Daring to Be Great: Leadership Insights

Carlos Cepero
Director of Food & Beverage, The Don CeSar
September 17, 2021

Describe your professional development path at Davidson – how did you get to where you are?
I started with Davidson/Pivot almost 4 years ago when joining The Don CeSar as the Director of Food and Beverage. Returning to Florida and joining The Don CeSar team was a long-anticipated culmination through an adventurous journey that led my family and myself through Texas, Canada and multiple stints in Florida. I have always been blessed with operating in luxury organizations, chain and independent, that value commitment, perseverance, hard work and results. My first hotel job was a restaurant manager at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Fl where I ran a 264-seat indoor/outdoor all day dining restaurant that was “THE” hotel in the Miami area in the late ‘90s. Here, I learned how organization and properly maintaining operational needs drives success and results. With the Ritz-Carlton, I sharpened my luxury skill set and how to deliver on the unexpressed wishes of each guest I came into contact with to drive mystique of luxury service. My tenure with Four Seasons afforded in me standards that continue to drive processes and standardization of service expectations every day. With Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, I was blessed with freedom of choice and decision to drive guests’ expectations and satisfaction further rounding out my operational capacities along with team member satisfaction in driving results. With Hilton, I learned one of the most critical pieces of my overall education, how to successfully operate a 1,606-room, 8 venue and 536k square-foot F&B operation that is made up of 5 kitchens, and 577 team members. This challenge was one that, albeit intimidating at first, proved to me that focusing on small groups of team members at a time resonate with larger groups of people once the “buy-in” takes place.

What do you love most about being a leader?
Two answers:
Teaching and learning from my leaders/team members: To see how impactful our quick or elaborate learning sessions have become is awe-inspiring. To teach a group of young hungry leaders how to break down a P&L, assess talents through interviews and floor operations allows me the openness and approachability that I yearned for a young leader.

Making connections with guests/ fellow leaders/ team members: In all my years of hospitality I am proud to say that I have made great friends and a collective group of professional contacts that I still talk to at least weekly. I am grateful for the many forms of communication that allow me to speak with friends and colleagues in England, Germany, New Zealand, Canada and all around the US. These relationships are fully embedded in mutual energy of being able to discuss details that affect us as persons and professionals

What is your management philosophy?
“We are a result of our decisions not our circumstances.” Every leader that works with me decides their own path and has full availability to myself at all hours of the day specially when not on property for questions, guidance, and/or recommendations. My leaders must make their own decisions and relish the freedom that comes with this. They must share their glory with their team members when operations are at their highest and learn their respective lessons when situations do not turn out how they expected. Each leader has the liberty to make the decision that they feel best for their respective department and will not be micro-managed. However, when the need does arrive for needed support, it is provided free from reproach. At the basic core of this independence comes accountability. We must first be honest and accountable with ourselves to ensure the decisions we make are beneficial to guests, operations, and the company.

What inspires you to be great?
Personal and professional motto: “If it’s not broken, break it!” Having the capacity to fully engage and understand what is yet to be written or done. How do we as hospitality professionals drive that guest engagement and provide them what they do not even know they want yet. In the famous words of Henry Ford, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for faster horses.” I was challenged by a client in 2009 on impressing 100 CEO’s as he stated, “They have seen it all, there is nothing that you can come up with that would really impress them. Just focus on what you do best and that will be what seals the event.” I went ahead and suspended a dessert buffet 25 feet from a ceiling with leader line to provide a “floating” effect. The desserts were placed on these pieces of floating acrylic shelves finalized with dim lit room and candlelight. Needless to say, there were more pictures taken in front of this presentation than any other portion of this event.

How do you inspire team members? (Give us examples!)
Each team is inspired by different approaches and the team at The Don CeSar take hands-on action from their leaders as a rally cry of appreciation and understanding of their routine. I inspire my team by being an example of what needs to be done for guests. Upon my arrival, I spent my first two weeks on the floor every day all day, getting to know the team and amplifying hands-on approach strategy. I bussed tables, sat guests, and poured drinks. This purposely brought them in that I know what they do and how they do it and came from it to where I have been blessed to be. After two weeks, one of my leaders chose to move away and I took hold of his dining room for 3 more months every night as the de facto restaurant manager. That exemplified to them what they should expect from a restaurant manager. Additionally, allowed me insight as their respective through process that would affect my decision on the future of that department. During the pandemic, I personally became the pool/towel attendant for 3 months. The food runner on weekends, and the bar back during peak hours. This action instilled in the team members that there is no job too small for any of us to take on and they should expect that assistance from their leaders when applicable.

What advice/tips resonated with you most from mentors throughout your career?
Be relentless: Do not give up on what you know is right. Too many times we get stuck on ROI or cost analysis without truly measuring the long-term aspects of not executing a new process or training.

Persevere: When we are called deep to achieve something, regardless of setbacks or failures, doing the right thing requires that sacrifice that can only be shadowed by the accomplishment of finalization.

Faith: The number 1 reason we fail as leaders and individuals is when we do not believe in the action we are taking.

Never have a backup plan: If the original plan is not solid enough to execute then it is not ready to be implemented, goes back to Faith and belief in yourself to formalize and executable plan of action.

Anything else you want to add?
I am the son of Cuban immigrants that came to the US escaping the incapacity of personal growth. They instilled in their five children that only through grit and determination compounded with unwavering faith would we allow ourselves true success. Married to the most loving, implausible, and resilient woman I know. She has taught me to value all my talents and blessing daily. She has always understood that our sacrifices, long nights, holidays apart are not normal for mist families but has strengthened our unity as family. We are the proud parents of three highly successful children Marianela 15, Anabella, 14, Carlos 8. Our eldest daughter was awarded Shooter of the Year from Texas Indoor Archery League at the age of 12 ad plays 2nd chair Bass in her school’s orchestra. Our middle daughter sings at church choir, performs lead line for her school’s color guard. Both of our daughters are in the top 10% of their respective classes and at AP/Honor levels. Our son plays baseball at Khoury league and was just invited to join a junior travel league for the spring. Reads at 4th grade level in second grade and finished in top 5 percentile for his standardized Florida testing.