Jeff Wagoner, the new CEO and President of Outrigger Hotels and Resorts, has spent more than 30 years in the hospitality industry without ever missing a day if work.
“I wake up at 5 a.m. and I’m in the office well before 7 a.m. I can’t wait to get to the office,” the 59-year-old Wagoner says during a rare mid-day break at Outrigger’s newly built Voyager 47 Club. “I found early success in the hospitality business, and quite frankly, I loved it.”
Wagoner attended Virginia Tech, but took a summer job as a front desk clerk at the Marriott Crystal City right outside of Washington, D.C. and never went back to college.
“I saw a future. I became a manager within a year of joining Marriott,” Wag- oner says.
While the decision to quit college was a pivotal one, Wagoner says he’s never regretted it. One reason is that he was one of eight children that came from a family that believed success was a largely a matter of hard work.
“I like to say, ‘Work hard and the results will take care of themselves,’” Wagoner shares. “In the hospitality business, there are a lot of businesses under one roof. Everything that happens comes through the front desk, so it was a good place to learn.”
Wagoner says he got his strong work ethic from his parents. His dad, Bill Wagoner, was a graphic designer that had his own graphic design company, where he worked on the moon rock exhibit at the Smithsonian and the presidential podium. His mom, Jane Wagoner, worked as an administrative assistant for Marriott’s legal and general counsel. The two married later in life and brought their families together forming their own version of the Brady Bunch.
“I don’t think I’ve even seen two people work harder in my life. I remember many nights coming home from Washington, D.C. after a night out with my friends and seeing that the light in my Dad’s office was still on. He’d still be in the office working after midnight,” Wagoner says. “They worked hard to take care of all their responsibilities and they never complained.”
Another reason that Wagoner is big on showing up and working hard is that he learned “to make every day matter” from the untimely death of his brother, Randy Wagoner, who was a talented artist that died young from muscular dystrophy.
Wagoner says he still cherishes his brother’s drawings and notebook.
“He had so much talent,” Wagoner says. “He taught me to have a really positive outlook on life in general.”
As such, Wagoner has had two sayings that he uses frequently, “Make today amazing” or “Today’s going to be amazing.”
He says them often to his coworkers and to his wife, Kris, and his youngest child, 13-year-old daughter Lily, who will be attending Punahou in the fall.
“When I wake Lily up with that phrase, it always gets a smile,” he shares
Wagoner says family and sports always bring smiles to his face. Work makes him happy too, especially the many leadership roles that he has had in the hospitality industry. He has worked at 14 hotels and held top management roles with Wyndham, Starwood Hotels and Resorts, Doubletree and Marriott International.
In addition, he served on the board of directors for the Hotel & Lodging Association of Greater Houston, the MPI Foundation Global Board of Trustees and currently serves on the Sabre Executive Advisory Board.
Along the way, his winning personality and hard-working ways attracted the attention of some of the lodging industry’s most respected hospitality leaders who became his mentors. One in particular, Eric Danziger, who is currently the CEO of Trump Hotels, mentored Wagoner through five different hotel companies. Wagoner was executive vice president, hotel operations for the Trump Hotel Group under Danziger before deciding to leave his Big Apple life to take a bite out of Hawai‘i.
Wagoner says Danziger taught him about the importance of leaders having an open door policy and taking the time to share their time and talents.
“When I say that there’s an open-door policy here, I truly mean it. I‘m not big on setting up future meetings. If someone needs me, I’d prefer that they come over and have a discussion on the fly so that they can get on with what they need to do,” he reveals.
Wagoner says it was hard to leave Danziger, but the allure of Hawai‘i beckoned, as did the chance to assume the helm of a rapidly advancing 70-year-old hospitality company. Outrigger’s new owner, KSL Capital Partners, has tapped Wagoner to usher in a new era for the former Kelley family-owned company. While Wagoner is making changes, its impossible not to notice that his style bears some resemblance to Outrigger’s hands-on founder Roy Kelley, who came to Hawai‘i as a young architect and eventually became a giant in Hawai‘i’s hotel industry.
Like Kelley, Wagoner is a maverick that likes to stay in-touch with the people that work for the companies that he manages. Wagoner says he usually gets to work before the rest of his team so that he has time to walk the properties and visit with employees. So far, he’s definitely got a reputation as being way more open-minded than Kelley—who was famous for wanting what he wanted when he wanted it.
Wagoner agreed to speak at a human resources conference on his first day on the job. And despite his busy schedule, he’s already attended many awards ceremonies.
“I love having the opportunity to coach and mentor. I love to see people pro- moted and have success in the industry,” he said. “I want us all to treat people the right way so that they feel that they are part of the team, their opinion matters, and they can’t wait to get into the office in the morning.”