tewart Bainum, chairman of Choice Hotels, joined Judy Olian, president of Quinnipiac, and Monique Drucker, vice president and dean of students, for a conversation on leadership as a part of the university’s presidential speaker series, “The Way Forward.” (Watch the full conversation.)
Bainum inherited his entrepreneurial spirit from his father after watching him work hard to make something of himself. “I'm a work in progress and always have been,” said Bainum. “I fumbled around a lot trying to figure things out. I had a great mentor: My dad was, first and foremost, the most important business mentor.”
By the time he was 7, Bainum had lived in six houses because, on top of being a plumber by day and taxi driver by night, his father would buy a house, build a family apartment in the basement, rent out the upstairs, wait for the value to go up, and then sell it.
“I always had an interest in business," recalled Bainum. "At family dinner — which we’d have every night — he would want to talk about his business, and I was the most interested listener at the table, as it turned out. He knew that and he got a lot of satisfaction out of sharing all that with me.”
When it came time for college, he and his father cut a deal: Bainum could go to school on the West Coast if he majored in business. After taking a couple of business classes his first year, he had decided business wasn’t for him. He ended up majoring in history, but got a taste for leadership in his junior year when he became student body president.
“When people ask my advice, I always suggest that they go to college to take a broad array of courses, and some, perhaps, outside of their comfort zone to broaden their perspective — as opposed to just focusing in on just one or two subject areas,” said Bainum. “It's good in your 20s to spend time trying this and trying that, getting to know yourself, and what you really want to do.”
Throughout his 20s, he floundered. After he graduated college with a history degree, he hitchhiked about 8,000 miles across Europe. Eventually, he went to graduate school for theology and business, built five house, unsuccessfully ran for Maryland state senate (a position he ultimately would later win several times), and got married. He had a variety of experiences, but his one constant was his passion for business.
Bainum said his experiences helped shape his worldview — and would ultimately pay great dividends when he became chairman of Choice Hotels.
“I was raised in a religious environment, so the idea of service was important and that combined with just an ego that needed some attention and the desire to be out in front a bit motivated me to want to pursue politics,” said Bainum. “Politics can be the pursuit of justice and, when it's at its best, that's what it is. There's tremendous inequality in our society and it's always motivating to want to get in and try to find a way to make a difference in the state legislature and in Congress.”
Choice currently franchises more than 7,000 hotels, representing nearly 570,000 rooms, in more than 40 countries and territories — and has performed better than the industry average throughout the COVID-19 crisis.
“April 5 was the lowest point of our overall occupancy in North America. It was 28% — the lowest occupancy in the history of the company,” said Bainum. “But the industry average at that point was 21%, a full seven points below our occupancy rate.”
Bainum attributes much of his success to luck, and he and his wife have pledged to donate the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes throughout their lifetime.
Bainum and his family have been focusing on: supporting young children who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods and attend under-performing schools; influencing public policy to correct some of the inequality in this country; and contributing to people in other nations where the value of a dollar can go much further than here.
“The emphasis there is your dollar in Malawi goes 100 times further than your dollar in this country, so you can transform, change or save a kid's life with 1% of what it would take here in this country,” said Bainum. “So, increasingly, we're shifting a lot of our philanthropic investments into countries like that in Sub-Saharan Africa, and India, too.”
A constant innovator, Bainum has lived a life of entrepreneurship, educated risk and long-term strategy — and encouraged the audience to think similarly.