The FCSI interview: Alburn S. William FCSI
The Australia-based consultant who has been thinking outside the box his whole career tells Michael Jones, “It’s about visualizing solutions in 3D”
As a young man growing up in Malaysia, Alburn William wanted to study medicine. However, by the time he reached his penultimate year at school, he had “fizzled out of energy” in that pursuit. The world of medicine’s loss was – in due course – to be a significant gain for foodservice consultancy. Some 37 years into his career the president of CKP Hospitality Consultants, which has offices in Kuala Lumpur, Dubai, Shanghai, Perth and Bengaluru, is one of the world’s – and certainly Asia’s – most highly respected and experienced design consultants.
William’s international experience in food and beverage concept work, restaurant planning, foodservice and laundry facilities design and solid waste consultancy has seen him and the CKP team (currently 60+) – execute countless high-end projects, including Wynn Palace Cotai; Wynn Resort Macau; Sandy Lane Barbados; JW Marquis Dubai; City of Dreams Macau; Solaire Manila; Crown Towers Perth; and Four Seasons Maldives, among many others – including more than 1,000 hotel projects.
Yet, the road to success, as with many in this profession, wasn’t always a straight or smooth one. Despite losing his mojo for medicine, William’s grades were good enough to get him into engineering school where, despite initially “absolutely hating it”, he gained a Bachelorate of Engineering (Mechanical) in 1986 from the National University of Singapore, specializing in thermal engineering, air conditioning and building services.
“I was not a traditional tick-the-box type engineer. Instead, there was a huge creative side to me that enabled me to visualize things three dimensionally. However, engineering in its philosophical sense, is breaking a big problem into small problems. By solving each of those small boxes, you solve the entire problem.”
A decent profession
While the creativity and problem-solving characteristics came naturally to William, an interest in hospitality at that stage was only tangential. William’s father (“linguistic, technical, outspoken”) worked for the Malaysian railways in an administrative capacity, while his mother (“very opinionated”) was a schoolteacher. She was also a talented cook.
“From a young age, I had refined taste buds. We had to eat the best. But at that stage, I didn’t think about a career in hospitality. My generation were the baby boomers – we were going from poverty into wealth, so needed to secure ourselves a ‘decent profession’ to be able to make it big. Nobody was thinking of hotel management.”
However, William graduated “right smack in the midst” of one of the worst financial crises in Southeast Asia. “It was impossible to get a job,” he says. Having completed 95 job applications, he was invited by a German gentleman called Christian Karl Petzold to interview for his hospitality company Christian K Petzold Consultants (rebranded CKP in 1987).
“He was looking to expand the team. He had two draftsmen working for him, but he needed a technical guy. So, I got in as a project engineer. Christian wanted me to learn all aspects of the trade – he didn’t want me to just jump in at management level.”
Possessing “immense hospitality experience”, Petzold had been a hotelier, chef, manufacturer, contractor and operator. He also played a pivotal role at McDonald’s where he was integral to shortening burger production time. “He brought all this experience to the table at a time when kitchen contractors were offering design for free,” says Alburn.“Christian was my mentor. He was very patient, sitting with me every day after work, answering my questions. He taught me everything that operations and master planning were to foodservice consulting.”
In the late 1980s foodservice consulting was a rare commodity in Southeast Asia, so a man of Petzold’s caliber – bolstered by William, who was gaining knowledge daily – shone in a burgeoning market. “He was the best in class; he had clients eating out of his hands,” says William. “He could take a 5,000 meal cook-serve facility and switch them over to a cook-chill operation. I was being taught how to challenge the status quo and persuade people.”
CKP quickly gained a strong reputation for specialist kitchen designs for oriental cooking. “We started deploying air-blast gas-fired ranges in China and across Asia in our designs. We worked with contractors to try and get that extra firepower into those kitchens. Eventually, as the industry slowly evolved, we grew with it. In 1987 we did the Grand Hyatt in Taipei which had a huge F&B program with large banqueting kitchens – we were designing hotel kitchens within a footprint of 5,000 sq m.”
Drawing on experience
By this point William was already drafting entire projects and then coordinating their execution six months later. “I did a bakery/pastry project at the Hyatt Regency in Singapore, which is now the Grand Hyatt. I drew every single detail and that’s not an easy thing to do. It made me ask certain questions and drew my attention to details.
“Today I see many younger consultants that just don’t understand some things because they’re not asking enough questions. Nor are they able to immediately sketch their ideas on paper to get feedback. My experiences taught me to be detail-orientated, and yet not to dwell too much on details. The implementation is more important than details. But really, there are no shortcuts. You have to learn the hard way,” he says.
In a career of “many proud moments” William, who later completed his professional education in hotel planning and F&B at Cornell University, says that there is no beating the feeling when a consultant knows the team has nailed a project. “It’s a euphoric moment. But I can’t say that I can attribute that to the consultant alone. There is no single person responsible for the success story of any one project. It is the powerful collaboration of the consultant with the client, interior designer, architect and operator – we use the acronym ‘CIAO’ – all challenging one another. A project is only completed to everyone’s satisfaction when they have all pushed individually beyond themselves and collaboratively gone beyond the status quo.”
That said, William is certainly proud of some milestone projects: “We did Mezzanine at the Grand Hyatt in Singapore in 1997. It was its first multicuisine restaurant, with nine different kitchens. That stood the test of time – they’re only now renovating the restaurant. I was also personally involved in Cafe TOO at the Island Shangri-La, Hong Kong. It began new generation multicuisine buffets with individual action stations in a coffee shop setting. That was the first of many to come, such as Red 8 at Wynn.”
William was also part of pioneering efforts to introduce open kitchen elements to restaurants in Asia in the 1990s. “It changed people’s thinking very drastically because you shorten the distance for the waiter to walk to the back-of-house,” he says. “By connecting the kitchen in the dining spaces you’ve eliminated a lot of circulation spaces. So, you save real estate, and can release a lot more back to the dining area. Also, the chef becomes connected with the dining area. As Alain Ducasse told me: ‘The open kitchen is not for the diner, but so that the chef can be emotionally connected with the dining room’. It is essential for the psychological makeup of the chef. They need to be motivated and have eye contact with the guests. And for guests, seeing how food is prepared behind the scenes has a very positive effect too. It helps them feel they’re part of the culinary delivery system.”
The smartest folks in the room
How consultants are motivated and conduct themselves is pivotal, says William. And that includes never supplementing project income with equipment commissions. “That’s a decision we made at CKP. And we stuck to it. Ethics is very important for a consultant. The ‘get rich quick approach’ does not work. I’ve seen people who’ve done that. They fly high and get all the work, but then they fizzle out, especially when there’s an economic crisis because projects are not able to go to tender. It doesn’t work.”
For William it is also important that modern consultants use “both sides of their brain. If you can form an equilibrium between the two, you’ll find yourself [becoming] a good consultant. Engineers are trained on the right side of the brain; operators are trained on the left – they’re very emotive and creative. However, when you put these two sides together, you can actually visualize design solutions in 3D – then you navigate your journey with your client.”
Another way William believes consultants can improve their knowledge is in simply “hanging around people who are smarter than you. I always say to my people in the office, ‘Don’t go after the two- or three-star jobs, you need to do the complex ones, even if you have to take a discount on the fee. By working on the most complex master-planning job there is you are pushing yourself against your own limits. That’s what makes it better. And what you learn is going to set you on a better footing.”
Imparting wisdom and “hanging around smart people” is much of what sums up FCSI, for William. “The industry has come to a stage where we have new kinds of ‘transient clientele’. There was a time when hoteliers and developers were true-blue hospitality people who stayed in the hotel industry for decades. They knew what it meant to put up a good hotel and how to keep it for the long term. They had a passion for the hospitality industry. Today, many of their sons and daughters have taken over and they are a transient generation. They want everything to make money. If it’s not, they do what they can to cut costs or flip it. Everything is just a business opportunity.
“That’s a tragedy. As a result fees are falling across the board, not just for foodservice consulting, but in engineering, architecture… So, consultants are taking on more assignments and making themselves even busier. It is necessary that we band together all professionals and get all the brains in one spot with FCSI, because there are a lot of freelance people out there who call themselves professionals and are offering the service for a song. We are in a real danger of going back to 1986 when contractors offered free designs.”
There is, says William a lot of work to be done. “This is one of the reasons I came back to FCSI and I’m encouraging all the real professionals out there to join so that all like-minded people together can do the right thing for our future. It is necessary that we breathe life back into the profession and give it back the dignity it deserves.”
When not in the cut and thrust of promoting FCSI – including helping to plan the FCSI Asia Pacific Division’s Conference in Margaret River, Australia, in November this year, or realizing a client’s conceptual journey in brainstorming a foodservice concept, William says he is at his happiest walking, cycling, traveling the world, or enjoying new food and beverage experiences with friends. I love to celebrate humanity and friendships mostly over food and beverage. And usually with a nice whiskey and a cigar,” he laughs.
It’s clearly a recipe for a happy, healthy life and career. Exactly what the doctor ordered.