Englishman in Johor Baru

Philip Skitch, General Manager of
Thistle Johor Baru
Each morning I wake up to see palm trees swaying in the sun and I feel like I’m in an exotic place.  In Hamstead, London, where I was born the weather is so different from this beautiful tropical paradise so I truly appreciate this same amount of daylight each day.  I love the people and cultural mix in Malaysia and am fascinated by Prime Minister Dato Seri Najib Tun Razak’s aspiration for 1Malaysia because I believe it’s the only way for Malaysia to achieve Vision 2020.

Incidentally the Prime Minister and I went to the same school, Malvern College, a leading independent boarding school in Worcestershire, England.  Since the 60’s England has been multi-cultural and everyone there has the right to the same opportunities so I believe Malaysia can also achieve the 1Malaysia vision.  In a way, Thistle Johor Bahru is a microcosm where we offer equal opportunities to all Malaysians, male and female, to get jobs that match their skills and talents.

When I came to Johor Bahru in November 2008, I had the unique task of closing the former hotel and reassuring everyone as there was a lot of uncertainty.  After overseeing a RM50 million renovation project, Thistle Johor Bahru reopened smoothly in July 2009.  This closing, pre-opening and opening experience is personally invaluable to me and when I made a presentation of Thistle Johor Bahru to colleagues in London last year, it raised the profile of Asia in the company, making it a truly international group!

Philip Skitch relaxing at the Hive, Thistle JB
I entered the hotel industry quite naturally because as a child, I was often in and out of the Savoy, London’s most iconic luxury hotel.  That’s because my father was an opera singer, who used to perform Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in the Savoy Theatre located next to the Savoy.  When I completed my ‘A’ levels, I applied to join the Savoy’s Management Training Course and from thousands of applicants, I was awarded 1 of the 4 scholarships given out each year. 

My 4-year course was conducted in the Savoy, Claridge’s and the Connaught in the heart of fashionable Mayfair.  The supreme 5-star luxury of the Connaught offered ultimate designer luxury and Michelin-starred food from an exclusive fine dining restaurant.  Here, I had the privilege of being trained under Chef Michel Bourdin, renowned as a chef of tradition who’s probably unsurpassed in the modern culinary era.

While working with the Connaught, I met many interesting people and was on first-name basis with celebrities like David Niven, Mel Brooks and Sir Alec Guinness.  Roger Moore, better known as The Saint and James Bond, once came to dine but was turned away because he was not wearing a tie.  He asked me in his distinctly clipped tone, “Philip, may I borrow one of your awful ties?” because we kept some spares handy for loan.  When he finished his lunch, he came back holding that tie dramatically high, saying with apparent disgust, “I believe this is yours!” and dropped it on the counter with a 20 pound tip!

Since my first foreign posting to Zurich, Switzerland, I have worked in Germany, the United States in cities like San Diego, New York and Boston before coming to Malaysia.  This is not my first visit to Malaysia because 10 years ago when I turned 40, I decided to take a year off to go back-packing and see the world.  Travelling from London, my partner and I spent time exploring India, the beaches in Thailand and ruins in Cambodia before arriving in Kuala Lumpur in 2003.  

We traveled South by coach to Singapore and onward to Indonesia where we spent 3 glorious weeks on Gilliar, a tiny island near Bali and then left for Australia, New Zealand and a number of cities in the United States before heading to France, Germany and Poland in Europe.  At a job interview with the Millennium Group in New York, I was asked why I went on a world tour and I said that I wanted to see the places where our guests come from.  They agreed that all international General Managers should do this and were so impressed that they gave me the job almost on the spot!

The GM in the lobby of Thistle JB
The past year with Thistle Johor Bahru was the best year in my life because I was involved with the pre-opening and opening of an international class hotel in Asia.  It was a very interesting, challenging yet creative and fulfilling experience and if I was given another opportunity, I would do it again.  

I’m mostly in the hotel on weekdays but during weekends, I enjoy walking along the Straits waterfront and watching favourite movies from my DVD collection.  One of the local foods I like is Chicken Rice with its delicious sauces.  Even with a busy routine, I will not miss my daily 40-minute rowing exercise because it’s a solid stress-buster! 

With the future of Johor in Iskandar Malaysia, Johor Bahru hotels must have the foresight to work together to build better rates and create great hotels with quality service for guests that are anticipated to arrive with the opening of universities, theme parks and major investments in Iskandar. 

Johor Bahru hotels have to rise to the challenge and gear up to compete with international brand hotels that are coming to Iskandar.  I believe Iskandar Malaysia is going to be phenomenal and the future of Johor Bahru is up, up, up!

This interview was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets in 2010

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