Changing lives in Reading

Craig Poole can’t walk more than a few feet through the DoubleTree by Hilton Reading Hotel without pausing to greet an employee by name. In fact, Pool shakes every employee’s hand he can, expressing interest in each person from management to servers.

“You can’t tell the guests that you care about them, if you don’t care about the employees.” Craig Poole, president, Reading Hospitality – Photo by Susan L. Angstadt

One such employee, Christopher, has a form of autism. Christopher waves excitedly when he spots Poole in the lobby. “It’s a beautiful day Mr. Poole!” he says with a smile.

Christopher’s good mood is infectious. Guests and employees alike stop to tell him how his greetings brighten their day.

“Christopher has the gift of welcoming,” said Poole, president of the hotel.  “It makes him happy and makes other people happy, so we put him at the door.”

Poole has built the Reading DoubleTree hotel around that kind of thinking. It’s important to him that he make not just his guests happy, but his employees as well. He calls this business philosophy “people first, profit second.”

While a mantra like that may seem counterintuitive to business, that philosophy has made the DoubleTree Hotel in Reading the number one DoubleTree in the nation, according to Poole.

“I was already a rich person,” he said. “What we wanted here was to change lives. That is the purpose of this hotel. We are a family. When the people are more important than the profit, we actually make more money. That’s called humanizing profit.”

A nurturing style

Walking through the lobby and halls of the hotel it’s easy to see that people come first here. Employees line up to talk to me about how their job has changed their life for the better.

Tyrell Stewart, who lives in Reading and walks to work, is one of those employees. A chef and line cook, he has worked at the hotel for two and a half years.

“I have a criminal record,” Stewart said. “I made a lot of mistakes when I was younger. I was selling drugs, got caught, and did three and a half years. I came home in 2012 and haven’t been in trouble since.”

Stewart said that he was never a people person until he started working at the hotel. Meeting people from different walks of life and hearing their stories helped him, he believes.

Being given the trust to work at the hotel, he added, even with a criminal record, has changed his outlook to a more positive one.

“Mr. Poole looks out for us,” Stewart said, “even when we are having bad days. Other places that I have worked, I didn’t have that.”

Stories like Stewart’s make Poole proud. This is Poole’s 54th year in the hospitality business. Over all those years in the industry, he worked his way up from dishwasher to manager to vice president to owner and president. This is all he knows, he said.

“In 54 years, I probably worked 18 hours a day for 50 of those years,” he said. “I practice servant leadership style. That’s my happy point. I went to school for business and hospitality but my real key was learning on the street.”

Meeting his mentor

A Pittsburgh native, Poole first became a regional hotel vice president at just 27. Later, he bought several Hampton Inn hotels, and was owner of the world famous James Street jazz club in Pittsburgh, which he has since sold.

“I got into the business of hotels in broken communities,” he said. “I’m drawn to that because I am good at it. I have a compassion for people. I know that I can elevate people who were marginalized.”

The people were always what was most important to him, he said.

L-R Craig Poole, walks through the hotel lobby with his security manager, Hugo Rivera. Photo by Susan L. Angstadt

It was a meeting nearly a decade ago, however, with the late Berks County patriarch and department store magnate Albert Boscov that kick started Poole’s interest in a hotel in downtown Reading.

“My father passed and he became kind of like my mentor and my father,” Poole said of Boscov. “I would go and sit at his feet and learn. He said he was opening a hotel in inner city Reading, and I get inner city life more than most people. These people are great people, they just didn’t know how to trust.”

Poole and Boscov set a goal for the hotel- to make enough to pay the bills without borrowing. They reached that goal, all the while putting people first, and cash second.

 Fighting the anger

While most people don’t think of a hotel as a place that can change a community, Poole says the Reading DoubleTree is doing just that.

“We had 1800 people apply for jobs here,” he said. “When we opened we hired 220 people; 192 of those lived within walking distance of the hotel. We wanted to be in the neighborhoods.

“We wanted to teach them,” he continued, “to help them grow through respecting them and allowing them to pay their bills on time. We didn’t worry if people had a prison record. We only cared about who you are today and where you want to be tomorrow. We hired people who had joy in their hearts and wanted to give it a shot.”

The key, Poole said, was for the employees to know that he was behind them.

“The problem is, most of these people, no one has ever been behind them,” he said. “I had to let them fail and coach them so they learn. If they made a mistake, instead of getting yelled at, it was ‘What did you learn and how can you do better next time?’

“A lot of them have a lot of anger,” he said. “They come from dysfunctional families.  It’s not uncommon for a child to go to eight schools in a year. How do you learn that way? A lot are homeless, they’ve been evicted, they’ve made bad choices. They’ve been the victim of bad absentee landlords.”

Of course there’s anger, Poole said, but when treated with respect the anger goes away.

 Teaching financial literacy

Poole and his team learned that many of the employees also lacked financial literacy skills, so he set up free financial literacy classes at the hotel. The hotel also operates a “Care Closet” full of free donated clothes, available to all employees.

Tyrell Stewart works as a line cook in the Doubletree Hotel in Reading. -Photo by Susan L. Angstadt

“A lot of affluent people in the city who have clothes they no longer want to wear drop them off here,” he said.”Suits, things people can wear to work and to interviews. The right clothes up their self-esteem. We don’t want the people who work here to have to buy clothes, because that cuts into their cash flow.”

The hotel also helps employees with short-term housing, if needed. And employees are fed nutritious, fresh cooked meals each day at no cost.

All of these benefits contribute to “massive employee loyalty,” according to Poole.

“They don’t call off,” he said. “They are part of our success. They sit at the point of impact. They are right there in front of the guests 24/7. They are happy and it makes the guests happy.”

 Happiness counts

Poole also tries to ensure employees are not overworked. Overworked employees are angry, unhappy employees, which makes for a bad guest experience, he said.

“If a housekeeper’s capacity is to clean 13 rooms, not 18 rooms, you need them to clean 13, not 18, to be successful,” he said. “It’s not a genius move, it’s the right thing to do. You can’t tell the guests that you care about them, if you don’t care about the employees.”

The Reading DoubleTree rewards employees by promoting almost 100 percent from within. “There are people who walked by you today who were hired at $10 or $12 an hour and are making $60,000 a year now,” he said.

Poole hopes business leaders in Reading realize that if “you want to succeed in Reading this is how you have to behave as an employer. Nothing I do is not duplicable. You just need a pulse beat and a heart.”

With no plans for retirement any time soon, Poole plans to stay with the hotel for the long haul. He talks about helping Reading become the city he and Albert Boscov envisioned.

“I tell everyone that I’m Albert Boscov’s dream maker,” Poole said. “This was his dream and now it’s my dream.  Everything was against us making money in this city. But we were able to stabilize and refinance within four years. This is what happens when you treat people right. And we treat people right.

“The hotel is what we do for a living, but changing lives is our impact on the world.”

Partial demolition of Fairgrounds Square Mall should begin next spring

The owner of the Reading Fairgrounds Square Mall in Muhlenberg Township has announced redevelopment plans for the property that will include demolishing about 80 percent of the existing mall.

“The Fairgrounds Square Mall is a key property along the 5th Street Corridor and is too important to leave in its current condition. Based on input from community and business leaders, we believe this is the best approach,” said John Mulherin, vice president of government relations for Hull Property Group, the property’s owner.

The Boscov’s department store at the mall will be among the portions that will remain.

In the release, Jim Boscov, chairman and CEO of the department store chain, spoke in favor of the plan.

“Our Boscov’s store and Farmers Market locations adjacent to the mall property will benefit from the removal of the failed buildings. Hull Property Group has a proven track record of improving failed mall assets and I look forward to what they have planned for the Fairgrounds Square Mall property,” he said.

The developer said construction won’t likely begin before spring of next year because of the need to obtain necessary permits.

“This is a complicated demolition project due to the design and permitting required to create new facades for the anchor tenants remaining on the site,” said Rob Johnson, construction director for Hull.

The Hull Property Group is based in Augusta, Georgia and has properties in 14 states. The Fairgrounds Square Mall is its only Pennsylvania retail property.