TUCSON, AZ—It can be the toughest times that show you what you’re made of. That’s certainly true for SueAnn Lemon, Helinda Lizarraga and Doug Caron, who all worked together at a local hotel during the Great Recession.
“That’s when we realized that we were really good at our jobs. We managed through that period and did an extremely good job for ownership; we were looking at a 200% increase in NOI,” Lemon said.
And so, Focus Hospitality Management was born. “At the time, we had some investors and we all sat down and thought, ‘We can do this on our own. We can meet with owners and sell our skills.’ That’s basically how it started,” said Lemon, who is Focus’ VP/ director of sales and marketing. Lizarraga took on the role of VP/director of hotels, while Caron became its VP/director of operations.
“And we’ve managed to grow slow and steady,” Lemon added. “It still averages out to about a 200% increase in NOI two years after we take on a property. It takes a little bit of time for us to set all of our strategies, train all of our teams. It’s a great formula, and it seems to work.”
Pointing to the company culture as a huge reason why the formula works, Bryan Tubaugh, director of business development, said, “We believe in hands-on training.” He pointed to Lizarraga, who, at the time he spoke with Hotel Business, was at a new property, training staff on how to clean rooms—and she’s not alone.
“There’s a few of us who have more than 30 years of experience in our specific areas, whether it’s operations, facilities, sales and marketing, revenue management, and we like to work side by side as we take on new properties and teach them,” Lemon said. “We’ve got all of this experience and we want to pass that on to every team member at every hotel. Our team members are our greatest assets, alongside our owners and investors. We invest a lot in both; we wouldn’t be successful without them.”
“Our culture is to empower our employees and then support them,” Tubaugh added.
Focus Hospitality Management has seven properties in the portfolio, all in the Tucson area. “The reason Tucson is such a big market for us is because the word of mouth has been passed along through local ownerships on the jobs we’ve done; larger brands have also given us references to people looking in the Tucson market,” Tubaugh said. “We take pride in that [word of mouth]. We all have a heavy part of our careers in this market of Tucson, so there’s a certain pride of having success in a market, especially one that is very seasonal and some would consider a second-tier city; to show we can grow our portfolio and the successes with ownership in a market as such, it really speaks volumes to the job we’ve been able to do.”
However, that doesn’t mean the company is opposed to growing in other cities in Arizona—and beyond. “In the past year, we’ve really set ourselves up to grow that portfolio to properties outside of Tucson and Arizona, which we’re actively working on now,” he said. “For us, we don’t look at it as a geographic opportunity where if someone comes to us from New Hampshire, we’re going to say no because it’s too far or anything like that. As far as geographically, is it easier to be on the West Coast and grow from that side? Absolutely. However, we don’t limit ourselves to that. When we look at opportunities, we look for the fit with the ownership: Is it going to work and be successful for both parties? Every property we look at, we take into consideration the relationship so it’s a win-win.”
Lemon added, “When we start a conversation with new ownership or an investment group, we like to do our due diligence. Can we help them? That’s important. We’re not going to just take on anything that is handed to us. We want to make sure that we can be successful for them and for us. It’s a bit of a process and once we’ve done our homework, we let them know exactly what we can or can’t do.”
The management company recently added two new properties—a Hampton Inn & Suites and a Best Western. “We’ve been at them since October and December, respectively, and now we’ve just recently broken ground for a complete renovation just two weeks ago,” Tubaugh said. “That’s [slated to open]the beginning of 2020. This property is called The Tuxon. It’s a very urban, boutique hotel in a historic part of Tucson, the birthplace of Tucson, so this is an interesting opportunity for us. We have a lot of pride in our city, and we get to really tell a story with a soft-branded property, where we really get to create the story from the ground up. The owner we’re working with is very innovative; he wants to be in front on technology, so it’s a very exciting project for us.”
Going forward, the company has big plans. “We’d love to see our portfolio double within five years; that’s a lofty goal, but we feel we can achieve it,” Tubaugh said.
In order to support continued growth, the company is focused on its team. “One of the most important things as a company that you can do is always look within and improve yourself no matter how successful you are,” Tubaugh said. “We’ve started to position ourselves for growth. Rapid growth is great, but we want to make sure we do it the right way. We’ve really taken a leap on how to retain current talent, and how do we get that next generation of the workforce, and make sure we have that bench strength in place to keep the company going.
“It’s not just the growth of the portfolio; it’s the growth of the people in the portfolio,” he added. “We just had a GM retire; as I listened to his speech, it reflected everything Focus is: He didn’t talk about his individual successes or how great of a GM he is. He lit up talking about the people he had developed, and he could tell you every single person who was under his mentorship and where they ended up. That is something that we as a company take great pride in, and I know our partners do—pride in training and teaching. We want to grow our portfolio, but we also want to grow our outreach of knowledge that we’ve had the privilege to accumulate over the years.” HB