Michael Heaton, who will replace the retiring Rob Winchester as president of Waterford Hotel Group, expects to continue expanding the management company’s portfolio.
WATERFORD, Connecticut—Waterford Hotel Group is dipping into its own well to find a replacement for retiring President Rob Winchester.
Michael Heaton, a 20-year Waterford employee who served as its VP of operations for the past eight years, will succeed Winchester on 1 January 2018. Winchester, who also held the COO title, is retiring but will serve as a part-time advisor for the company. The Waterford-based hotel-management company has 27 hotels comprising 3,764 guestrooms in its portfolio.
“It’s been quite emotional because I’ve never really done this before,” Len Wolman, Waterford’s chairman and CEO, said about replacing a long-time company leader. “When you have a 30-year relationship with someone, it’s hard when you’re used to that person being in the driver seat … change is always not easy.”
However, the process went smoothly because of the wealth of internal talent from which to draw, he added.
“One of the most exciting things is when you know you have talent in your organization who has been with you for 20 years,” said Wolman, who launched Waterford in 1986. “Mike is a great executor. He really gets things done. He’s incredibly smart, very strategic, and really good about developing people and challenging them to be their best.”
That background led to Heaton’s promotion.
“The thing I’m most proud of is when you can have an organization that can really deliver for people their personal goals and the goals of the organization—and those two align,” Wolman said. “That has been the foundation of what has made us successful.”
Heaton and Winchester agreed that the succession model is something of which to be proud.
“It’s a great company that allows people opportunity for advancement,” Heaton said. “As I move into the president position, it’s just working those relationships I’ve already formed with my peers to strategically grow the company.”
Winchester, who became president of the company in January 2000, said he is encouraged by being able to “look through our organization and see people, who I’ve worked with over the years as they’ve developed and grown with our company ... still here and in senior positions.”
Len Wolman, Waterford
Wolman said the move has spurred other promotions within Waterford’s ranks, including: Duane Schroder, who started with the company in 2002 as an intern, moving into the VP of operations role; and Tina Fleming and Lori Woll moving into regional positions.
“It’s the culture we wanted to create, and it evolved,” Wolman said of the company’s promote-from-within approach. “When we looked at the options on succession, it all came down to the core values we live with each and every day.”
“The key to success is hiring and promoting from within,” Heaton said. “It has to be a pretty deliberative process. If you have qualified and ambitious people that you hire … it allows you to be very strategic in how you hire executive-level positions.”
Looking for more growth
Waterford has invested in more team members in the last several months to help facilitate growth, according to Heaton.
“I don’t think we’re putting on limits to our growth,” he said. “If anything, we’re being open-minded about what areas we can grow in. We have expertise throughout the (company) for a number of different areas … brand, independents, niche … it’s about pulling that together smartly.”
The company will continue its expansion approach after adding nine properties in 2017, according to Wolman and Heaton.
“We have great relationships with partners we’re already working with,” Heaton said. “The opportunity is to keep growing those relationships and keep moving forward.”
Developing new relationships is also a high priority for Waterford, he said, adding that his biggest challenge is patience.
“I come from an operations background, and we like to move quickly,” Heaton said.
Heaton is a board member of Marriott International’s food-and-beverage advisory committee and is a member of the American Hotel & Lodging Association’s sustainability committee. He previously served as president of the Connecticut Lodging Association.
Winchester will stay busy
Winchester, who joined Waterford in 1990 as a property controller, is retiring as president but will stay on in a part-time advisory role, he said.
“This is a chance to spend more time with family, travel around with my wife,” said Winchester, who turns 65 this week. “I’m young enough to enjoy myself—it seems right for me personally and right for the company as well.”
The retiring president also hopes to spend more time on the golf course.
“I don’t lose many balls, and I have fun,” said Winchester, who sports a 14 handicap on the links.
That laid-back approach has driven Winchester’s leadership approach and has allowed him to learn to trust his employees.
“If I could have given myself advice when I started it would have been to make sure you recognize and are respectful to all of your associates, because that’s who makes it happen,” Winchester said. “You’re only as good as the team around you.”
Empowering employees “to do their thing” is especially important in the hotel business, he said.
One important lesson Winchester said he learned is to not micromanage senior managers.
“Everybody’s moving in the direction and not stopping to look around and say, ‘Hey Rob, is this OK?’” Winchester said. “I should be setting the vision, and they should look ahead knowing it’s OK. My job is look around the corner for them and let them know what mistakes could happen.”
Technology—especially “the ability to provide current relevant management data to our managers to manage their business more effectively … (and to use) data to better understand how to best price our inventory”—has been one of the biggest changes to the industry during his career, he said.