like a social profit and loss statement, which showed that it’s possible to achieve more with the same amount of resources invested. At the same time, of course some things remained qualitative.
I started with the social piece, and then moved to environmental aspects like the energy consumption, carbon emissions. All these were basic things but I needed several small wins at the beginning to gain people’s trust in me.
Anula: What was your big win?
Pat: One of the first things I had wanted to do since I had joined the company was to stop serving shark fin on the menu. But at that time it was too early. However after a few years, we had checked all the boxes from the initial plan and it was necessary to address the shark’s fin issue, because we were investing in coral reef conservation projects. The CEO gave me the green light. But again, nothing can happen overnight. The first step was to take shark fin off of menus, having in mind we might ban it altogether at some point. We needed to engage chefs, guests, suppliers, the staff – we had to give it time – and while we were doing it, we were exploring the alternatives for the menus.
The Peninsula banned shark’s fin at the end of 2011. In 2012 we banned it too, along with a few other hotel groups. Many people then said that we simply got lucky, because China simply had the ban on entertainment and luxury goods. That’s true too. But it all came to a head.
I remember the night before the policy went out. We were afraid of a backlash and corporate clients complaining. I thought I was going to be fired. But a few days afterwards, no negative feedback had come. Instead, we had kudos from staff, management, and the public.
Anula: What role did chefs and the F&B department played in this change?
Pat: Although the revenue with shark fin is high, the food cost is high as well. F&B was initially against this but over time,especially when chefs were engaged creatively, they became more supportive.
What we did was we run a competition among all chefs to look at the top alternatives to shark’s fin. Chefs were really excited! Shark fin dishes involved only cooking a specific ingredient, one way. Now they could finally be creative. We added 8 new soups to the menu. I think it was one of the most food-creative times at Shangri-La. The whole process was very culturally enriching and empowering for the chefs.
A big learning point is that to make any change happen, you have to involve many parties, and go and check on each other’s comfort zones across different departments.
Anula: What are the key factors that made you successful in your role as a Sustainability Manager?
Pat: First, having a senior mandate and reporting directly to the CEO.
Second, the fact that I understood the business from the inside. There are so many consultants, who claim they know what you have to do. But unless you come with humility and respect – don’t tell me what to do because there are very different daily issues we also have to effectively navigate – and cover – internally.
And third, the fact that I surrounded myself with people better than myself. I have built a good network of people I could approach anytime I needed advice, both internally and externally, from my Chief Engineer to people at MSC, Greenpeace or WTTC.
Anula: Were there times when Shangri-La used sustainability just to improve brand image?
Pat: Quite the opposite. For Shangri-La and many Asian companies humility is the key value. In fact, when I joined as a sustainability manager I received many instructions and the final was – whatever you do, don’t talk about it. As an NGO person I said “what? I want to inspire others!”. But then I understood that if you’re doing the right thing, sooner or later, everyone will know anyway.
The PR department has always been very careful about what we communicate. I recall how it wasn’t until the 5th year that I got a budget to create videos out of all the amazing community work the hotels were doing.
Shangri-La’s vision was to “inspire others to do the same”, I believe that you cannot inspire, if you don’t tell your story. There’s many ways to do that humbly, not in a braggy way – and I was blessed to have had that opportunity when the stories spoke for themselves. The videos I believe are still available on the Shangri-La website.
Now I’m trying to explain to my clients that keeping a secret is not being humble. It’s about how you manage the way the story comes about. I call it responsible humility.
It’s important to communicate sustainability as a journey. We always strive for more, as the standards are getting higher.
Anula: What is it that you’re striving for?
Pat: My main goal is to get everyone on the sustainability agenda. A long-term win is to find the best Asian sustainability examples and celebrate them. The only ones we know as best sustainability stories are those of Nestle, Unilever, Marks and Spencer… . It wasn’t until a couple of years ago when the SustainAbility the Global Leaders Survey finally had a Brazilian brand in the top 10. I want to get an Asian brand there, with one of our clients. I just feel finding the stories in Asia is more complex. We have hurdles of tough governments, more constrained resources, less infrastructure historically and yet some of the most amazing sustainability examples are here.. And that’s the goal, that’s the purpose.
Anula: Was this vision what made you start your own company?
Pat: After almost 7 years working at Shangri-La I was ready for new challenges. At that time, I could either become a CSR manager at another company, or start on my own. Although I didn’t feel strong as an entrepreneur, I decided to go for it. And I’m so glad I did because I learned so much in the process! We launched in March 2015, and now we’re over 20 consultants , located across the Asia Pacific region.
Anula: What do you do exactly?
Pat:. We are a network of passionate sustainability practitioners who work with organisations to help them embed sustainability and purpose into their operations. The team are freelance consultants but exclusive to The Purpose Business – I have experts – from marine biologists to glass bottle recycling experts to plant-based chefs to LEED practitioners and carbon managers. TPB supports them with the administrative aspects so they can spend most of their time making a difference- that is, working with our clients.
Anula: And what’s your advice for selling sustainability to customers? Do you think that companies fail at communicating sustainability in a way that people can understand?
Pat: Totally! The word “sustainability” sounds so scary and pretentious! One of things my company does is an authentic narrative building. We translate 40 pages reports in a way that humans are able to digest and understand.
Sustainability in practice could mean many things to people. For hotels it could mean allowing a different travel experience- Whether it’s reconnecting with nature, spending time and learning the outdoors, doing yoga in the morning but connecting with what you feed your body ,eating food in season rather than convenience food, or reducing packaging And if a hotel manages to let people experience all this, the guests will then expect it on the next holidays. This is how demand for sustainable practices in the sector can grow.
Even with Chinese travelers. The last thing an affluent young Chinese wants to do is to stay during their holidays at chain hotels they grew up in with their parents. They want – and can afford- new and exciting experiences. Why can’t they be responsible tourism experiences?
This is a perfect opportunity for boutique hotels, because people are looking for non-chain hotels and are willing to pay for a unique stay. They might not use airbnb because they need 24 hours service but the sense of place, the experience – that’s the hook.
Anula: But is it small or big companies that can help mainstream sustainability?
Pat: I believe that corporations play a key role in pushing things forward. For example, the first movers for climate change were individuals and governments. However, the individual experience of climate change is very different, and it takes a long time for governments to make a move. Unlike corporations, which by changing their policies, create a collective action. Groups like Walmart or Alibaba can use their size and might to influence their entire supply chain to offer sustainable products and services . Imagine if every business leveraged their relationships to be a force for good!
To get in touch with Patricia Dwyer, follow her on Twitter and check out The Purpose Business. To learn more about Shangri-La’s sustainability initiatives, read their Social Responsibility Program and visit their website.