People

From footballer to hotelier

Mr Lee Richards was talent-scouted by professional football club Swansea City at age 14 in 1983, but his sporting ambition ground to a halt five years later, after the cartilage in his knee gave way during a game. He started a career in hospitality i
Mr Lee Richards was talent-scouted by professional football club Swansea City at age 14 in 1983, but his sporting ambition ground to a halt five years later, after the cartilage in his knee gave way during a game. He started a career in hospitality in 1989 and is now vice-president of Singapore operations at Millennium Hotels and Resorts.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

He started career in hospitality as a waiter after a knee injury

As a teenager, setting foot in the hospitality industry was not something aspiring football star Lee Richards imagined he would do.

His passion - to play sport on the world stage - was about as far removed from the hotel game as you could get.

"I grew up playing football. It was a big aspect of my life, and it kept me focused," said Mr Richards, now vice-president of Singapore operations at Millennium Hotels and Resorts.

In 1983, at just 14, he was talent-scouted and signed with Swansea City, which is now a part of the English Premier League. But his sporting ambition ground to a halt following an accident in 1988.

Mr Richards, 47, told The Straits Times: "I was playing midfield, so I was running around a lot. It was during a game one evening, and the cartilage in my knee gave way.

"My injury was treated, fortunately, but the accident stopped me from progressing with football as a professional career.

FIGHTING SPIRIT

It was four months into my new job, and I was still not used to it. I kept thinking, 'Am I doing the right thing?' But it was also then that my fighting mentality as a sportsman kicked in, and that helped me overcome those challenges.

MR LEE RICHARDS

"For me, then as a young footballer, it was a really major setback. At that age, to have my passion taken away from me, it felt like the world had given up on me."

The blow was so devastating that Mr Richards would lock himself in his room for hours on end.

It took months - and a huge amount of support from his family - before he was ready to step up to his new reality.

At his younger sister's advice, he became a silver service waiter, a job that appealed to him as it would offer him the opportunity to travel the world, and joined British hotel and restaurant firm Trusthouse Forte Group.

"It was a very distressing period, but my family helped a lot in guiding me back to look at my life from a different perspective, and look at the ways I could start over again in a new career," he said.

Starting from scratch in a new and unfamiliar field was not easy.

To begin with, Mr Richards had to take a huge pay cut. He brought home less than £150 (S$267) a week - a mere fraction of the sum he was earning as a professional football player.

He also had to deal with a culture shock - working as a waiter was much more independent and "quite lonely at times" compared with doing everything with his football teammates all the time.

A number of incidents, such as being confronted with his first customer complaint as an inexperienced waiter, were nearly enough to make Mr Richards question his decision and call it quits.

He said: "By then, it was four months into my new job, and I was still not used to it. I kept thinking, 'Am I doing the right thing?'

"But it was also then that my fighting mentality as a sportsman kicked in, and that helped me overcome those challenges."

"I was being given a second chance, you could say. And I haven't looked back since."

In 1989, Mr Richards was awarded a Trusthouse Forte Management Scholarship and he graduated with a Higher National Diploma in Hotel and Catering from Thames Valley University in 1992.

A decade on, at 31, Mr Richards took on his first general manager position, with Le Meridien Gatwick Hotel near London.

In 2009, he joined Millennium Hotels and Resorts - first as a hotel general manager at Millennium Gloucester Hotel and Conference Centre, before becoming cluster hotel general manager four years later, where he managed three hotels in London.

Last October, Mr Richards, who is married with two children, was appointed general manager for Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel in Singapore.

He was promoted to his current position last Thursday, shortly after being appointed cluster general manager for the group's six Singapore hotels in March.

Mr Richards believes the training he received as a professional football player helped him climb up the ranks in the hotel industry.

"It has provided me with a very good foundation for my career. It instilled in me discipline and certainly the eagerness that make me want to succeed," he said.

"As a professional footballer, you have to be disciplined and very energetic in your approach to whatever you do in your life.

"That spirit is something I still keep with me."

Mr Richards gets up at 4am every day to spend an hour at the gym, because it "gets my body and mind focused for the day ahead".

By 7am, he is at the Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel, where he is based, making his rounds and greeting employees, before taking on a succession of meetings that usually last until 9pm.

"It's a long day, but I would say that what you put in is what you get out," he said.

His new responsibility involves delivering maximum business growth and profitability for Millennium Hotels and Resorts Group's business in Singapore and as befits a former top sportsman, he has a game plan.

Mr Richards said he has a series of initiatives lined up to boost profits and grow the firm's market share.

He declined to provide numbers for the group's performance in Singapore, but says it is seeing an improvement, with occupancy rates this year "picking up steadily" from the past two years, especially in the corporate segment.

In February, Mr Richards introduced a new trainee management programme to recruit young graduates across the region and develop them into managers. The programme has already recruited around 12 management trainees for the six hotels, with plans for the number to increase by another 24 by the end of the year.

Mr Richards noted that it is somewhat similar to the system at Swansea, where he was taken on at a young age and groomed in terms of skill and talent.

Asked if he still misses playing football, Mr Richards said without missing a beat: "Immensely."

He still plays occasionally with his sons, aged 15 and 18. His younger son was recently approached by Chelsea Football Club.

"But we were playing football on the beach in Bali over the Easter holiday, and I decided I was too tired," Mr Richards said with a laugh. "They're too energetic and that session just took it out of me. I've officially retired from football."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 05, 2017, with the headline 'From footballer to hotelier'. Print Edition | Subscribe