Tom Fleming speaks to Roula Samaha, of the Radisson SAS Hotel, about her journey from Beirut to Birmingham.
Anyone who’s met Roula Samaha knows that what you see is most certainly what you get.
She doesn’t mince her words – nor does she worry too much about what people think of her. That’s why, in her final year as the chair of Birmingham Young Professional of the Year (BYPY), she won’t be embarrassed to channel the spirit of 2009’s most celebrated actress, Kate Winslet, into her last speech.
“The event, in June, is the equivalent of the Oscars for Birmingham’s young professionals; there’s a lot of anticipation surrounding the awards and last year we had a few tears,” she said. “I’m sorry to be stepping down as chair after two years and I think I’m going to do a bit of a Kate Winslet: knowing it will be my last speech as chair will make me emotional and tearful.”
It’s this blend of feminine softness, single-mindedness and an iron will that has seen 30-year-old Roula carve out a successful career in Birmingham, after moving from the bright lights of Dubai four years ago.
It’s also seen her court influential businesses in the city to make the centrepiece awards ceremony a runaway success since she took over in 2007.
“I became involved with BYPY soon after arriving in Birmingham and this is my third year on the committee.,” she said. “I’m stepping down as chair because I can’t be sure I’ll still be in Birmingham next year and I don’t want to promise something I can’t deliver. But I’m staying on the leadership team and I’m also looking to get involved in some charity work; I’ve been approached by the Birmingham Foundation.
“I’ve learned a lot through my involvement with BYPY. It’s been a steep learning curve, but it’s been great to work with the nine other people on the committee – everyone works really hard and gives their time for free. This is the awards’ ninth year and we want to keep on making it better.
“The awards give young people the opportunity to showcase their professional development as well as how much they give back to the city in terms of corporate social responsibility. So it’s a two-way thing: people have to be good at their job, but not giving anything back doesn’t get you very far. You need to be an ambassador too.
“Being a BYPY winner is a very good thing to have on your CV – especially in the current economic climate – it helps you stand out from the pack.”
The success of BYPY has come during a decade of huge change for Birmingham.
Having arrived in the middle of its renaissance as regional retail capital, Roula is proud to call the city ‘home’, not least because she can indulge her passion for designer shoes!
“I may not come from Birmingham, but I really fight for the city,” she said. “People say to me, ‘why Birmingham’? and I reply, ‘why not Birmingham’? There’s everything you could want in this city: ever since I came here, I’ve had nothing but friendliness and support.”
It’s a far cry from her homeland of Lebanon, growing up in war-torn Beirut. Having to run for cover in underground shelters was something that punctuated her childhood – and taught her not to take life for granted.
“In the shelter, if you heard the cannon go and then a whizz, you’d know the shell had passed overhead. If you didn’t hear the whizz, you’d know it had landed nearby,” she recalled.
“Looking back, it was a difficult existence, but we coped, not least because we knew little different. Sometimes we weren’t able to go to school for weeks in a row, but we always had work sent to us.
“I did find it quite fun until I was old enough to understand that people were actually dying and then I started to worry whenever my father left the house to go to the airport, where he worked. One of my friends’ fathers died after a bomb fell on his car – it made it very real for me.
“The older I got the more fearful and emotional I became, wondering what was going to happen next. There are things you never forget: whenever I hear the tune that precedes breaking news on the radio in Beirut, it sends shivers down my spine.”
Her childhood goes some way to explaining her determination to succeed, and the sheer grit that’s got her where she is today.
“I think the experiences of my childhood made me a stronger person and gave me a sense of living each day as if it was the last,” she explained. “I became defiant – when you live in a war-torn country, you have that feeling of ‘I’m not going to let them beat me’.”
Roula’s parents also pushed her to succeed. “If I gained 97 per cent in an exam, instead of congratulating me, my father would say ‘what happened to the other three per cent’?” she said.
After 16 years at a French school, she enrolled at the American University of Beirut where she gained an honours degree in psychology. Thirsty for new challenges, and
needing little encouragement to leave the dire economic situation in her homeland, it wasn’t long before she grasped more promising opportunities.
“The economic situation wasn’t great in Lebanon at the time and my contemporaries were getting jobs in Europe and America,” said Roula.
“I decided to go to Abu Dhabi where my uncle worked. I applied for every job I liked the look of – about 15 in all – and ended up with 11 interviews. One was a job with the Rezidor Hotel Group, working at the Middle East and China regional office in Dubai.
“I remember doing the interview and thinking ‘I could work here’. The people were nice and were very honest about what the job entailed. Although I had no background in hospitality, they were prepared to train me up.”
And train her they did. When a job came up at the soon-to-open Radisson SAS Hotel in Birmingham – part of the Rezidor group – Roula jumped at the chance to step on to the next rung of her career ladder.
She set foot on Birmingham soil for the first time in January 2005. As the new-look Bullring and Mailbox had redefined perceptions of the Second City, so its skyline would be transformed by the 39-storey, glass-sheathed Beetham Tower, home to the new Radisson SAS Hotel.
Roula was part of the pre-opening team and, after starting out as sales office manager, soon sank her teeth into a role more suited to her personality – manager of the hotel’s award-winning Filini restaurant.
After more than two years welcoming some of the UK’s best-connected diners – from Premier League footballers to millionaire businessmen – Roula took on a new challenge, as human resources and training manager.
“It’s very different to my previous role as manager of Filini,” she said. “It can sometimes be more challenging to deal, on a daily basis, with staffing issues. Guests are largely easy to please – with staff you have to deal with professional development and coaching and emotional wellbeing. It’s been quite an eye-opener – but it’s taught me a lot about people and made me a much more patient person. So it’s been good.”
Roula is now well on her way to realising a long-held dream of becoming a hotel general manager – and with her varied experience and fluency in English, Arabic and French, she believes “there aren’t many corners of the globe I can’t conquer”!
She added: “Although I’ve always been very ambitious, where I am now I owe to Kathrine (Ohm Thomas, general manager of the Radisson SAS, Birmingham). She is my mentor; she supports me, slaps me – metaphorically, of course – when I need slapping and has given me the opportunity to work in different departments and in different roles. However focused you are as an individual, it makes a huge difference to have a boss who is rooting for you.”
Roula’s single-mindedness means that, at times, her career comes before relationships.
“I’m single at the moment and I have no problem with that. I’ve lost several boyfriends over the years because of my commitment to my career. I know you have to have a work-life balance, and I do play hard, but I work hard too.”
Several thousand miles from home, Roula admits that she’d love to go back to Beirut one day. “My family still live there and I’d like to invest there in future – but I’ve got an ambition to meet first. When I’ve achieved that, then we’ll talk!” she said.