Q&A with Robert Gordon, SHFM President, and VP Workplace Services, American Express

Robert GordonRobert Gordon is the Vice President of Workplace Services at American Express, and the current President of SHFM. Robert joined the company in 2014 from Marsh and McLennan, where he oversaw the Dining and Conference Services operations. There, he led an RFP that changed vendors and increased customer satisfaction scores by 20%.

Before that, Robert was the Executive Director at Columbia University where his responsibilities included oversight of the Event Management (UEM) team that supported students, staff, as well as competed with the largest NYC caterers for external events. Robert also worked at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) where he was responsible for all retail and culinary operations. At MSKCC, Robert received the Food Management Magazine Trendsetter award for his efforts in renovating the gift shop and creating an exciting destination for visitors, staff and patients. He also started the first intranet website for the company.

Earlier in his career, Robert worked at various major financial institutions such as Merrill Lynch, JPMorgan and Bankers Trust.

Where did you grow up? How did you get involved in the industry?

I grew up on the south shore of Long Island in a town called Oceanside.

Who or what sparked your love of the restaurant/foodservice industry?

I started like many other people doing catering gigs on the weekends for extra money. I was enamored with the culinary side of the work and it began to draw me in.

Where did you go to college, and how did you end up in our industry?

It’s an interesting story.  I went to Towson State University in Towson Maryland, and graduated with a BS in Mass Communications. But I clearly remember our President Hoke Smith congratulating the class, and telling us it was a difficult time to find a job. After having my resume done (reading almost completely F & B) and going on an interview at a radio station for a salary that wouldn’t allow me to get to work, I decided to stay in Baltimore and look for work in the Hospitality field.

Can you share your career track from there?

I started out working as a restaurant supervisor in a privately owned hotel in Baltimore The Tremont Plaza. I then wanted to come back home so I went to work for the person I used to acer with full time. He was opening a new concept restaurant. Italian and Mexican, called Viva Loco. After trying something new for a year, I came back to hospitality when I found the B & I world. My first job was with Lackmann Food Service at Banker’s Trust.  After that I worked self op for JP Morgan, where I was until we moved to Aramark as our outsourced vendor. I stayed with the group for almost 7 years in total before I was recruited to lead the team at Merrill Lynch’s World Headquarters for Sodexo. After this role I moved among other non-commercial food service segments. I spent almost 5 years at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, leading their retail operations. My next job was at Columbia University where I ran the events team for the entire campus. I was the Executive Director of University Event management (UEM) and we handled events of all sizes and complexities. From World Leaders forum and graduation, to alumni events and catered functions all throughout the Morningside Heights Campus.

I then found myself back in B & I at Marsh & McLennan Cos.as the client liaison for Dining and Conference Services for the Northeast. This brought me to my current role at American Express where I lead the WorkPlace Services function for the Global Real Estate and Workplace Experience Team.

Who were some of the mentors that had an impact on your career?

I’ve had the good fortune for working for several industry icons. I started working with Joe Decenza and Linda Tucker and Bankers Trust, then at JP Morgan I worked for Hans Mader and Bob Berg, two gentlemen that showed me the art of fine dining. I also worked under Fred Broderson’s leadership when I was at Merrill Lynch. I mentioned all these people in my speech this year, but the story I told was about Tom Lackmann and the lessons I learned on having and more importantly delivering services with a Hospitality Spirit.

What was the opportunity that brought you to American Express?

New leadership in the department brought a new focus to how they looked at dining services and how they delivered services to colleagues, and so my role was created and I was lucky enough to be offered the job.

When did you first become involved with SHFM?

I started with the organization when it was SFM over 20 years ago. It was the who’s who of the industry.

How has SHFM impacted your career?

I’ve met a lot of great people that I call true friends. I also have made a number of contacts and I’ve found its helped educate me on things I needed to learn more about. I would mention that as my career grew so did SFM. When the “H” was added it was right around the time I was taking on more workplace responsibilities. This allowed me to ask colleagues how they handled certain situations I wasn’t as familiar with.

What does it mean to you to become president of SHFM?

Wow, I’m not sure it’s sunk in yet, but I feel honored to lead this great organization. As the many that have gone before me I want to continue the legacy that’s been set. I will take many of my American Express principles to the job, the most important being thinking about the customer at the center of everything we do. In our case the customers are our members.

Let’s back up a second. What should people in our industry know about the profile of the SHFM membership?

You get a lot out of it. The way we set ourselves up allows us to address each segment of the Hospitality world. Whether you’re a vendor, Marketing company, contractor or client liaison, there’s something for everyone. It’s like a family and I continue to say you get out of it as much as you put in. So I always say “Lean in”, find your passion, I know we have something that can use your ideas. 

Your position at Amex is a great snapshot of how jobs have evolved into so much more than just food.

Yes, It’s amazing. The work we do is the hottest topic in corporate real estate. Most companies are looking at ways to give back to their employees outside of just salary.

Can you outline your agenda for your year as president?

  • Continuing the work with the Young Professionals and Rising Star Programs
  • Pushing the new Rising Star Continuation Program
  • Focus on the “H” in SHFM by driving hospitality solutions to the people we serve
  • The SHFM Foundation
  • The work that this team does makes us different as an organization. I’d like to see what we can do to help enhance their efforts

But the most important is getting folks to “lean in”. This has been something I really would like to see happen. I have a short time in office so I want to make sure my legacy is getting people involved. And to that I’d like to get the Young Professionals and Rising Stars more involved. This is the future of the organization and the more they are involved the better we will be as a group.

What’s your vision for the “next generation” of SHFM members?

I along with the executive committee and the board are focused on our Young Professionals and Rising Star segments. These are our future leaders, so now is the time to develop them. I don’t want this group to wait as long as I did to get involved.