Twelve Zip Code Yinzer: Profiling HVMG's Ron Mader

We talked with HVMG's recently promoted Senior Vice President of Operations to take in the twists and turns of his career and what he learned in the process. This charming oral history underscores one of Ron's strongest-held beliefs -- building genuine, transparent relationships.

Where did you grow up? Pittsburgh, PA

What was your first job in hospitality?

When I was 15 years old, there was a hotel one block from my house in Pittsburgh, and that's where I started off as a bus boy in the hotel restaurant. I got really engaged in the industry and progressed from bus boy to server to bartender, which I thought was pretty cool, especially working for tips. Eventually, it was time to move beyond this mom-and-pop hotel.

I started at the Greentree Marriott in Pittsburgh, which was my first "real" hotel, with more than 460 guestrooms, 40,000 square feet of banquet space, and four restaurants and lounges. It was such a great training ground because it was the core property for Interstate Hotels. I started there as a bus boy and then was promoted to a server, lead server, and supervisor. Leadership saw something in me that lead them to ask me to start participating in acquisitions and transitions.

I was the restaurant supervisor back then, and I think I opened maybe 12-15 hotels with Interstate Hotels at the time in an hourly position. That was an awesome experience.

Can you describe your path to joining HVMG?

Being on the acquisition task force meant I quickly got a lot of exposure to the Interstate corporate team. At the time, Interstate was based in Pittsburgh which made it not only an awesome training ground but a chance to get to know the executives with Interstate. My career just took off. At that point, I became a restaurant manager, lounge manager and beverage manager.

I was promoted to Director of Restaurants at a different Marriott hotel, and I had a General Manager at that time who said that he saw something in me that reminded him of himself. We did a New Year's Eve party -back in the day when hotels used to do that—and the next day, that General Manager promoted me to the Front Office Manager position without a day's experience.

That General Manager was instrumental in getting me the right training, development and exposure to be promoted and I relocated to Gaithersburg, Maryland, for an acquisition as Front Office Manager. I was then promoted to the Rooms Division Manager and we were recognized as Hotel of the Year.

My children were very young at the time, and, after a few years, we found ourselves in a very high cost of living area and missed Pittsburgh (as all yinzers do). My wife, Jeanne, and I were the first on either side of our families to move out of Pittsburgh. When we did, there were a lot of tears of emotion as most people do not leave Pittsburgh and if you do, you always work your way back "home."

So, that's what we did! I had an opportunity to move to Pittsburgh for another acquisition. I not only lead the transition but was also the opening Rooms Division Manager. I was later promoted to Director of Operations. We were very fortunate to spend the next 15 years in Pittsburgh while I worked at multiple properties.

During the Interstate evolution, the first merger was into the Patriot American Portfolio with Wyndham. I was the test to see if an Interstate Manager could transition to Wyndham and was promoted to General Manager at a Pittsburgh Wyndham property. Unfortunately, about a year later, the hotel was being sold. I was emotionally attached to the property associates and guests, and it felt like a disaster as I loved being a General Manager.

Lodgian Days

Fortunately, I had an opportunity because I had hired a director of sales from South Dakota who had a connection in Pittsburgh with Lodgian Hotels. We were hired together by Lodgian, and I was the Opening General Manager of the Crowne Plaza Hotel. I progressed to General Manager of the Holiday Inn/Doubletree by Hilton and then Area Director supporting six other properties.

I developed a loyalty to Robert Cole, and it all started in the spring of 2000 when I started with Lodgian. I attended Lodgian's GM Conference at a resort in Atlanta, Georgia, which included a team-building event at a bowling alley.

At the bowling alley, we picked out our bowling balls and went to predetermined seating. I went to my lane, and I saw the names on my team and looked at the team that we were supposed to play. Wouldn't you know it: Robert Cole was the first name on that board! I had not met him yet.

I was a young general manager and obviously very nervous about meeting the boss for the first time. In walked Robert, very young and wearing a tight black shirt with muscles everywhere. He walked up, shook my hand, and said, "I'm Robert Cole. Now let's bowl." Everyone knows how competitive Robert is! His competitive spirit coupled with his genuine love and passion for his team was so incredible.

About 18 months later, Robert left Lodgian to start Hospitality Ventures, but I stayed with Lodgian. I just fell in love just with all of the people. I met Margie Vito back then, as well as Sue Sanders, Matt Woodruff, and many others. I'm a loyal person, and I really felt like I found my family.

Joining HVMG

A lot of us stayed with Lodgian, and Robert started HVMG with one hotel. In 2010, Lodgian was being sold to Hudson Advisors into the Lonestar portfolio. It was quite interesting. At that time, Lonestar did not want to manage the properties and completed an RFP process. All of the hotels were going to be separated into multiple management companies, and every general manager and director of sales had to interview with six management companies because they didn't want to give the entire portfolio to just one operator.

So there I was interviewing with all six management companies, and one of them just happened to be HVMG. I talked to all of the companies, and I went home and told my wife, Jeanne, "I just pray HVMG is who gets my hotel."

South Carolina Switcheroo

HVMG ended up with my hotel, and the vice president of operations, Jay, asked me to do him a favor. He said, "I want you to go to South Carolina and reposition a property for us." Of course, I said yes. I commuted to Hilton Head while my younger son finished high school, but we had been looking for a house and had enrolled him at the University of South Carolina, so the move was coming. We wanted to wait until he graduated.

After a few months, I got another call from Jay. He said, "Dude, guess what? The hotel's being sold."

This is after Jeanne had come down, and this was going to be the big move after 15 years back in Pittsburgh. Instead of moving to Hilton Head, I went back to Pittsburgh to reposition my former property. We had 60 days to do the conversion and the related PIP, which is not very much time. But we did it.

I was back in Pittsburgh, and my office phone rang. It was Robert. I thought, "Oh my God, the boss is calling, what did I do wrong?"

He called and said, "I know what happened in South Carolina with the hotel being sold and the impact on your family, and I understand the demands of what you're doing in Pittsburgh. I'm just calling to tell you how much I appreciate you."

That is why I'm loyal to this day -- that moment of truth, one phone call. That's really what our culture is. When we talk about purpose and love - I experienced the love that day in that phone call. I can give countless examples of the genuine love and support that Robert provides. He is our North Star and has the ability to motivate, challenge, and appreciate!

Where is Houston?

A couple of months later, the phone rang, and it was Robert again. He asked me to help with a turn-around project in Houston, Texas. The hotel had lost a piece of base business of 150 rooms per night, and it was really struggling, in danger of foreclosure.

After I said, "Where is Houston, Texas?", I packed the bags and we moved to Houston, which I realized was near the Gulf of Mexico. My sales pitch to Jeanne was, "We're going to go live by the Gulf of Mexico." We were really excited to move, and in short order, we made big improvements at the hotel. In the first year, we were able to significantly improve NOI. We fixed the Quality Assurance issues. We did so well that we put ourselves in a position to sell that property in a couple of years and not only sell it, but the new owner kept us on as the management, a true compliment!

At this point, Jeanne was ready to go back east. I shared that with Robert, and he said, "Well, would you consider doing regional work?" I asked if I could live anywhere, and as long as it was by an airport, he said yes.

Jeanne and I had talked about Fort Lauderdale when we were getting engaged (Wouldn't it be cool to live there sometime?), so Jeanne and I moved to South Florida. We just loved it - palm trees, ocean, a pool in the yard and it was warm - well, hot, but we loved it.

When our boys - now men - moved back to Pittsburgh, we wanted to be closer. At the same time, Robert called me again to say, "We've got these critical assets up in Winston-Salem and Greensboro, North Carolina. Would you consider moving closer to them and dedicating a portion of your role to re-positioning those properties?"

We moved to North Carolina, and I took on the managing director position for two hotels and a convention center with my regional responsibilities. In the second year, one of the hotels was named HVMG hotel of the year, and the convention center became the food and beverage operation of the year. In 2020, the complex was pacing for the best ever year in Winston Salem, and then COVID hit and slowed everybody down.

What is different about your new role as Senior Vice President, Operations? What are some of your priorities?

Previously, my role was really dedicated to the general managers. Now, I also get to work with the above-property regional leaders and ownership stakeholders. I'm excited to work with our two new regional directors of operations and two new area general managers and to stretch my coaching and mentoring muscles.

My priority is actually quite simple, and that's to reinvest in talent into the industry, not just our company, but the entire industry. I'll use salespeople as an example. Some GMs are looking for seasoned sales managers to hire, and they're simply not out there any longer. They have been forced to choose a different path due to Covid dynamics. We need to rethink what we do and how we do it. My approach is to develop a training platform in our properties where we can hire less experienced talent, bring them into the industry, and develop the next generation of hoteliers to reinvest in the industry.

To be successful in hospitality now, do you still need to relocate frequently?

Absolutely not. As I recruit general managers, I let them know that, as an organization, we are not going to require you to move unless you want to move. If you want to work in Charlotte, North Carolina, and that's where your family and your passion are, then we're going to do everything in our power to find every opportunity for you.

On the other side of that, there is a pretty big gap in our industry right now because people don't want to move, so we need to find more of those people. We need to make ourselves more attractive to the people who are up for the adventure.

What's something you wish you knew at the beginning of your career?

I probably would have moved away from Pittsburgh earlier in my career. I always preached to my kids that there's a big, beautiful world out there. Go see it and I am so happy to be in my 12th zip code. Knowledge and relationships are powerful!

What's a prediction you have about the future of the hotel business?

From the real estate perspective, there will be a lot of transactions over the next couple of years - changes in ownership, changes in management company portfolios. Everybody's going to get to have some fun because they're going to get new properties, new brands inside the portfolio. Asset management is evolving and will continue to be highly engaged.

Every general manager will have a sales background. Some of the best GMs I've worked with have sales backgrounds. We need to develop directors of sales into operations positions, and they will be the best of the best.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I am a big water activity guy; that's why I live on a lake. Anything by the water we just absolutely love to do, whether it's just suntanning, hanging out, fishing, or kayaking.

What's your favorite trip that you've ever taken?

I just spent four days of uninterrupted time with my mom and dad. We took them to the beach last weekend for my mom's birthday and Mother's Day.

They are very active and healthy, but during COVID they did not leave their house for two and a half years. My mother was sitting in the sand at the beach and said, "I never thought I'd get back to the beach again. Thank you." That was priceless.

What is the next trip that you're fantasizing about?

In January, we're going to fly from Charlotte to Key West, and then we're going to island-hop through the keys back to Miami. We'll spend the night in each Key.

What core beliefs guide your career?

I believe in continuous improvement in all disciplines, and in always, always, always doing the right thing at the end of the day.

I never thought that I would be a regional or above-property or corporate person. To this day, I think I'm a GM at heart. I always look through their eyes when I'm helping them. Being brilliant at the basics is the approach that I've always taken, too - friendliness, cleanliness, and responsiveness above everything else.

As you can see, I have been very blessed. It comes down to building genuine, transparent relationships, following the right leader, and having a balanced approach to work and life.