Victoria Beckham has nothing on Edouard Ettedgui, the urbane chief executive of the Mandarin Oriental hotel group. The luxury-brand label junkie looks like a Primark shopper compared to him. Throughout an hour-long interview, Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Ferrari et al are mentioned with disarming regularity as he warms to his favourite word: luxury.
But then Ettedgui is on a mission. Since he took the helm in 1998, he has grown the chain from 11 to 30 hotels around the world and is not stopping there. An overhaul of one of his best-known hotels, the Mandarin Hong Kong, is under way and he can see another 10 or 20 new openings in the coming years.
But it has left him with a conundrum: how to expand while maintaining what he calls the "mysticism" of the brand. And evidently one way is to ram home, at every opportunity, just how luxurious that brand is.
"When I joined, it was clear we were an Asian-focused group," he says in his heavy French accent. "It was a very under-leveraged brand.
"It spoke to me about the Orient - not Asia, the Orient. There's mysticism about it - it's Marco Polo, it's all about travel - and that requisite luxury cuts across cultures. It was a luxury brand in the hotel industry but it could have been a luxury brand in any other industry."
The group, part of the sprawling Hong Kong conglomerate Jardine Matheson, was born out of two leading hotels: the Mandarin Hong Kong and Oriental Bangkok. One of Ettedgui's predecessors, realising that neither name could be trademarked on their own, came up with the bright ruse of combining the two. But 9/11 and the Asian-centred Sars outbreak hit hard, causing profits to slump.
As a result Ettedgui expanded the global footprint, but he has also branched out, seeking to shore up revenues by increasing the number of mixed- used developments. With an eye on the grey pound, he envisages hotels that include residential apartments, shops, a spa and even a medical centre offering complementary as well as preventative medicine. "These sorts of developments are going to come up more and more. If I could get the building next to [the London Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge] and convert it, I would do so tomorrow."
The chain owns most of its buildings and hasn't been tempted to go down the route of rivals such as InterContinental Hotels in selling the properties and then buying back the right to run them through management contracts.
Because the margins are much tighter under these arrangements, he argues, groups will need a large portfolio of hotels, potentially diluting the brand. "And there's a second effect of that model: you define your brand simply by your operating experience" - in other words, how individual hotels are run.
As an example, he points to rival advertising campaigns that focus on service - something that he believes should be a given in luxury hotels. "When was the last time you heard Louis Vuitton talk about the quality of its leather or Ferrari talk about the quality of its engines? It's obvious. So I try never to talk about service," he adds, with a touch of Gallic haughtiness.
Despite his strong views, Ettedgui is new to the industry. He joined from Dairy Farm, a supermarket group also owned by Jardine Matheson, and has worked for British American Tobacco and Philips.
His homes have also changed regularly. Born to a Spanish father and French mother in Marrakesh, his career has taken him to a clutch of far-flung outposts. "I grew up reading Jules Verne," he says. "I have spent only six of my 54 years in France. I'm French by the culture. But that's about it."
Now resident in Hong Kong, he says "... it's like home now. I can't tell you how good it is to go back to where there's a real vibrancy, powered by this tremendous engine called China. There's a humming. You can feel it.
"You have the possibility of dreaming of the future here. In my generation, I was looking at the stars. Now [young people in the West] have their heads down, thinking 'oh man, I have to deal with that future'."
It is doubly surprising, then, that the group is not in Beijing or Shanghai. It was in talks to take over Shanghai's iconic Peace Hotel, which came to nothing, but Ettedgui is relaxed: "There's nothing magic about it. When you have a strong brand, you don't need to be the first one. You are better to be the last because you can pick and chose projects. And we have not found a project that's attractive enough."
Will he be there for the Beijing Olympics in 2008? "That would be nice, eh?" he grins, in a non-committal response.
But then Ettedgui believes in letting time take its course, arguing that the only way to become a true luxury brand is to have "legendary" hotels. "They became legendary because they are embraced by the local communities, generation after generation - you have your wedding there, your bar mitzvah. They become part of the social fabric."
In Hong Kong, the tiny region boasts a dazzling array of hotels, including two Mandarin Oriental properties as well as the newly opened Four Seasons and the iconic Peninsula. But, says Ettedgui: "It's not about competing with each other. You can have two, three, four, five legendary hotels in the same city. They all have their own niche."
The Mandarin Hong Kong will be shut for most of 2006 for refurbishment. That, he admits will dent profits - but not as much as it would have prior to the group's expansion. The overhaul is also desperately needed if the hotel is to retain its legendary status.
Meanwhile, Ettedgui is showing off a more recent addition to the portfolio: the Washington DC Mandarin Oriental. High up in the hotel, in one of its many suites, he walks on to a balcony (after kicking open a stuck door). "Look at this fantastic location on the water," he yells above the roar of traffic streaming down the busy road below and the roar of planes coming into land.
Whether DC is destined to become a legend on quite the same scale as Hong Kong or Bangkok is a moot point. But while Ettedgui remains in charge, there can be little doubt he will do everything in his power to remind us - at every opportunity - that DC, like all his hotels, is a luxury brand any label lover should be proud to use.
BORN 12 December 1951.
Received an MBA from the ESSEC business school in Paris.
1977: joins the electronics giant Philips. Goes on to hold various roles, including director for operations in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Peru and Italy.
1990-95: head of finance, BAT Industries, later becoming group finance controller and then director for new business development and group finance controller.
1996: joins board of the newly created British American Tobacco Holdings as business development director.
1996: group finance director, Dairy Farm International.
1998 to now: chief executive, Mandarin Oriental.Reuse content