When Michael Henssler began training as a chef in 1985 in Germany, he probably would not have dreamed that he would go to Peking only 25 years later as President China of Kempinski Hotels and jointly develop a new high-end luxury brand there. But that can happen if a passionate hotelier and epicurean simply does not want to stop constantly expanding his own horizons afresh.
text: Anke Pedersen // photography: Jasper James
When Michael Henssler is feeling stressed, this recipe always helps: "Then I first go to the market, after which I stand in the kitchen for half a day, invite people for dinner in the evening who don't talk about cholesterol, and I have a great evening." It is not unusual for the epicurean southern German to invite special customers and guests to these indulgent cooking evenings within the family circle – with his wife Verena and the couple's three children. "Anyone can invite people to a star restaurant," jokes the passionate cook. "But to cook for someone personally at home, that has a totally different value. That shows the level of respect for the person."
Anyone who sees the 52-year-old Kempinski manager putting forward his arguments, gesticulating and actually glowing inwardly as he says these words knows immediately that they are by no means just management clichés. This man lives by what he says. Even for the six-year-old Michael, it was already clear: "I want to be a cook. That is what I always used to say." Even to his aunts when they cooked children's recipes with him. And to his family – all of them doctors and engineers. But instead of passing out when his son decided to train as a chef at a Ramada hotel in his home town in 1985, his father only reminded him of the Henssler family philosophy: You have to like what you are doing, and do it with enthusiasm, then you will definitely be successful."
And Henssler was successful. At barely 30 years of age, he opened a four-star country hotel as hotel manager, at 38 he became General Manager at Kempinski, at 40 Regional Director in the Middle East, and at 46 finally President Kempinski China.
The secret of his success? Apart from a passion for hospitality? While he was still at senior school, he "figured out" that "good school leaving results and further training are absolutely necessary to increase your own market value," he says. So he concentrated specifically on learning. Firstly in the area of languages. Before he registered for three years at the École hôtelière de Lausanne, he first wanted to "bring" his school French "one hundred percent up to scratch." To do this, he first worked for six months as a commis chef in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, then as a doorman in a Parisian nightclub. "I learned the most from the flower sellers," grins the giant with the broad back of a former rower, "they always knew who, what and with whom something was going down."
He had hardly pocketed his degree from Lausanne when he went to work at the Kurhotel Luisenbad spa hotel in Bavaria as Assistant to the General Manager. His aim: "Get a complete overview of a company very quickly, recognise the scope of the value chains in all areas and experience up close and personally how an owner feels and what he really wants."
After two years there, he had learned enough and went to work as Assistant Banquet Sales Manager at the newly opened Kempinski Hotel Airport München in Munich. He found the work in a chain business "interesting". Yet he left the hotel again after a few months to take a job as hotel manager to get a 75-room hotel back on track. "The offer was very attractive, the employer was simply wonderful, and we had a lot of fun," Henssler says looking back, and mentions in this regard also the little house in the country, membership of the local Rotary Club and lots of time to play golf.
However, after three years the party was over. "We said to ourselves, we are still too young to be living a life like this and the world is too big to just sit here and wait for something to happen." In short: Henssler wants to "go back into the wide world" and immediately a former colleague at Kempinski offered him the position of Convention and F&B Assistant at the Grand Hotel Europe in St. Petersburg. Henssler and his young wife immediately say yes.
From this moment on, the subsequent General Manager will never leave Kempinski Hotels again. "That was the first important step in my career, because it showed: 'The young man really wants it.'" After eighteen months, he returned once again for a short period to Munich. Then the young hopeful was permitted to join the regional president in the Middle East to develop the region – and in Kuwait he soon got to develop his first own hotel too. "A fantastic experience," Henssler still waxes lyrical about it today. "Especially in a group where entrepreneurship is desired and required."
Kempinski liked this attitude and in 2004 appointed him as Regional Director and GM in the Kempinski Mall of the Emirates in Dubai. Inspired by the responsibility, Henssler concluded numerous contracts for new hotels and embarked on an MBA course at the same time. "This way of dealing with figures, taking a long-term view of the business, when you try to put the value-adding aspect of an idea into figures – that is totally interesting and expands my horizon." He had not quite finished the MBA when Kempinski called him back to Europe, where he was to position the Grand Hotel Kempinski Geneva as the group's new flagship. He only needed just under two years to do it – thanks to "a wonderful team and the right touch here and there" – and then demanded bigger challenges.
And he got them: as Kempinski's China head and director of Key International Hotels Management, a joint venture established in 2010 between Kempinski and the Beijing Tourism Group. His task: to safeguard the quality of Kempinski's subsequent growth on the one hand, and to establish a "fundamentally new brand" on the other hand. "The idea was to make Key International a new growth platform."
"After the offer came, I very quickly got a very strong desire to do it," Henssler recounts enthusiastically. And although he now doesn't ever want to leave, he admits that it took about a year before he really felt at home in this country. "China is fundamentally different," he says," and as a Westerner, you are a total illiterate." Linguistically, culturally – in absolutely every respect. "The longer you are there, the less you understand," he summarises, and laughs at the naive expectation of the West that the Chinese would definitely adapt some day. "That is a great mistake, the Chinese have no need to do that at all."
In order to keep abreast of developments, Henssler is not just honing the constant optimisation of the Kempinski portfolio on the Chinese mainland: "We have just opened in Fuzhou, that's high-end, that's new generation Kempinski!" Alongside this, he is studying the subjects of "Real estate valuation & asset management" at Cornell, in order to be able to better put himself into the owner's position. "The managers of the future will possess the academic and intellectual capability to recognise and foresee the changing times, in order to be able to steer business in the right direction and draw solutions to problems not just from experience or from the past, but also from other business areas."
And he is steering his business in the right direction: In Peking, Key General Manager Henssler opened the first hotel under the new luxury brand name NUO in 2015. He and his team had given themselves five years to complete it and researched in collaboration with renowned universities: What touches the Chinese soul? The result is a luxury product inspired by the Ming Dynasty of which his partners in particular are especially proud, he says. Time and again, he says, they would come to him with business partners and say to them: "Let me show you what China is like."
The next NUO hotels are planned for Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hangzhou; in the long term, NUO will also be rolled out at the international level. But before that, Henssler wants to devote himself to yet another project, however. He cannot reveal any details yet, except to say that Key has been awarded the contract for a very big project just outside the capital. "That's like an accolade," says Michael Henssler proudly. In any case, his kitchen table will still be in Peking for some time yet.