Meet The Tribe: Steven Pan

By Rachel Duffell

The executive chairman of Regent Hotels & Resorts and Formosa International Hotels talks about the painful challenges that drove his success, the people who inspired and influenced him along the way, and why mentorship matters

Tatler Asia

Meet the Tribe is an eight-part series introducing some of the industry leaders across Asia who helped us select the Gen.T List 2019—a panel of experts we call The Tatler Tribe.  First up is Steven Pan, a member of The Tribe in Taiwan, representing the Food & Beverage category. 

As early as the 1970s Steven Pan’s father, SR Pan, identified the need for a luxury hotel in Taipei, but what would launch as the Grand Formosa Regent Taipei in 1990—today the Regent Taipei—was realised only after Pan Senior had sold the majority share in his Formosa International Hotels to a new partner, You-Hao Chen.

Ironically, it was this new partner who would be the one to lure a young Steven back to Taiwan from an investment banking career in the US to the business that would, unbeknown to both then, eventually return to the Pan family.

“I initially told him I wasn’t interested because I was a banker. But he said I would be responsible for developing the company, building more hotels and taking the company public,” says Steven. This appealed and Pan Junior returned to Taiwan in 1991, successfully taking Formosa International Hotels public in 1998. However, tensions had broken out between Chen and Steven in the meantime, and in 2000, Steven led a management buyout of the controlling stake in the company, bringing it back into the Pan family fold. Greater challenges were nevertheless still to come.

Embrace challenges. Facing a challenge is like having an immunisation shot—once you’ve done it, you are immune for life
Steven Pan

Global travel was hit hard following the September 11 attacks in 2001 and suffered further with the Sars outbreak in 2003. On top of that, Steven was already in debt from the acquisition. But with perseverance, the business righted and stock prices took off.

In 2010 the opportunity to acquire the Regent brand presented itself. Steven is now executive chairman of Taiwan’s largest and most profitable listed hotel operator, Formosa International Hotels, which includes luxury hotel group Regent Hotels & Resorts, lifestyle hotel brand Silks Place hotels and budget hotel chain Just Sleep. We spoke to the esteemed businessman about his testing journey to the top and what the Gen.T List means to him and his company.

Tatler Asia
Above  Regent Taipei

What are your proudest accomplishments?
The management buyout of the hotel company and acquiring the Regent brand are some of the accomplishments that I am proud of, but I think there is one that is more important. It was during Sars in 2003 when global travel and the hotel industry was hit hard. Revenues were down 50 percent or more because nobody was travelling or eating out. And we did something very different.

At a time when everybody was laying off people and cutting back, we didn’t let anyone go. Instead we made a lot of innovations. For instance, when the hotel rooms were all empty, we created offices to serve as alternative locations for multinational companies. At the time, there was a desire to avoid cross-contamination, so a lot of companies had to make sure that a proportion of their people were working in a different location. We started turning our hotel rooms into offices. This was just one of the innovations we carried out. I am very proud that we were able to thrive in a period of great difficulty and we did so through innovation, by offering new services and by not laying anybody off.

My first boss in Taiwan, the man who hired me back from America, challenged me to the absolute limits in every way, professionally and ethically, and later we became adversaries
Steven Pan

What does the Gen.T List mean to you?
We are very lucky to work with a lot of people on the Gen.T List. Take chef André Chiang [from the 2016 list]. We invited him to Taiwan in 2011 as a guest chef, soon after he had launched Restaurant André in Singapore [in late 2010] and we worked together for three years. I recall a conversation I had with him at that time where he said he wanted to devote some of his time to Taiwan to elevate the country’s culinary scene. Since then Taiwan’s culinary scene has taken off with so many exciting chefs, two years of the Michelin guide and a lot of Taiwan’s restaurants and bars in Asia’s 50 Best lists. We are proud that we worked with André to start this movement in Taiwan.

Paul Lee from this year’s list was part of our new concept, Taste Lab, where we invite guest chefs to cook for a couple of months. Following this, Paul decided to open his own restaurant, Impromptu by Paul Lee, inside Regent Taipei, which received one star from Michelin this year. We are creating a platform to incubate leading chefs inside our hotel, and this is just one way we are working with those on the Gen.T list.

Why is the Gen.T List important?
Its honourees inspire young people to make a positive impact.

Tatler Asia
Above  Steven Pan

What makes a good leader?
An ownership mindset is important. Think and act like the owner of an organisation whether you own it or not. I also believe in positive energy—you’ve got to be able to energise the people who work for and around you. Walk the talk. And embrace simplicity.

As a leader, how do you encourage creativity and innovation?
Ask questions instead of giving instructions. We have a mentoring programme in our company which helps to bolster creative thinking as all of our top executives, including myself, actively mentor younger managers and leaders.

Are there any leaders that you particularly admire?
I admire Warren Buffet, because despite his wealth his values haven’t changed—he has lived in the same house for 60 years. He’s still true to himself. My father is like that, too. He accumulated a lot of wealth, but his friendship circles didn’t change for 40 years and his life was not affected by external material goods and recognition.

What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received?
It was in the form of a book about Lao Tsu, the ancient Chinese philosopher, a great believer in nature. To put it simply, there are four seasons in the year, and that is reflected in life and in business—things will always change. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel, but you must also guard against complacency. When you are at the top, the fall is never far away, but when you are down at the bottom, things will change—spring will always come.

If you could give one piece of advice to this year's Generation T honourees, what would it be?
Embrace challenges. Facing a challenge is like having an immunisation shot—once you’ve done it, you are immune for life.

What are your future ambitions?
The mission of Silks Place and Regent is really to bring the best of the world to Taiwan and to bring the best of Taiwan to the world. We’ve been working with the best chefs and designers, the best in lifestyle, and that is our ongoing mission.

From a personal perspective I want to mentor future leaders, and not just in our company. I want to mentor future leaders because I am happiest when I make others more successful.

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