Where Talent Rests Easy: Hilton’s Matthew Schuyler

Business historians hoping to capture in-the-trenches perspectives from some of the more notable financial booms and busts of the last 20 years should consider adding Matthew Schuyler to any potential source list.

In 1992, not long before Major League Baseball lost its season due to a players’ strike, Schuyler was an accountant for the Pittsburgh Pirates — a position he said put him knee deep in the issues that led to one of the more memorable work stoppages in sports.

From about 2000 to 2002, Schuyler was in a senior human resources role with Cisco Systems Inc. at the heart of Silicon Valley just as the tech bubble was about to burst, resulting in massive layoffs and a major change to the industry.

Then, in 2008, as the U.S. financial industry teetered on the brink of collapse, forcing government officials and industry leaders to scramble to bail out the nation’s banks, Schuyler was there, too. This time he was the chief human resources officer at Capital One Financial Corp., one of many recipients of government bailout funds.

Now, Schuyler is the chief human resources officer of Hilton Worldwide Inc., helping to lead a potential recovery in the hospitality industry. The hotel sector was hit especially hard by the recession due to a steep decline in business travel — considered the sector’s bread and butter — as well as a lack of real estate construction and financing.

Hilton now owns roughly 10 percent of U.S. market share, according to Smith Travel Research, and is the largest among the major hotel companies. It has more than 3,800 hotels over multiple brands in 88 countries — and the number is growing. Growth is good news for Hilton’s owner, private-equity giant Blackstone Group L.P., which paid $26 billion for the company in 2007, just before the economy went belly-up.

Still, Schuyler said the biggest business transformation he’s experienced is likely his own — from accounting major to auditor, then recruiting manager to human resources executive; from diligence guru focused on helping clients prosper financially to a global manager of people, talent systems and practices; from small-town Pennsylvania kid to business executive, professional mentor and coach.

“It’s a bit of an unorthodox beginning,” Schuyler said of his career path. “… My approach [to HR] is very laden toward the business first, because that’s how I grew up. And my biases are always to work backward toward the needs of the business as we’re constructing HR solutions.”

Taking Care of Business
Hilton’s most significant near-term talent challenges are twofold, and both are abroad.
The first resides in Europe, where Schuyler said the firm must work to combat the ongoing threat of depressed employee engagement as the region struggles to fend off widespread economic distress tied to its currency, the euro.

The second is in emerging markets — such as China, the Middle East and Africa — where Hilton, like many global companies, is beginning to establish its presence. Therefore, it must adapt to address talent gaps to ensure business runs smoothly.

Each challenge looms in addition to running Hilton’s domestic HR operation, where the economy is also dodgy.

Yet to Doug Krey, Hilton’s senior vice president of human resource systems, Schuyler’s business-first focus and textured professional background have conditioned him well. Unlike some executives who might become too focused on HR, Krey said Schuyler is driven more by business needs.

“We talk about the HR weenies — we’ve got these HR people that are just so focused on HR [that] they can’t get out of that box, and they wouldn’t know a business person if they wanted to,” said Krey, who has worked with Schuyler for roughly 10 years, many of them at Capital One. “That’s the difference Matt brings. He truly is a business person. He truly thinks first about the business.”

Schuyler’s business-minded approach to HR is expected, given his background. He graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1987 with a degree in accounting — a major he said he chose because it seemed like the logical path to learn “the language of business.” He immediately took a job as an auditor with professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in Pittsburgh.

After four years as an auditor with PwC, Schuyler took an accounting job with a client, the Pittsburgh Pirates. He handled much of the work of the Pirates’ tight-knit front office during the 1992 season — when the team made the playoffs — from attendance figures to club finances. But league-wide troubles loomed, which eventually resulted in a work stoppage among players during the 1994 season.

Schuyler said the “writing was on the wall” during his tenure, so after one year with the Pirates, he returned to PwC. He did not return as an auditor, however. Instead, he took an opportunity in recruiting — his break into HR.

Schuyler said the career transition was based on his own internal audit. “Midway through my first four years with the firm, I looked around and said, you know, what do I really enjoy about this? I enjoy the camaraderie, and I enjoy the people I worked with,” Schuyler said. “I was in awe of their talent and learning constantly from them, and, I must say, I wasn’t necessarily in love with doing the work of an auditor.”

As a recruitment manager, Schuyler began his second tour with PwC based out of the firm’s Chicago office, traveling to schools from the Big Ten Conference throughout the Midwest. Schuyler said his recruitment role continued to expand as time went on — from regional to national and, eventually, global recruitment responsibilities, with stints in Chicago, New York and Detroit, where he earned an MBA from the University of Michigan.

In 2000, Schuyler made partner with the firm as part of its human resources group. Then he left the company.

“I constantly take inventory of my learning and my growing. Am I having fun? Am I in the right spot given my long-term interest? While I loved the firm and knew nothing but it, I spent 11 years working there. I looked over the broad horizon of opportunities and said, you know, it might be great to experience a different industry and see what it’s like to work in a corporate environment, having grown up in professional services.”

That opportunity was with San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco Systems, as a senior vice president in human resources.

But Schuyler’s stint in Silicon Valley didn’t last long, as the bursting tech bubble prompted a major dynamic change in both the company and industry. Schuyler sought opportunity elsewhere.

“Silicon Valley was reaching its peak, and the bubble burst,” Schuyler said. “So we saw the peak — where Cisco was the most valuable company from a market value perspective on the planet — to then a massive fall off, the bubble burst, and we had to do layoffs and retrench. It was a really interesting time to be in Silicon Valley.”

Schuyler left for Capital One, in McLean, Va., to become its CHRO. He was there from 2002 to 2009 — through the boom, bust and the crisis that led to recession. By that time, Schuyler was convinced to take the same role with Hilton, which was in the process of moving its corporate headquarters to McLean from Beverly Hills, Calif. He started in July 2009.

“You know, I believe very strongly that these jobs have shelf lives,” Schuyler said, “and you eventually reach an expiration date. And, for me, the opportunity to take a look at yet another industry with the opportunity to stay stationary in McLean [was attractive].”

Challenges Abroad
To tackle Hilton’s dual talent challenges — engagement in Europe and skilled workers in emerging markets — Schuyler said creativity has become the function’s greatest asset.

Hilton measures employee engagement with an annual all team member survey; it also conducts smaller pulse surveys throughout the year. The results of those surveys, which Schuyler said most recently had about a 90 percent employee-participation rate, are then transformed into action plans.

Among the more conspicuous engagement gaps — Europe included — discovered through the surveys in recent years was a need for enhanced development. Schuyler said Hilton employees have a keen interest in career development, especially in its hotels, which make up about 95 percent of the workforce.

To harness its employees’ desire for development opportunities — and to combat low engagement in struggling economic markets such as Europe — Schuyler said the firm revamped its approach toward learning with Hilton Worldwide University.

Composed of five colleges — Hotel College, Owners College, Commercial College, Leadership College and General Studies College — Hilton Worldwide University offers more than 2,500 learning programs, each of which is delivered in a variety of ways. Schuyler said Hilton built its learning function using the firm’s global competency modeling.

“So a great example of one of our competences is teamwork,” Schuyler said, “and we’ve developed an incredible amount of curriculum around collaboration, teamwork, being team leaders and team partners, and so forth, that we now house on Hilton Worldwide University’s portal. You can take those classes ubiquitously in real time based on the feedback that you get.”

While Hilton has put greater emphasis on employee career development to boost engagement, its mission to fill hotels in emerging markets with skilled workers is another animal altogether, Schuyler said. The main roadblock is a lack of trained service workers with hospitality experience to staff new hotels.

“We’re opening up dozens of properties every year with hundreds of workers in each of them,” Schuyler said. “The workers that we generally try to find when we open a property have experience in customer service in the hospitality industry. Well, those don’t exist in a market like China in a secondary and a tertiary city, because there currently aren’t any hotels in those cities. To think that we could go and recruit from a competitor or recruit from another industry where service has been a hallmark is not possible — because they don’t exist.”

Schuyler said the answer to this challenge also involves learning, albeit of a different kind. To train workers in, say, China in hospitality, Hilton has struck partnerships with a consortium of universities throughout the country, hoping to create a talent pipeline for its hotels from the ground up.

Schuyler said the process is anything but simple. First, initiate a partnership with the university; explain how the partnership will place students in properties; build a compelling proposition for those students to be in that curriculum; and showcase what those jobs could be like and how they could be a launching pad for a successful career in hospitality.

“That creates quite a lot of work and energy around finding the right school and finding the right relationships to conjure those partnerships,” he said. “But we’ve been successful at that over the past couple of years, and we’ve struck up some really compelling relationships with a handful of very key, prominent universities in China. We’re now in the process of sourcing from those universities to help out with our recruitment needs.”

Schuyler said Hilton is striking up similar partnerships in other markets and is part of a consortium designed to build a future workforce in hospitality. “It’s really neat to watch it unfold.”

Hilton is also keeping industry dialogue fresh in these markets in other ways. For instance, the company recently sponsored a Gen Y conference in greater China, where both students and recent graduates were invited to attend to glean more information about the benefits of working in the industry. Schuyler said Hilton has sponsored the annual conference twice.

“It’s getting bigger and better each year,” he said. “… It goes a long way in helping us sell our proposition relative to great careers in hospitality.”

Coach and Mentor First
Aside from managing Hilton’s broader people practices, Schuyler said he also intends to work on the continued customization of HR, much of which is being driven by technology. “We’re working feverishly to automate as much of the back office of HR as we possibly can, so we can spend our time as practitioners helping you with the front end,” he said.

Krey said working with technology and having nuanced theoretical debate about HR issues shouldn’t be a problem for Schuyler; it’s something he thrives at. “He’s extremely detail oriented,” Krey said. “You know, in many respects, I kind of call him like mini Steve Jobs, because he really pays attention to the detail.”

Above all, Krey said Schuyler’s penchant for detail is driven by his passion and desire to mentor others — in many cases, to show that there are different ways to think about how HR can serve business needs.

Schuyler also emphasizes coaching and mentoring others. It’s why he got into HR in the first place — to help bring people along, just as he was brought along through mentoring from great leaders, he said.

“The HR gods were smiling down upon me when it came to my career these last few roles,” Schuyler said. “I’ve been very fortunate … I’ve been fortunate to work with great leaders who have taught me more about [HR and business] than I would have ever learned on my own.”