Career in focus: Heidi Kunkel
Vice President, Operations Australasia, Hilton
1. What does your role involve and how long have you been in your current position?
My role involves overseeing the operations of Hilton’s 23 trading and 9 pipeline properties and leading the company’s growth ambition across Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, French Polynesia, New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea. I recently joined Hilton as Vice President, Operations, Australasia, based in Sydney. It is wonderful to be back in my hometown after almost 10 years abroad.
2. How did you start out in your career? Were you always destined to work in the travel industry?
As a teenager, I was fascinated with Japan, so after university I decided to relocate to Tokyo to learn the language and immerse myself in the Japanese culture. My original plan was to stay for six months but I loved it so much I ended up living there for almost 3 years. When I moved back to Australia, I applied for a position as a Japanese tour guide at Ayers Rock Resort and worked in Japan guest services, concierge and front office. It was an incredible experience to work in one of the most unique places on earth, welcoming tourists from across the globe including Japan, Germany, USA and various parts of Asia. I knew I wanted to work with a diverse cultures, languages and experiences, so what better place than the travel industry?
3. Did you complete formal qualifications, and do you think they are important?
My parents always encouraged me to receive a tertiary education though it was my choice to go on to complete a BA at the University of Sydney and an MBA at MGSM (Macquarie Graduate School of Management). Formal qualifications are definitely valuable if you make the most of them. If not, then the best life experience is life itself!
4. What do you love about your job?
The opportunity to travel the world and meet people from very diverse cultures and backgrounds. I thrive on change, diversity, and challenge and love to be on the move constantly! My job gives me a sense of humility and gratitude for being fortunate enough to have such amazing opportunities.
5. What are some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced in your career?
When I worked with the team in Japan to rebuild lives after the tsunami in March 2011. Nothing else in my career compares to that experience. My respect and admiration for the Japanese people reached another level.
6. What factors were central to your success?
Courage, determination, tenacity, self-belief, and hard work. Having a mentor who believes in you at times when you don’t believe in yourself is invaluable.
7. Did you have a mentor, and if so, how did you find them?
I was fortunate to have a mentor who believed in me and recognised that I was prepared to take risk and responsibility and supported me in my career evolution. I will always be grateful.
8. What are the keys to good business?
Treat the business as if it were your own. Take decisions and invest resources as if it were your own.
Be tough on results and be kind to people.
9. What advice would you give to others in the industry who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Know that your career path may not be as straight and linear as you envision — the side steps and experience from such diversions can be just as beneficial. Also don’t forget you can ‘choose your boss’ … we spend a lot of time in the office, so if you see someone who you’d love to learn from and work with every day with — find out how to get into their team or into their organisation.