Alfonso Louis Chusuey talks about the growth of the Henann Group of Resorts and the possible closure of Boracay.
WORDS JOVAN CERDA | PHOTOGRAPHY LANCER SALVA
Alfonso Louis Chusuey, the 28-year-old scion of the owners of the Henann Group of Resorts, looks like your mild-mannered, upstanding friend from college—quick to smile and generally affable. Mr. Chusuey is the president of the country’s largest group of resorts in terms of number of rooms. In his photo shoot for High Life, a handful of foreign guests from the hotel stopped and gawked at him, even pulling out their phones to surreptitiously steal snapshots of this sophisticated-looking man—one who would easily pass as a young Filipino celebrity—seeming to part the clouds on an atypically overcast morning in Boracay.
But Mr. Chusuey’s youthful vibe belies a firm character you’d usually associate with an aging businessman. He makes sure his staff at the Henann Group of Resorts are well aware of the company’s rules. He gives an example of what usually ticks him off: staff eating in the kitchen especially when they’ve been told not to in the first place.
“There’s a CCTV (closed-circuit television) and they still do it. What can you do?” he asked. He answers his own question: “Mostly I raise my voice.” If it’s an honest mistake or an accident, he usually lets it pass. “We have never terminated an employee.” But stealing and not following clear instructions are exceptions, Mr. Chusuey clarified. “You have to be strict with those.”
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the staff in his resorts are some of the most hospitable in the country. They hold your arm when alighting from the hotel van, manage the traffic while you cross the street, and give you a box of matches when you ask to borrow a light for your cigarette break. “You can take it, sir,” they tell you. His staff’s inordinate geniality appears sincere and unforced, a somewhat reassuring suggestion that they are in love with their work.
During this magazine’s cover shoot, held on a Monday morning, a gaggle of them followed Mr. Chusuey to the Henann Crystal Sands beachfront, where he posed against the backdrop of a magnificent patch of Boracay beach. Someone minded Mr. Chusuey’s wardrobe while two others kept busy by removing a string of outdoor light bulbs that weren’t supposed to be there. Another enthusiastically took photos behind the crew.
“My boss is so handsome,” one said, admiring his boss’s style on his phone.
THE UPSIDE OF BEING A KILLJOY
Back when Mr. Chusuey was still studying at De La Salle – College of St. Benilde, he had no time for the parties and weekend benders, having developed a resistance to things he deems unnecessary.
“When you wake up drunk the next day, you lose one day already,” he said, making his case. He is consistent in his disdain for wasted time, saying later on in the interview that an empty construction site translates to a bad day at work. “One day is lost.”
Living in Manila, he did enjoy the usual dinner and drinks with friends but never found himself enjoying the club scene. “I skipped that part,” he added. “I don’t see the need.”
His friends teased him, what with all the times he turned down invitations to hang out. “They’d say I’m a killjoy, as usual. I’ve always been like that ever since,” he said, with a subtle hint of pride.
While there are times he feels like he missed out on the fun part of college, he still struggles to understand what he could have gained from it. He has no regrets about the way he spent his time, focusing instead on the family business. “The regret is if the business is not successful, so you have to do everything to make it successful,” he said.
At an age when most young adults are still figuring out what to do with their lives, Mr. Chusuey was being groomed to lead the family-owned Henann Group of Resorts, a sprawling chain of hotels in Boracay and Bohol that boasts over 1,800 rooms. When he was 20, he worked on the construction of Henann Garden Resort in Boracay which replaced the Korean-owned Hotel Seraph the family bought in 2009. “That was my first real on-the-job-training, most of it consisted of construction work because we had to renovate mostly the entire place,” he said, adding that this was his main task during his first five years in the family business.
Mr. Chusuey was named the group’s president last year, taking over a role that demands him to work even on weekends. He recognizes his privilege and its attendant conditions, clearly aware of how fortunate he is and the sheer immensity of his responsibility. He seems borderline scandalized by the suggestion that he take a break on Saturdays and Sundays. “The hotels run 24/7,” he said.
During the rare instances he had the opportunity to spend Christmas holidays abroad with the family, he would head out into the city to check out restaurants and other resorts. The family used to go on holidays during Holy Week, but Mr. Chusuey says they had to move it around Christmas since most of their business partners are also on break at that time of the year.
While his siblings snap picturesque views for their social media accounts, Mr. Chusuey is content with soaking in and getting ideas from the developments and urban features around him. Of his inactive Facebook account, he said: “I tried. I got bored with it. I don’t see any benefit… I don’t see any enjoyment.” His online presence is limited to Facebook Messenger, where he chats with his friends.
When asked about his work-life balance, considering he works on holidays, Mr. Chusuey defended himself: “I don’t consider it work that much—let’s say half. I like it anyway,” he says.
One couldn’t be blamed for attributing Mr. Chusuey’s no-nonsense demeanor to his upbringing. Growing up in Iloilo, he described his childhood as “very uneventful.”
“I forgot it already… It’s mostly school and house. We had strict parents, which is good in the end,” he says, referring to Henann Group Chair Dr. Henry Chusuey and Anna Lissa Chusuey, whose combined names form the hotel chain’s label (Henann).
Mr. Chusuey’s parents exposed them to the family business at a young age. His younger brother, Karl Hendrik, is in charge of the company’s sales and marketing. Both of them took hotel, restaurant and institution management in college in preparation for the posts they would later take in the Henann Group. Their sister, the youngest child Christina Ann, is an accounting graduate who helps with their mother’s work as treasurer of the company.
“We were trained to be straightforward, practical, and always thinking about the business side of things. No feelings,” Mr. Chusuey said. When he was a young boy, it was already clear to him what he wanted. “When I was a child, they would always ask me what I wanted to do. Of course, they assumed that I would be in the business. But in school, when they ask, ‘What’s your ambition? Doctor, policeman, whatever…’ I would always think, anywhere, as long as I am confident I can be successful with it and, of course, it should make money.” He shared that he did develop an interest in basketball, but he is self-aware and knows when he’s out of bounds.
“Well, I like basketball, but if you look at reality… if you don’t have the physical attributes, there’s no hope,” Mr. Chusuey said. He added some personal insight: while you can force some things you like, when you know it’s not for you, you’re better off making the most out of what you have.
Mr. Chusuey shared a favorite anecdote: “Our father used to joke that if we wanted to take a business management course, we could just skip college and he would be the one to teach us,” he said, adding that he still opted to take up hotel management since, at that time, he was still learning the industry.
“We get along well,” Mr. Chusuey said of his family, whom he works with on a daily basis. “We have discussions. We always listen to each other.” Disagreements are rare since they are each involved with a particular division in the company. When differences do arise, they know how to fall in line. “Of course, there are times when someone has to be followed ultimately,” he said, chuckling.
NO BEACH, NO BUSINESS
With six resorts in Boracay and one in Bohol, the Henann Group of Resorts, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, is looking at adding more hotels to its portfolio in the near future. Henann Park Resort, with 232 rooms, is scheduled to open in Boracay, while 210 rooms are being added to Henann Resort Alona Beach in Bohol. The Group is also planning an upcoming project in Coron, Palawan.
“We are looking at other destinations such as Siquijor and Siargao,” said Mr. Chusuey. “If I would add the projected rooms, we would be adding over 1,500 rooms in the next five years.”
Most of the group’s expansion happened after its 10th year in the business, a building blitz that has seen almost a threefold increase in the number of rooms under the Henann Group. Mr. Chusuey takes credit for this expansion, adding that while he studied management, the bulk of his work involves taking charge of the construction side of the business.
“It’s nice because we are blessed to be in beautiful beaches that sell well to tourists, so that’s really a market. Expanding is not really much of a headache because we’re selling it always,” he said.
But he noted that while some of the destinations in the country have already made themselves known to local and foreign tourists, there is still room for better infrastructure in the Philippine tourism sector. “Our tourism really has great potential if the infrastructure is developed. We have so many tourist spots, great beaches, but the problem is always the infrastructure—airports, roads, seaports, and sewer facilities—it has to be developed for tourists to come,” he said.
He confessed that he envies Singapore and Bali, which are more successful and popular destinations. “Even if we have more beautiful natural attractions, the infrastructure is lacking,” he said.
Another concern is the recent pronouncement of President Rodrigo Duterte who threatens a closure of the Boracay, citing environmental degradation and alleged violations of establishments in the country’s prime tourist spot. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources, led by Secretary Roy Cimatu, vows to clean up the island in the next six months. As of writing, the state agency, along with the Department of Tourism and the Department of the Interior and Local Government, is even considering a year-long shutdown to rehabilitate it.
“Degradation is evident. We’re not denying it,” Mr. Chusuey said, adding that Mr. Duterte’s threat is a necessary wake-up call for Boracay-based businesses to get their act together. “Without the beach, we won’t have the business, so it’s a wake-up call for all of us to make sure that we protect the environment.”
Boracay Foundation, Inc. (BFI), the largest business group in the island, expressed its alarm over the threat of closing the entire area, which Mr. Duterte referred to as a “cesspool.” BFI, chaired by Dr. Chusuey (Mr. Chusuey’s father), notes that implementing current environmental laws and ordinances while closing erring establishments is enough to rehabilitate Boracay. Mr. Chusuey agrees. “It can all be done without closing the island. It can be fixed.”
While the threat of Boracay’s closure concerns him, Mr. Chusuey is focused on Henann Group’s expansion. Nowadays, his daily grind consists of checking construction plans, calling designers for updates, checking orders of materials and inspecting the sites himself. He goes to work at 9 a.m., after his early morning workout (“Our father has always stressed that we should keep fit because success is nothing if we don’t have good health,” he said), and ends his day no earlier than 10 in the evening. “It’s not really tiring,” he says. “They always say if you’re young it’s not good, but if you ask all the businessmen that are already above 60, they would always want to trade their age with my age,” he says.
He has no issues dealing with businessmen older than him, saying that as long as he abides by his father’s playbook, there isn’t a reason for him to be concerned about his youth. “I’m usually the client so they treat me well,” he adds.
Mr. Chusuey said that much of his no-nonsense philosophy came from his father. “We’ve been trained by our parents to approach life in a practical manner,” he mused. “I would compare myself to my friends and we all have different lifestyles. Sometimes I think that they’re more laid back and they don’t have much responsibility. Well, this is my life, and there are so many worse lives in the world… you just have to take what you have and do the best with it.”