CEO Interview – Hichame Assi

Hotels Combined interview with Hichame Assi

Please explain the HotelsCombined story in terms of where the business began to where it is now.

HA: HotelsCombined started towards the end of 2005, by three founders from the online travel space. We hired our first employee in 2007 and grew organically. When I joined in 2010 we were 15 people, and now we’re just over 150 people. We closed the 2017 calendar year with 220m AU$ in revenue having facilitated over $2 billion worth of accommodation bookings …and I’m also pleased to say that our first employee celebrated his 10th year at HotelsCombined.

Over the years we’ve expanded and retracted quite often to respond to market dynamics and our global evolution. We’ve always had an emphasis on hiring for cultural fit and we aim to present our roles as opportunities to own, improve and innovate…though this has probably been a little more on the fly than deliberate strategy over the years. As our business grew we also began to look outside of Sydney for talent to grow our brand in key markets, to access the wealth of knowledge that local experts can bring to the table and complement our SMEs and the Product and Technology departments sitting in our nerve centre in Sydney. We now have 8 offices around the world, with about 60% of our staff based in Sydney and 40% overseas.

As an independent company that’s never raised capital, we will always be very pragmatic about our hiring, but my view is that our people are really the backbone who will allow us to deliver on our purpose for our customers – to empower people to confidently choose their travel experience.

What inspired you to introduce HR to the business after nearly 10 years without the function?

HA: In my past, I think I’ve experienced HR departments who didn’t always put their people first. They positioned themselves as being there for the teams, but they were doing what the management team wanted. I found it conflicting, and I didn’t want that version of HR for HotelsCombined. We’ve been quite a flat organisation with a bottom-up approach, but as we’ve grown we have fractured a little with sub-cultures emerging. We were also wanting to put in place some frameworks to help the team be more aligned, and it was time to have someone to spearhead it.

I still didn’t want the traditional view of HR so a lot of thought went in to what we did want. I spent several months meeting CEOs, CHROs, Employee Experience experts and Organisation Culture advocates around Sydney…everyone from Google to mid-scale tech start-ups…to form a view of what role and responsibilities would fit our culture and growth aspirations. It was illuminating and helped me see a new world in which the employees were truly at the heart of the function…and we decided to focus on Employee Experience. In Megan Bromley, we were fortunate to find a Head of Employee Experience that had the necessary experience in the tech space, and most importantly shared our values and cultural attributes.

Did you have any reservations about introducing an HR function to your business?

HA: Once I’d made the decision, and had clarity on what was needed… not so much. Following a workshop with Google’s HR and L&D functions, I knew that many of our senior managers felt the same. The trick was in finding the right person that would be able to observe our culture, adapt to it and influence change over time. We were not looking to disrupt what we had, but wanted to build on our company purpose, refine our culture and teams to be purpose and values driven and ultimately higher performing.

That said, it was important to set it up for success from the outset, so I made sure several stakeholders were involved in the hiring process to get maximum buy in… and introduced the decision and the role to the global team in our monthly SynchUp the week before Megan started.

Taking into account the first 90 days of working with a new Head of HR, has anything surprised you good or otherwise? 

HA: I think the only element of surprise was how quickly Megan has been at building rapport and relationships with the entire global team. We have been quite a cynical team, but it’s evident that when someone in this role is a strong cultural fit.. it just works.

How will you measure whether or not the introduction of HR has been a success for the business?

HA: Even though it’s only been 6 months, I can see the benefits already. The communication rhythm we’ve put in place, the emphasis we’re putting on absolute clarity for roles & responsibilities are already helping a lot. We’re also putting a lot of focus on connecting all our offices better and living our values better. We’re definitely evolving in the right direction and evolving into a Purpose and Values driven business that is more effective and customer centric.

How fast we get there, depends on several dependencies but I’m confident we’ll be a high performing organisation with a strong level of internal and external accountability by 2019.

They say hindsight is a wonderful thing, but if you could rewind the clock at what stage of the evolution of the business would you introduce HR to the leadership team?

HA: Looking back at our evolution, I think I would’ve introduced the role 1 year earlier. There were signals then that we needed more structure, a framework, better alignment and a stronger feedback-loop system. Had we hired Megan back then, I think the organisation would’ve been in a healthier place now.. and we would’ve set stronger foundations.

The difficult thing to reconcile though, is that I don’t think I knew what was needed or possible back then, and think I would’ve ended up hiring the wrong person for the wrong reason.

I don’t think it’s worth looking back for too long, we made our mistakes, learnt from them and now it’s about going onwards and upwards with the learnings in tow.