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Excellence Wins: A No-Nonsense Guide to Becoming the Best in a World of Compromise

Excellence Wins: A No-Nonsense Guide to Becoming the Best in a World of Compromise

by Horst Schulze
Dean Merrill

Learn More | Meet Horst Schulze | Meet Dean Merrill

First of All...

Before we start exploring the steps to attaining excellence and staying competitive, let’s talk just a minute about what to call the public we all wish to serve.

If you’re in the general business arena as I am, you will speak most naturally about “customers” or “guests.” (I’ll be doing this all through the coming chapters.)

If you’re a consultant, advisor, or counselor, you’ll probably call them “clients.”

If you work for a government entity, you’ll say “citizens” or “taxpayers.”

If you’re in the nonprofit sector (churches, mission agencies, associations, advocacy groups, etc.), you’ll talk about “members” or “donors” or “constituents.”

If you’re an educator, you will refer to “students” (and/or “parents”).

If you’re a doctor, nurse, hospital administrator, or other healthcare professional, your term will be “patients.”

But in reality, they are all the same. They’re all people who want us to meet their needs—and we know we must do so if we are to stay viable in today’s busy, interconnected world. The label doesn’t matter. The better approach would be to consider the inner desires and feelings, values and interests of the person you wish to serve.

So as you read, make the applications to your particular environment, taking note of what fits your specific challenges.

Let’s begin.

A Boy with a Dream

I hadn’t even gotten home from school that afternoon before my mother heard about the outrageous thing I had said in class. I was still playing Fußball (soccer) with my friends when a nosy neighbor stopped by the house to report me.

“Do you know what your son said in school today?” she asked my mother breathlessly. “He said when he grows up, he wants to work in a hotel!”

In our small German village, every self-respecting family wanted its sons to aspire to one of two futures: either a technical position (engineering, architecture) in a big city like Munich or Stuttgart, or else wine-making here at home, since the hillsides all around were covered with vineyards. If neither of these professions worked out, you could at least be a carpenter or a mason.

To talk about hotel work was like saying you wanted to be a street sweeper or a garbage collector.

Where had I, at age eleven, gotten such a crazy idea? Our village didn’t even have a hotel, or a proper restaurant for that matter. To this day, I cannot remember the source of my notion; I must have read about it in a book.

But I would not be dissuaded. My uncle from the city, a respected banker, came to visit once and asked what I had in mind for my future. Would I be going on to Gymnasium (high school) in nearby Koblenz? I told him my dream, thinking surely he would understand.

“What? Are you just going to be one of those sloppy guys serving beer in the railroad station?!” he scoffed, referring to the small bar in the depot where passengers could get a drink while waiting for their train. He was as embarrassed as the rest of the family.

This standoff went on for three years, until I reached age fourteen—a fork in the road for European students in those days. At that age, you either went on to higher academic study, or else you opted to learn a trade. My parents sat me down one day and said, “All right, Horst, tell us about this.”

“I want to work in a hotel. I want to work in the kitchen, in the dining room. I want this to be my work for life.”

They looked at each other and knew I was not going to give up. So with a sigh, they decided to help me. They went to some kind of government labor bureau to inquire about what to do next. There they learned of a six-month boarding school for hotel work that was eighty miles from our village. Reluctantly, they enrolled me and said a tearful good-bye to their son.

Starting at the Bottom Rung

It was a very intense course of study, and I was very homesick. But upon finishing the program, the school found an apprenticeship for me at a fine hotel and spa in Bad Neuenahr (bad in German means a mineral bath or spring, thought to be helpful for relieving arthritis and other ailments). Next to the facility was a clinic where doctors treated the patients. The hotel was named the Kurhaus (“cure-house”).

Some wealthy guests did not visit the Kurhaus for medical reasons; they just came for the concerts in the big garden every afternoon and evening, or to go to the casino.

I still remember the lecture my mother gave me on the train. “Now, son,” she sternly declared, “this hotel is for important ladies and gentlemen. We could never stay there.” (My father, a World War II veteran, worked for the postal service.) “You must behave yourself accordingly. Take your shower! Wash your socks! Do not do anything out of line!”

We got off the train at last and schlepped my suitcase the ten blocks to the hotel. (Taking a taxi was out of the question.) We met with the hotel’s general manager, an educated man who carried the title “Doctor,” for a brief introduction. He reinforced my mother’s warning. “Young man, this place is for important people. They come here from around the world. They are the upper class, who truly understand service. Do not allow yourself to become jealous or envious. You are here to serve them.” I dutifully nodded my head.

After kissing my mother farewell, I moved into a dormitory room with three other boys. The toilet and shower were located down the corridor. By the next day, I was plunged into the busy life of a busboy. Well, to be precise, the only task I was allowed to do in the beginning was to clean ashtrays. “Be careful,” I was told. “Don’t disturb the guests while they are eating.”

A bit later, I was assigned to wash dishes. The hours were long—from seven in the morning until eleven at night. We set up the dining room before every mealtime, not only the tables but also the utensils and other supplies the waiters would need. We cleaned the floors. Sometimes, at the end of a tiring day, we had to polish the guests’ shoes that had been left out in the hallway. We did everything, it seemed.

Slowly I was allowed to hand-carry the food orders from the waiters to the kitchen staff, and then to bring the food back to the waiters for serving. Then came actually serving the food myself from a side table, dishing up the plates. If meat needed to be carved, however, the maître d’ would come over and handle that part.

This was my life, every day of the week except Wednesday, when our young group was bussed to a hotel school in a nearby town. We arrived back late in the afternoon, changed clothes, and immediately went to work in the dining room.

It was hard work, but I never second-guessed my decision. I found encouragement from my mother’s letters, which she wrote every day. She would tell me what was going on in the village, what vegetables she was picking from the garden, and would always add, “We love you so much. We think about you constantly. We cannot wait for the next time you get to come home for a visit.” Sometimes she would even send me grape-sugar tablets, which she was convinced would bolster my energy for my work.

Man of Excellence

The maître d’, Karl Zeitler, made a huge impression on me. Though now in his early seventies, he still had a stately bearing as he would go from table to table, conversing with the guests. At one table he would speak German; at the next, English; at the next, French. His presence filled the room.

In fact, as I watched, it almost seemed as if the guests were proud to have him stop by their table. They looked up to engage him in conversation. This conveyed to me that, while we young workers of course viewed him as the most important person in the room, the guests apparently thought so, too. What a reversal! I thought. It’s almost upside down.

Herr Zeitler was a great teacher for us young people. Before mealtimes he would talk through the day’s menu, explain any new items, and coach us on how to describe them to the guests. The mystique of the industry seemed to dance in his eyes.

In slack times, he would tell us about great hotels where he had worked during his long career—in London, in Czechoslovakia. He had been an apprentice himself in Berlin many years before. He told us about his friend who had worked on a transatlantic ship. It all sounded so fascinating. When I got to go home for a weekend visit every three months or so, I had so many stories to tell.

But Herr Zeitler didn’t only inspire us. He also held us to high standards. I got in trouble with him a few times. He once caught me helping myself to a quick swig of leftover wine, and he kicked me in the backside! I never did that again.

One time we were serving a banquet for which the entrée was a beef filet and a veal filet, side by side on the plate. As I served a particular guest, he said, “No beef—just the veal.” When I returned to the kitchen, I checked to see if anyone was watching me, then quickly slipped the beef filet into the back pocket of my trousers, under the formal tail of my jacket.

Unfortunately, the maître d’ saw what I had done. He chased after me and dumped hot sauce in my pocket! And he proceeded to give me quite a scolding.

The Essay

One Wednesday near the end of my three-year apprenticeship, we were all assigned to write an essay about how we felt about our work and what we were learning. I didn’t know what to say. I sat that evening in my little room pondering.

I decided to write about Herr Zeitler. I told of what an exceptional human being he was. I described his impeccable dress, his elegant mannerisms, his genuine interest in each and every guest. It came to me that he was defining himself as a true gentleman.

Somewhere near the end of my essay, I coined the phrase Damen und Herren im Dienst zu Damen und Herren—“Ladies and Gentlemen Serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” Like the maître d’, we could be ladies and gentlemen as we went about our work. We were not just servants in the shadows of the service industry. We would rise to a higher identity, if we deserved it.

My paper got an A grade (the only A I ever received!). The school’s prefect and my teacher even called the other faculty members together for me to read it to them. In that moment, I thought about my uncle and the others who had been embarrassed for me to go into this field. I said to myself, See, I was right. I can be proud of myself here. I can be respected by others, and respect myself. I can be a gentleman.

A Motto for Life

Close to my eighteenth birthday, I went to work for the winter season in the Bavarian ski resort of Garmisch. Next I went to Bern, Switzerland, to the Bellevue Palace (the official guesthouse of the Swiss government) and also to the Le Beau Rivage in Lausanne. Then came the Plaza Athénée in Paris, followed by London’s Savoy—all of these being five-star hotels. At one point along the way I signed on with a Holland America cruise ship, which brought me to New York for the first time. In those days it took three days to refresh a ship before the next voyage, which meant we had time to explore the city, using our seaman’s passports.

While most of my friends jumped into taxis to head for the Empire State Building, or Madison Square Garden, or the Statue of Liberty, the number one destination on my list was the famous Waldorf-Astoria. I had dreamed of seeing that grand hotel for a long time. Now I stared up at the big clock in the beautiful lobby. It gave me chills of excitement.

Would I ever get to be the manager of a hotel this splendid? There was no way to tell. But I knew that if the chance ever came, I would seek to make it a place where a staff of ladies and gentlemen served ladies and gentlemen with pride. My dream would be turned into reality, for the benefit of not only the guests but also everyone who would serve them, from the newest maid to the highest supervisor. Together, we would rise to excellence.

In this book I will share how my motto has been put into practice along the way.

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