Leadership Profile September/October 2019

Leadership Profile: Brian Leon, Choice Hotels

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It’s not often that the head of a franchise company can boast the kind of franchise lineage enjoyed by Brian Leon, president of Choice Hotels Canada. Leon’s father, after all, was the man who introduced one of the world’s most legendary franchise brands to Canada – Kentucky Fried Chicken – and then went on to build it into a nationwide juggernaut.

So it comes as no surprise that Leon eventually followed in his father’s footsteps, after working briefly as a business broker negotiating the sale of franchise operations for different brands. This included The Great Canadian Bagel, whose founder asked him to join the company. Eventually Leon moved on to Booster Juice when that brand was in its early stages. It was while working with the founder to expand the Booster Juice chain that he got a call from a professional recruiter about joining Choice Hotels Canada.

“While I wasn’t seeking a new position at the time, Choice was a company I admired, and I appreciated that in Canada it has always been a 100 per cent franchise organization,” says Leon. “Franchising has been at the core of my background. Whether food or hotels, it’s all about having systems and support and driving value to your franchisees.”

Leon joined Choice Hotels Canada in 2007, first as one of two managing directors, and in the last four years, as its president. Under his leadership, the chain’s growth has been fast and steady, and today there are close to 325 Choice hotels in nearly 200 Canadian markets, with over 20 more scheduled to open this year – a company record.

“You can pretty much find us anywhere in the country,” says Leon. “And because we’re so strong in secondary and tertiary markets, there are great opportunities there for franchisees. We have brands that can be successful in smaller markets where development costs are more affordable.”

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Award winners

The company’s success in Canada was recently recognized by the Canadian Franchise Association, which honoured Choice Hotels Canada as its 2019 Hall of Fame Award recipient. This special award is granted to a select group of franchisors who continuously exhibit outstanding business performance, high brand recognition, and steady growth. Choice Hotels fits the bill on all counts.

The massive global success story of the Choice Hotel chain – 7,000 properties worldwide in more than 40 countries and territories – is the upshot of a strong drive to continuously innovate and introduce new features to the industry. Choice was the first hotel chain to roll out non-smoking hotel rooms, 24-hour-a-day toll-free reservations, and the first iPhone application. It also recently launched yet another industry milestone: a global reservations and distribution cloud-based platform called choiceEDGE.

Team effort

Despite his obvious business acumen, impressive business degree (from the Ivey Business School), and somewhat illustrious franchise pedigree, Leon is the first to deflect the conversation away from his own skill and talent when it comes to the success of Choice Hotels Canada. Instead, he steers attention to his ace team of 50-odd employees, plus the many fantastic franchisees running the hotels.

In fact, Leon says the most important skillset he brings to the table is his ability to hire the right talent. “If there’s anything I’ve been good at in my career, it’s finding great people,” he says. “That’s the cornerstone of our success: it’s about getting great people and giving them the flexibility to do their jobs, while providing them with the necessary support.”

The first Canadian hotel to join the Choice group was a Quality Inn in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, in 1955, which to this day is still owned and operated by the same franchisee. The Canadian arm of the franchise chain – Choice Hotels Canada – was set up in the ‘90s to take charge of the company’s growing number of hotels north of the border. It celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, and to mark the occasion, published a coffee-table book dedicated to the stories of 30 of its franchisees – a touching tribute to what Leon considers the lifeblood of the company. Some franchisees were new immigrants to Canada escaping war and destruction, others were homegrown talent looking for a different career. All found business success under the Choice Hotels banner.

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Unique opportunity

While the high price tag inherent in buying a hotel might deter prospective franchisees from considering Choice Hotels, Leon urges them to consider all the options. Many Choice franchisees brought in passive investors to raise the necessary capital, and because they own the land their hotel sits on, it represents a two-pronged investment incorporating both business and real estate – a rarity in the franchise world. Nor does one need hotel experience – Choice franchisees come from all walks of life.

At Choice Hotels Canada, it’s all about a strong foundation, a great team effort, and a president who puts high stock in the talented team of people he works with. Combined, this points to a recipe for success.

By Roma Ihnatowycz