When you make people happy, you make yourself happy. This sense of fulfilment is why many who join the Business of Happiness go on to stay for years. To celebrate Labour Day, four long-serving hotel staff, including Sallin Heng, share why they’ve remained in the hospitality industry for decades.
How long have you been in the industry? A good 38 years now.
How did you start your career in the Business of Happiness?
After I finished my O Levels, I wanted to work in the service industry. My parents gave me two options: Work in a hotel or in retail. So I chose to work in a hotel.
I started at Shangri-La’s Housekeeping department when I was 17. I was the youngest Room Attendant at that time. My older colleagues were kind, and they treated me as if I was their daughter. It was a fun learning experience.
Your career journey is quite interesting. Can you tell us more about it?
While I was working at Shangri-La, the Head of the Housekeeping department encouraged me to study part-time. I signed up for part-time courses at the American Hotel School. Through the generous support of the hotel, I received my Advanced Diploma in Hospitality Management. You probably see it more now, but the hotel industry has always been quite encouraging of their employees upgrading their skillsets. So, when I went back to school, the hotel was quite accommodating with my work and school schedules.
A couple years later, I thought about my career growth – I wanted to stay in this industry, but what can I do to progress? I decided to do something brave, to step out of my comfort zone: I joined the pre-opening team for a brand new hotel. Mandarin Oriental Hotel was opening in Singapore. I was hired as a Supervisor to help set up the Housekeeping operations. When you’re part of a pre-opening team, you’re starting from scratch. I found the pre-opening work exciting because I got to help build a team from the ground up, and saw all that work unfold seamlessly.
At the same time, I was part of the first batch of Corporate Management Trainees for Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, and was eventually relocated to the flagship hotels in Hong Kong and Bangkok for more training. Travelling opportunities were a luxury back then, and I was lucky to be given those chances – I was only 23 years old then! Working abroad for a year was an eye-opening experience. I gained more knowledge and understanding of the industry, and the different cultures in Asia.
A few years later, I was promoted to Assistant Executive Housekeeper, and then moved to be Head of Housekeeping. I stayed with Mandarin Orchard for around 10 years.
In 1997, I joined the pioneer team of Frasers Hospitality Group’s Serviced Residence department. I ran two divisions: Housekeeping and Engineering. I was then promoted to Assistant General Manager to help the GM oversee the Operations department. A few years later, I was promoted to GM. Keep in mind, there were only a handful of female GMs back then – and I was one of them! I was entrusted to lead the properties in Manila and Seoul. I did that for four to five years.
I finally returned to Singapore and specialised in pre-opening properties for Frasers Hospitality. So, whenever the Group opened a new property, I was in charge of setting that place up before opening the doors to the public. In total, I helped opened 10 properties across the Asia Pacific.
Now, I’m the Vice President of Frasers Hospitality’s Global Procurement. I am determined to stay in this industry for the long run because I love what I do. For 38 years, my passion for this work has never changed. I still enjoy giving the best service to guests and making them smile.
Tell us more about your role and what you do on a day-to-day basis.
I think my role is very fun. I get to attend trade shows to check and buy new industry products and supplies. I then introduce those purchases to the operating teams. I also ensure that we have a very good supply management system worldwide. There’s a lot of logistics and planning behind sourcing products and getting them to destinations, so you have to be quite creative with your solutions.
Additionally, I still oversee pre-opening operations worldwide which includes supplying the specifications of all our products. Whenever we replace a certain product with something else, it has to follow the same product specifications.
Since you started your career from the frontline and worked your way up, what changes have you witnessed in the industry?
The industry has grown a lot. There are more opportunities now to progress in your career. Back then, everyone started from the bottom and made their way up quite slowly. For example, in the 80s and early 90s, travelling opportunities were very rare. So when I was given the chance to work overseas, that was a huge deal and I felt incredibly lucky.
Nowadays, opportunities are always given, but I always believe that it’s up to the person to take them. I appreciate hotel management who recognise talented and hardworking employees, and groom them to be future managers and leaders in the industry.
As a veteran in the industry, is it important for you to help train and mold a new generation of colleagues in the industry? I believe that having a mentor is important in this industry, especially if you’re quite inexperienced. In fact, I am a mentor for the Industry Mentorship Programme @SHATEC. It’s a year-long programme, where mentors meet their mentees once a month to check in. It’s the best way to keep the hospitality service and standards high, and imbuing the right service values and attitude in the next generation of hotel leaders. It’s also a great way to better understand the industry, while having access to a professional network of mentors.
What has been the most challenging moment of your career? Every pre-opening I’ve done was challenging. For each property, there was a unique challenge. I’ve tackled tight construction deadlines while making sure that the pre-opening operations were on track. There was also the paperwork, such as getting the proper permits and licences, and the processes are different in each city and country.
Despite the challenges, what is the most fulfilling moment of your career? Whenever I complete a project, and it becomes a success. When your employees are happy, the business is profitable, or the guests are amazed with the service, it makes me feel proud of my work.
What do you enjoy the most about your work? I love interacting with people, whether they’re colleagues or customers. The hotel industry is like a large supportive community. It’s always nice when a business relationship becomes a lifelong friendship. The friendships I’ve built in the past 38 years are still there.
What advice would you give to young professionals who want to join the industry? Work hard but don’t forget to have fun! Life isn’t always about work. You must learn to live outside of work.