At Mission Hills China, the path to success may not lie straight ahead.
By Michael Switow
At Mission Hills China, a multi-billion dollar company that is home to the world’s two largest golf resorts as well as a range of other businesses, one top executive started his career in property sales. Later he moved to the PR and marketing department, and now he heads a major tourist attraction and film studio called Movie Town, which welcomes more than two million visitors a year.
Lateral moves -career progression from one department to another that is seemingly completely unrelated -are commonplace at Mission Hills. In fact, they form a core part of the company’s HR strategy.
“In Hainan, the talent is very limited,” explains Diana Du, the director of HR at Mission Hill’s resort in Haikou, the largest city on China’s vacation playground, Hainan Island. “Attracting qualified people is very challenging. So we must have a strategy to keep and retain them.”
Often referred to as the “Hawaii of China,” more than 76 million people visited this island in the south of China last year. The vast majority are domestic tourists, though the government recently introduced visa-free access to 59 countries. Despite local hospitality schools, which provide a pipeline of staff for Mission Hills and other resorts, the industry faces a shortage of talent as the region’s economy is still largely agricultural.
Mission Hills employs more than 2,200 people in Haikou. Faced with a talent shortage and increased competition from other new resorts, Du focuses on ways to retain staff and develop leaders internally. Lateral transfers play a key role at all levels of the company. In recent times, a security guard transferred to wedding sales, a caddie moved from the golf course to a customer service management position at Movie Town, and a trainee in the real estate department is now a HR recruitment manager. Company officials estimate there were more than 50 such cases last year alone.
This strategy to use lateral promotions and transfers was necessitated in part by Mission Hills’ rapid expansion at the beginning of the decade. The company already operated a 12-course, members-only club in Shenzhen near the Hong Kong border, when it began work on a second resort on Hainan Island.
In just 14 months, Mission Hills transformed acres of black lava fields into 10 golf courses, including the prestigious Blackstone Course that hosted a head-to-head match between Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy in 2013 as well as a spa and hot springs. Over the past five years, Mission Hills and its partners have invested an additional U.S.$1 billion in attractions like Movie Town, a water park, and partnerships with the NBA and FC Barcelona.
“During the Mission Hills Haikou pre-open period, the schedule was very tense,” explains Du. “So we must accept group regional transfers and colleagues from Shenzhen (500 kilometers away), even though it’s cross-departmental, and across the ocean.”
Industry experts say this approach makes sense, particularly during a period of rapid growth, and is an element of many Chinese companies’ HR strategies.
“It’s a smart strategy to make sure change is fast enough to accommodate market demand,” says Career International president and CEO Guo Xin. “Transforming your current workforce to meet new needs is the easiest and least painful approach. But very often, even this is not quick enough, because you cannot force people to change overnight. You also have to infuse new talent and expertise. We see this a lot with clients. Companies take two tacks: change internally and hire new talent.”
In addition to promoting retention, shifting employees across business units and departments sends a message throughout the company that there are opportunities for personal and career growth.
“Last year, I was speaking with a staff member who shifted from administration to commercial leasing at our shopping centre, Centreville,” Du recounts. “She said to me: ‘I never thought about going for a new position until my mentor said I have potential. I didn’t see that before. Thank you for giving me the opportunity!’ Not only did our programme open up a new area for her, you can see that she’s also more confident now.”
Lateral moves also play a role in developing future leaders. Every year, Du and her colleagues identify up to 10 candidates to participate in a six-month talent development programme. During this time, each participant works in at least three departments, and receives mentoring from a member of Mission Hills’ executive committee.