When some marathon runners are asked about why they train and compete, they point to an adrenaline rush during the race. For René Gross Kaerskov, the rush comes from completing a race and the hunt to find his next challenge. As co-CEO for Santa Monica-based Hirsch Bedner Associates, one of the world’s top hospitality design firms, there will always be challenges arising throughout its 26 offices completing global high-profile projects in nearly 50 countries without compromising the excellence of the final product.
One of Kaerskov’s objectives is to keep his associates around the globe prepared for any unexpected obstacles that may arise, even with the best-laid plans. The perfect metaphor for his management style is the mindset that got him into running marathons.
“I don’t like to run,” Kaerskov confides. “However, when I ran a marathon in Singapore I spontaneously signed up for, I realized I could finish it even in high humidity. I then realized I could challenge myself and run one on every continent. To top that off, I figured I could do one on the ‘Eighth Continent’—the North Pole, and later, another on the South Pole, where everything is all about the weather.
“We were told that we had to evacuate if we were to make it home in time for Christmas,” he recalls. “A Russian cargo plane was coming for us in 15 hours, so I told the organizer that I would run to the one-mile mark and back again 15 times. This gives me bragging rights to say I am the only person who ran a race with a Russian cargo plane alone in the South Pole – and won.”
Although Kaerskov says he did not have concrete career ambitions early in life, he revealed he always had an entrepreneurial streak. He sold leftover stock from his parents’ clothing stores to housewives in the local weekend market. Later, he saw a business opportunity arise among his wrestling teammates. “On long bus trips to and from the meets, I quickly realized that if I bought a sufficient amount of soda and candy before the trip, I could sell a lot of it to the guys on the way back,” he recalls.
“We have more power in Los Angeles than we did in our Beijing office leading up to the 2008 Olympics. With 34 properties recently finished or in the works, we look at Los Angeles and its Dubai-like skyline as a very positive thing for us in the city.”
In 1990, Kaerskov’s entrée into the business world was both inauspicious and life changing. The 24-year-old accepted an accounting job at the London offices of Hirsch Bedner Associates (HBA) so he could make enough for rent and evening trips to his local pub. A year later, when the UK economy entered a downturn and the Gulf War started, he was offered a choice by his bosses – be laid off or accept a job in the firm’s Los Angeles office.
Going that distance proved to be a fantastic move for Kaerskov. He climbed from accountant to controller, then CFO, and ultimately his current position in 2010 with co-CEO Ian Carr. He not only became enthralled with the world of high-end travel and cutting-edge interior design but also wholly committed to shaping HBA’s financial strategy and profitability.
“It’s important to realize that if your company is not making a profit, you can’t hire the best people, and if you can’t hire these people, you can’t provide your clients with the best services and products,” he says. “Success for a firm like ours is about having the next generation of architects and designers ready for a constantly changing market. In the role of coach, I need to push my staff ahead. In some respects, it’s like being a conductor of a big orchestra while you compose the music as we go.”
And like a memorable piece of classical music, Kaerskov’s career has many compelling movements with notes of drama and intrigue. These moments included opening offices in New Delhi, Shanghai, the Philippines, and Indonesia, which all took place against a backdrop of political events and cultural differences. Under his direction, the global firm prevailed by implementing a local approach to the way they do business in all of these places.
“With our emphasis on having a global flair, we understand the importance of maintaining a sense of place,” he explains. “In Indonesia, clients do not want to hire an American firm to interpret what is an Indonesian aesthetic, style, or art. We hire local managers, designers, and staff and require them to help us make it the best office in our industry in that location.”
While Kaerskov is proud of the fact that HBA has created 1,100 jobs worldwide in the past six or seven years, and doubled the number of employees in the U.S., he maintains the company can apply what has made it a leader in hospitality design to propel growth in a variety of directions. In addition to their bottom line growth and the bolstering of the employee roster, Kaerskov is particularly proud of the work being done here at home by HBA. “We have more projects going in Los Angeles than we did in our Beijing office leading up to the 2008 Olympics. With 34 properties recently finished or in the works (such as the Hotel Indigo in Downtown LA), we look at Los Angeles and its Dubai-like skyline as a very positive thing for us and the city.”
Speaking again to their international impact, Kaerskov notes that HBA “places a great value on listening to the clients,” which he says has afforded HBA experience in their industry that other firms simply do not have. “We have designed more restaurants than many restaurant designers, and designed more lobbies and meeting rooms than most corporate designers. We need to take that quality and expertise, and push deeper into corporate design, restaurant, retirement living (a trend that’s surfacing in America).”
He also believes in the power of two – two people with complementary skills – to ensure the leadership in the branch offices is balanced. “It’s good to have another person to bounce ideas off or argue your point with,” he says, explaining his constant give-and-take with Carr. “Two guys are smarter than one guy … Ian is from the design side while I am from the business side, which makes our leadership stronger.”
The lessons HBA has taught Kaerskov over his quarter century at the firm have impacted and influenced him outside of the office. In hospitality design, especially in many of the high-end resorts and hotels HBA put its stamp on, attention to small details can make a big difference. Kaerskov knows, from his influences at HBA, to pay attention to the details at home like he does in the office.
“I make it a point to wake up my kids, and make them breakfast,” Kaerskov explains, noting he makes his kids eggs – two different ways – each morning. “It’s not far from the idea of relating to individual clients, and operating in different cultures the right way.”