Like many of the up-and-coming millennials in the hotel business, Justin Jabara has a family connection to the hospitality industry. His father, Richard Jabara—himself a second-generation hotelier—co-founded Danbury, Conn.-based hotel management company Meyer Jabara Hotels with partner Bill Meyer in 1977.
But anyone who thinks this heir apparent of Meyer Jabara Hotels was handed his current position on a silver platter should think again. Jabara, who is now vice president of development and acquisitions, has worked in nearly every position and capacity at the company’s operated hotels, including guest service, construction, and food and beverage. He also worked full time in hotels while pursuing his undergraduate degree in hospitality management at Johnson and Wales and later took post-graduate courses at Cornell and Harvard Business School.
Jabara says that he and his three siblings grew up touring the company’s properties with their father, spending days supervised by staff in various departments when their dad worked. But he says it was his grandfather, Theodore (Ted) Jabara, who originally started the family on the road to becoming a hotel family. As Jabara tells it, “My grandfather, Ted, was traveling along the interstate in the Carolinas while selling linen to the hotel industry, and was taken with a half-built hotel property located just off the interstate. It was bank-owned and in a great location, but he didn’t have enough money to buy it himself. He asked first one neighbor, Monroe Seifer, and then another, Arthur Meyer, Bill’s father, and between the three of them, they were able to buy it and finish construction. The funny thing was that none of them except Monroe knew how to run a hotel.”
Jabara continues, “The three partners then divvied up the work. Arthur, who was a lawyer, took the finance and real estate end, while Monroe ran operations. My grandfather handled purchasing and oversaw renovations.” They were early adopters of the Holiday Inn brand, and started picking up locations along Interstate 95 and expanding. In 1969, they merged their hotels into Servico, Inc., and took control of the public hotel company.
Richard Jabara and Bill Meyer took a different path than most: Richard, a University of Denver graduate, as food and beverage director at a Holiday Inn in Manhattan, and Bill, a Wharton grad who was also a New York City real estate lawyer, joined Servico in Memphis, Tenn., as head of real estate. Then, in 1977, like their fathers, they seized their own opportunity to take the plunge in an underperforming Holiday Inn in Danbury, Conn. Jabara explains, “It had been poorly operated and it was in bankruptcy, so they bought it, but both kept their day jobs.” The partners turned it around, adding a nightclub—called “Teddy’s,” for Jabara’s grandfather—to reposition the property. “Although the hotel continued to perform poorly, the nightclub was able to carry the burden, so when the Danbury market came back and they renovated, they had a successful asset,” says Jabara.
With a proven model of their own, the second generation was off and running. They would identify and purchase underperforming assets and adding significant food and beverage. Through this method, they grew their portfolio into a very profitable business.
Jabara notes that the partners also turned away from a management style that was dominant in the 60s and 70s. “In those days, general managers were kings, information was power, and there was not much transparency.” In contrast, Meyer Jabara Hotels implemented the “Journey” management style, which is based on empowerment and learning.
Among the children of the partners, it was Jabara who threw himself into the life of a hotelier. At Johnson and Wales College, he took two long days of classes, then worked in a hotel full time for the rest of the week. This was a routine begun when his father asked him to step in as a project manager when a renovation went awry. “He thought I had a good foundation in operations but said it was important to understand what goes into a renovation. I spent summers doing hard labor, demolishing guestrooms, rebuilding and caulking showers—really learning the basics.”
After college, he says, he was sent to “problem” hotels for the first few years. The first hotel was a property they planned to sell in Clinton, N.J., but it wasn’t performing. Jabara arrived to take over as general manager amid massive power outages the day after a major storm. The last was as a hotel manager at a hotel at La Guardia Airport. “This was a great experience. It was a 280-room hotel that introduced me to working with unions.”
It was at this point, about three years ago, says Jabara, that he realized that his goal was to be a future leader of the company. To do that, he needed to understand more than operations. “There are two parts to this business that operate together; I needed to understand the real estate and development side. That’s why I moved into my current role where I oversee all development and work mostly with Bill Meyer.”
Jabara says during the last two to three years, the pace of acquisitions has quickened. “We’ve been able to take our deal now, which was really organic growth through referrals and past partners, and really give it a shot in the arm.” This, he says, has led to nine transactions, including a portfolio of properties in the Carolinas, and a strong future pipeline
From what he’s observed and learned from mentors, Jabara says, size matters more now than in the past. “We never tried to be the biggest. There is a lot of consolidation and also a lot of opportunity for a company our size. I’m looking to see how we can capitalize on that opportunity while still maintaining our core values.”
Those core values, based on the “Journey” management style, include a focus on people and an understanding that every job in the hotel is important. “I still tour hotels and make sure to emphasize this with general managers. Few people understand that in a full-service hotel, often the most expensive piece of operated equipment is the dishwasher— which is often operated by one of the lowest paid employees. But can you imagine trying to run a kitchen or banquet operation or restaurant without clean dishes? I ran food and beverage for years and ruined countless suits being back there with the dishwasher.”
Jabara says his early work experience has served him well. “Working now on the finance and development side of the business, nearly everyone is over 50, but I have been successful because I’ve had a lot of work experience—a good foundation, many good mentors, and great schooling.” That schooling included trips back to the college campus to get up to speed in finance and development; he took extra classes at Cornell to learn hotel valuation and underwriting and at Harvard Business School in innovation and strategy.
Returning to the topic of growth, Jabara says the organization is now poised for expansion. “Although our goal has never been to be the biggest, it is our goal to be the best. We have built a great operational product with industry-leading back-of-the-house support and the best people. We do revenue management, have our own call center, centralized accounting, our own purchasing, and have written much of our own accounting software.”
He supports ownership’s belief in smart growth, not only with the right deals but the right people. “We’re a privately held company with two principals. We have investors but believe in risk-averse, profitable growth. I look at 15 to 25 deals a week, and often we don’t take any of them. Our feeling is that we’re going to grow, but only with the right deals.”
Top photo: Cambria Hotel & Suites Pittsburgh Downtown