From Vision to Commitment – Stewardship Transformation Insights from Banyan Tree
COVID-19 has mobilised businesses globally to accelerate and embrace change in the way they operate, serve customers and the community. As businesses reset their long-term strategies, this crisis is now a once-in-a-generation opportunity for businesses to integrate stewardship into their DNA. Stakeholders will emerge from the crisis with a greater understanding of the interconnected relationships between business and sustainability, climate and governance risks. Businesses must now urgently translate their purpose and values into responsible and sustainable action to support long-term prosperity.
We caught up (via Zoom) with Claire Chiang, co-founder and senior vice president of Banyan Tree Holdings Limited, and Chairperson of Banyan Tree Global Foundation, to learn from her stewardship journey and distill practical insights on how businesses can embark on their stewardship transformation.
Stewardship Begins from the Core
A trailblazer in the stewardship and sustainability movement, Claire began championing sustainable business practices 25 years ago when the phrase was still a buzzword to most business leaders. Under her guidance, Banyan Tree has been driving responsible and sustainable development through a wide range of site and region specific initiatives addressing community empowerment issues identified by host communities. These include establishing marine conservation labs and efforts such as the Turtle Headstart Programme, working with local conservation groups to protect sea turtles that nest on the resort’s beaches.
Other initiatives include the launch of the “Seedlings” programme to support and empower young people through education, and when calamities strike, establishing disaster recovery funds in alliance with local authorities and in partnership with the community and its workforce. For its efforts, Banyan Tree has won numerous awards, including the Global Compact Sustainability Awards in 2019.
When asked if there was one event that triggered her passion for stewardship and sustainability, her answer was simple – childhood scarcity. Belonging to Singapore’s Merdeka Generation, Claire described growing up in a two-room flat with 10 people, where personal space was a luxury and water was something she had to queue up for daily. Optimising scarcity was a way of life.
Her first lesson in conservation was taught to her by her grandmother. She recounts going around the back lanes of the neighbourhood with her grandmother to pick up the discarded colourful plastic strips people use to bind wooden cartons. These strips were then woven by her grandmother into beautiful baskets that would hold the family’s beloved belongings. “This process is now called recycling, but back then it was innovation to me. The experience and satisfaction of transforming nothing into a useful product struck a chord in me. And the entire process of value creation is so empowering – it goes beyond the tangible of producing something I can use or sell, to the intangible reward of believing I can be part of the solution to a bigger challenge.”
For positive change to occur from an organizational perspective, Claire believes both the tangible and intangible value propositions of stewardship must be embedded within the company as part of its core corporate values, and within its leadership structure. At Banyan Tree, management infrastructure is aligned with its stewardship vision to shape tourism into a powerful force for driving positive change in this world. Sustainability champions and committees are appointed at all properties, and through education and enablement, every staff member is encouraged to practice stewardship of the resources available. “Talk is easy, but to concretise it within the management infrastructure and cascading it to coaching and lesson points and then execution points, that is hard work,” she explains.
Making it Relevant
Putting the last few months of quiet time to good use, Claire has been busy reviewing the training syllabus and content of Banyan Tree’s staff academy, with the objective of ensuring it meets the needs of the staff and the organisation in the post-pandemic future. While addressing resilience is now a top priority, she has also found room to make the message of being responsible stewards more relevant through the ranks.
“We have been too ‘atas’ (Malay word meaning high brow in this context) in the way we teach. We have to distill it down to make the message relatable and relevant to everyone. I ask myself – how do I impress upon our gardeners in the hotels to be responsible stewards when carrying out their daily duties?” she reveals. Drawing upon her experience in helming United Nations Global Compact Network Singapore two decades ago, Claire’s solution was a two-prong approach.
First, she demonstrated the efficiency and financial benefits of sustainable efforts through dollar terms. Next, she ensured all staff were involved in community efforts. For instance, she mandated that all properties must plant 2,000 trees and mentor three children from their community who are at-risk every year. Staff are given volunteer hours to complete these efforts, and work in close collaboration with the local authorities to ensure an aligned positive impact for the local community.
“Being a steward is to have the heart for the people, the planet and the community you operate in. And that comes from planting a tree and watching the seedling grow, nurturing a child and helping him or her gain better opportunities in life,” she shares. “Only through action, experience and commitment can we shift mindsets, and transform behaviours.”
Evolve and Safeguard Your Commitment
With so much being accomplished, Claire is still far from contented. On a scale of one to ten, she rates their efforts at a mere five. “There is always new data and information, and we need to constantly evolve to optimize our operation models. That is the work,” she says.
Recognising that business survival may one day override the intent to do good, Claire established the Banyan Tree Global Foundation in 2009 to advise and protect the philanthropic and sustainability efforts built over the years, and to formalise the business’ commitment towards these initiatives. The foundation takes an integrated and participatory approach to garner funds, and has disbursed almost USD 8 million to-date across projects that safeguard and enhance the human and physical environment for present and future generations.
Claire’s advice to companies is to do the same. “Set up a foundation that is separate from the business. The foundation must have an autonomous board which decides on the disbursement strategy to support programmes that align with what the leaders envision as a good and responsible company.”
What are the trade-offs?
Claire believes that leadership should first establish their vision of a good company, and define its purpose in terms of the multi-generational value it creates for society. While there are definitely costs in terms of funding the initiatives, manpower, time and effort, there are also clear benefits and cost savings due to improved efficiency. Banyan Tree’s brand reputation and mindshare has also grown and that is now an incredible intangible asset to the company.
“Fundamentally, we feel responsible for the resources we inherit and we have a duty not to waste them. It is built into the way we operate, and is not an exogenous task. It translates automatically into our strategic approach and corporate culture. We know we have attained a measure of success when our guests come to stay with us because they know that we have a coral spawning expedition in Maldives that particular week, or join us in Vietnam to help our sustainability champions paint schools. In the 27 years of operation, we have not had any stakeholder tell us we’re wasting our time or question our efforts and investments in doing good,” she concludes.