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Jan Büttgen: A humble, attentive hotel general manager in Beijing

Jan Büttgen Photo: Billie Feng

As the general manager of Grand Millennium Beijing (北京千禧大酒店), Jan Büttgen gives people a cheerful impression even before he starts talking. Though in his 50s, he likes to make childlike gestures, which exudes a unique sense of humor, but his conversations carry a profound meaning.

“He smiles to everyone he meets. Although he is the general manager, he never considers himself higher than any of us in the hotel,” one of his staff said, “He tries to pass his happiness on to everybody around him.” His management style is unofficially called “Happiness Management” by his staff.

Starting as a cook

Büttgen comes from the south of Germany. He used to be a cook before entering hotel management. He started to learn cooking when he was 18 years old. Cleaning the kitchen was the first job he did. “It’s important to learn from the very beginning. When the pot is clean, you can cook clean food; when the pot is dirty, everything will burn,” he said seriously, with his eyes wide open, as if he saw something was on fire.

In fact, Büttgen dreamed of being a musician when he started playing the trumpet at the age of 12. He played in various local bands in his hometown. He also acted as a trumpet player when he served in the army. “Something inside urged me to improve and go to the top level, but I realized it was too late for me,” he said with a sigh. So he gave it up and wondered what to do next. “As a child, I was always taken to restaurants and tasted various kinds of food. Then I realized that hotels have been in business for thousands of years and cooking has always been needed. That’s why I decided to be a cook,” he said. 

Büttgen has worked in hotels and restaurants all over the world. “Gaining exposure to delicious foods” was the words he used to describe how to become an excellent chef. “A chef doesn’t stay in the same place for 50 years. You need to go to different kitchens in different countries and learn different dishes. Once I spent a few weeks in Monaco only to learn to cook one special dish,” he said proudly.

Aiming higher

Being an excellent cook is not enough to run a restaurant or a hotel, which was what Büttgen wanted to do next after he had gained a lot of experience in cooking. “I went back to school at around 27 and learned many things related to management, such as marketing, finance and human resources.” By now, Büttgen has done nearly all jobs in the hotel industry; he can even fix the air-conditioner. “As the manager of a hotel, the more you study, the more responsibility and the greater joy you have,” he said.

When asked what is his favorite place to work, Büttgen didn’t say anything like “Beijing is my favorite city” as a formality. “I am a citizen of the world” was his reply. The reply is brief and simple, but it shows that Büttgen has a broad vision. “Every part of the world is magnificent. Every place has good and bad things, including Beijing.”

Büttgen doesn’t think it’s fair to judge cities. “You will get unhappy when you pass judgment. Every existing city has a right to be there. The only thing I need to do is to enjoy the city and the people. Why do I have to judge? A free person shouldn’t judge.” Perhaps it is the ability to discover positive things that makes Büttgen a cheerful and optimistic person.

However, Büttgen didn’t deny the fact that he does have a special feeling for Beijing, which is why he came to Beijing for a second time four years ago. In fact, his first visit to Beijing was in 1990 when he worked for the pre-opening management team of the China World Hotel (中国大饭店). He has worked in some other hotels in Asia, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, but China was his first stop in Asia. “It’s like your first girlfriend. You will always remember your first girlfriend, right?” he said jokingly.

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