How did Maureen Albright become the first woman director of engineering in the hotel industry? By fortuitous chance. Says she with disarming candour, “It was a mistake, it really was!”
Ms Albright’s career in the hospitality sector started 21 years ago when she heard that a Marriott hotel in downtown Boston was hiring administrative assistants. “I didn’t even know in which department the job was,” she says. It was only after being hired that she discovered that the position was in the engineering department.
And that ‘mistake’ led to a career. “I fell in love with the industry and I fell in love with the department,” she says.
The job turned out to be a great learning experience. “I had a great mentor in my boss who was the director of engineering,” says Ms Albright, “Not only did I learn on the job, I was sent to trade schools to learn the mechanics, and I got a certificate in facilities management and the corporate side of running engineering.”
Even today women engineers in the hotels business are rare, but a couple of decades ago, Ms Albright found herself breaking new ground. “I kind of learned it a little differently, starting in administrative work, doing everything, then running the teams. It reached a point where I was training chief engineers.” When she pointed this out to her boss, he said, “Put the blues on and get out there, because you have to.”
Ms Albright went on to become one of the first women shift engineers in the industry and, subsequently, director of engineering by “learning and working my way up through the ranks”. One memory she prizes is of an engineering conference attended by about 60-70 directors of engineering where she was the only lady present but was acknowledged by all as ‘one of the boys’! “I knew what they meant and it was huge. I knew then that I was truly accepted.”
The heart of the hotel
Twenty-one years into her career, she now jokes that she is “kind of, the ‘heart-of-the-house’ girl”. Her position as head of engineering and facilities means her work touches every person and department in the building everyday; it also calls for multi-tasking at a near-impossible level! The multi-tasking “keeps you jumping and keeps it interesting”.
Over the years, she has evolved her own tools to help her multi-task efficiently. She’s become, as she describes it, ‘the binder queen’ who keeps lists — of projects, processes, priorities, testing, and so on that help her deal with the demands of day-to-day operations, handle ‘fires’ and crises, and stay on top of constantly changing regulations.
“Through the years, I’ve put together a big process where everything is in binders — safety binders, administrative binders, and so on. So, when the inspectors come in, I am ready. I just pull out the binder and there you go!”
Another of Ms Albright’s unusual tools is talking. “I talk to myself a lot, and I talk back to myself a lot. My staff laughs at me, they think I am crazy.” Explaining the somewhat eccentric strategy, she says “I have to be able to keep a lot of information in my head and also follow up with others; the lists help but I am also constantly open to change and look at things objectively.
“It’s not just about turning on the dime very quickly, but also being able to take that one breath to think ‘Is this the change, or is this just another item?’”
In fact love of the building played a big role in Ms Albright’s decision to stay on when the hotel changed flags and became a Taj property. “I made the decision that I wanted to stay with my girl. I was lucky that the Taj gave me the opportunity to continue. For the last four years I have very much enjoyed my journey with Taj.”
The decision to interview with the Taj took some soul-searching: “I have a daughter who had just turned 18 and I didn’t want to uproot her as she had started high school. The second factor was this building. I didn’t feel like I was done yet. There were so many more things I wanted to do — and still want to do.”
It was the Tata ethic, finally, that tipped the balance. “One night, I got home and got online and pulled out information on the Taj hotels, the Tatas and the philosophy of the company. And when I saw the steps of service, and the company’s foundation principles of integrity and trust, I thought ‘that’s exactly where I come from’! That was exactly the way in which I want to do business,” she accentuates passionately.
It also helped that the Taj group has a history of renovating and maintaining iconic buildings and palaces. “I haven’t seen the palaces yet, but I will get there. And this company feels the same way I do about those buildings and their history and maintaining that!”
“The waste soap from Taj Boston’s 273 rooms alone can help as many as 210 children globally to stay healthy and alive,” says she. And, walking the talk, she has begun mobilising other hotels to follow suit to clean the world.
Ms Albright’s day starts most days at 7am and has her hopping from task to task right up till 6.30pm. Even after she goes home, she is always on call. “I am never really on vacation, I am never really off. My family has kind of learnt to live with that. But there is no other thing that I want to do, I love what I do.”
And that is the essence of Maureen Albright, the heart of the house, the 24x7 on-call executive, the binder queen, mentor, one of the boys and the lady who talks not only to herself but to the building — someone who loves her job.