Keeper of the KEYS


Portrait of Tammy Strobel
My Reading Room

Eleven years ago, a most unusual proposal reached the office of Olivier Jolivet. Chinese businessman Ma Dadong conveyed to Aman Resorts’ chief executive his desire to save a precious piece of Chinese history. With the construction of a reservoir, an area within his hometown of Jiangxi province that housed ancient villages and camphor trees was doomed for almost certain destruction. 

What ensued was an audacious rescue effort spanning more than a decade, involving Aman, Ma, a team of botanists, engineers, architects and craftsmen. Fifty Ming and Qing dynasty houses  were disassembled, transported over 800km to Shanghai and then put together again by craftsmen,  the  few  remaining  in  China  with  knowledge  of  ancient building techniques. 

When it opens next year, this upcoming resort – Aman’s fourth property in China – will be the luxury hotel group’s “most ambitious” project to date. Jolivet says: “It would be an achievement when we open this property – and I don’t say this for all our projects. It has been the benchmark for difficulty. 

“The magnitude and cost of this project is beyond everything we have done so far. We’re rescuing not only the 10th century houses and trees;  it’s  the  stone  of  the  streets,  it’s  everything. People are telling us, you guys are crazy. Why don’t you do something simpler like a tower? You build it in three years and make a lot of returns. But that’s not  our  business  model.  That’s  not  the  brand  of Aman.” 

Over  10,000  camphor  trees  were  transported by tens of thousands of trucks over mountainous terrain. It was a race against time to ensure their survival at the new location. And never mind the effort it took to produce the resort’s artefacts using ancient techniques. “I said (to our partner), ‘We are never going to be on time.’ But he told me that it was okay. Time doesn’t matter when you do things right, like it was done in the old days.” 

After all, Aman has never been one to go the conventional route. 


“Aman is what you don’t do at hotels,” Georg Rafael, the founder of the Rafael hotel chain, once famously said.  Indonesian-Chinese  hotelier  Adrian  Zecha arrived in Phuket intending to build a holiday home for  himself,  but  ended  up  realising  Aman’s  first ground-breaking resort Amanpuri in 1988. 

Due to its small number of rooms, banks refused loans  to  Zecha.  His  ultra-luxurious  boutique concept  would  never  work,  naysayers  sneered. As the story goes, room rates at Amanpuri hit an outrageous high of US$250 per room, compared to average room rates in Phuket of US$75 at the time. 

Today, few in the hospitality world can match Aman’s  exclusivity.  Its  locations  border  on  the otherworldly  (think  praying  with  monks  in  the temples  of  Borobudur);  and  its  sophistication, unparalleled  (think  the  most  intuitive  service, with a staff  to customer ratio of 4:1). And there’s its almost hyperbolic attention to creating an exquisite environment. “It’s part of us to restore historical buildings, to bring the history of a country back to the surface again with the local people. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last 30 years,” says Jolivet. 

Such  is  Aman’s  uncompromising  stance  that Jolivet admits the risk the brand has taken in its upcoming Shanghai property. “I don’t know if this project is going to make great returns. But we looked at (Ma’s) proposal, and we said, ‘Okay, you’re crazy, and sometimes Aman is also a bit crazy – maybe we can do something together.’” 

The  43-year-old  Frenchman  has  front-row access  to  the  enigmatic  workings  of  a  brand  that is  synonymous  with  discretion  and  for  being  an exquisite  hideaway  for  the  world’s  ultra-rich.  In person, Jolivet is similarly subtle and clearly private. During our interview at Jolivet’s office in Orchard Spring Lane, we tried to look for clues to what has been referred to as a secret club but to no avail. Little is revealed in his office with its minimalist interiors, save for family portraits and a wall of drawings by his two young daughters. During the photo shoot at his office, Jolivet was open to direction yet clearly in  control.  He  decisively  selected  his  preference for designer glasses, and even directed our makeup artist: “Do I need some powder? Because my face will be very shiny.” 

Aman’s  clientele  includes  celebrities,  royalty, business  elites  and  the  ultra-rich,  including the  late  Princess  Diana,  Mark  Zuckerberg,  Bill Gates  and  George  Clooney,  who  are  part  of  a fiercely  loyal  tribe  of  repeat  customers  called Aman Junkies. Now under the sole ownership of its chairman, Russian billionaire and real estate mogul Vladislav Doronin, Aman can continue to dictate its own terms. It opens one or two properties a year – there are currently 31 resorts across 20 countries; development decisions are not based on the bottom line; and the number of rooms within its properties is characteristically limited. 

“In  hospitality  today,  everybody  wants  to  the biggest.  It’s  all  about  consolidation.  We  are  very exclusive  and  we  are  lucky  because  we  are  very private,” Jolivet says. 

“We say no when it’s not good for an Aman. We don’t open a hotel for the sake of opening a hotel. It takes a lot of time to open an Aman and to develop it. We need to find somewhere that represents the soul of the city. At the end of the day, when all these brands are very big, they don’t mean anything. They all want to copy us in the high-end segment but I trust in the power of being authentic as long as we keep innovating. In 20 to 50 years, the one who is successful is the one who has never compromised their brand and with the highest return guest ratio. Aman is best positioned for it.” 

Despite  being  slightly  reticent  when  we first  meet,  somewhere  mid-way  through  our interview, he relaxes, revealing a wry humour and a willingness to divulge a secret or two. We begin to discover how Aman’s and Jolivet’s journey have strangely intertwined. 

My Reading Room

Born  in  the  town  of  Annemasse,  a  city  on  the French/Swiss  border,  Jolivet  spent  his  childhood in Morocco and Ivory Coast. Mum was a teacher, while Papa worked for the foreign office. From an early age, he remembers being “open to the world”. He says: “I had to read five books a week and answer questions about history. My parents gave me a taste of travelling and discovering the world.” 

His  earliest  ambition  was  to  become  a professional tennis player, but acknowledging his own lack of talent, he pursued an MBA in France, Germany  and  United  Kingdom,  before  joining McKinsey & Company as a consultant in Germany for  three  years.  At  26,  through  his  contacts  in consulting, he was offered an opportunity to enter the  world  of  hospitality  by  joining  Club  Med  in Asia.  He  recalls:  “I'd  thought  that  relocating  to Asia was never on the cards for me until I worked for  McKinsey  and  was  approached  by  then  CEO of  Club  Med,  Philippe  Bourguignon,  who  offered me a position to restructure Club Med’s assets in the Asia-Pacific.” 

While  his  initial  plan  was  to  stay  in  Asia  for only  two  years  and  return  to  France  if  all  else failed, he ended up feeling at home in Singapore, getting married here, and eventually assuming the role of chief development and real estate officer at Club Med. 

Then,  opportunity  literally  knocked  on  his door. About eight years ago, he had moved back to Paris with his wife. He received a call informing him that Aman was looking for an executive director. “I thought it was a joke. I thought the call was from a friend of mine,” he says. It wasn’t – the man on the line was from a headhunting firm in London. 

“I told my wife not to unpack. We’re flying back to Singapore. She’s Singaporean so she was happy to be back home,” recalls Jolivet. “In the interview, I  was  so  passionate.  I  said,  ‘I’m  the  one.  Don’t look  around!’  Sometimes  in  life,  the  train  comes. You think it’s the right train and you jump on it. I’ve been lucky that the train I’ve been taking is a good train. 

“I  had  always  been  fascinated  by  Aman.  At that point, I hadn’t had any connection with it and thought  it  was  a  sect.  How  could  they  charge  so much? How could they survive? 

“When I first came to Aman, I was one of the youngest  ones.  People  said,  ‘A  French  guy?  From Club Med? 35 years old? Is Adrian (Zecha) nuts?’ Everybody was looking at me with big eyes, saying this was not possible.” 

The surprises continued. Jolivet was eager to get down to business, but was informed by Aman’s executives to “take my time – six months, even a year” to learn about the company. Jolivet lets out an amused laughter at the memory. “I said, ‘People are very relaxed here!’ It was very strange in the beginning.  There  were  not  many  processes.  Even the shareholders didn’t know what was happening. It was very special, very secret, very closed.” 

Jolivet attributes his affinity with Aman in part to his French heritage. “In France, we take care of our know-how very well. We know how difficult it is to create a great wine because it depends on the soil, the weather, the grapes and of course, time. It’s a lot of factors to create a great wine, as well as to create a great brand.” 


Aman  has  built  a  very  valuable  brand,  but  its formidable allure has also led it onto difficult paths. Jolivet is well aware of the irony that despite Aman’s brand as a “place of peace”, the company has had its fair share of troubles. 

In his eight years, he has been a witness to one of the most dramatic legal battles in the hospitality industry. In early 2014, Aman was sold for US$358 million  (S$488  million)  to  a  group  of  investors, headed  by  Doronin  and  American  entrepreneur Omar  Amanat.  The  relationship  between  the two  subsequently  soured,  escalating  into  a  legal feud  across  New  York  and  London,  involving  30 attorneys and allegations of fraud and conspiracy. 

During the process, he managed to keep his head above the fray. “It was a challenging situation for a CEO to be in, when both shareholders are fighting on both sides of the table. But that’s the DNA of this company  –  to  fight  for  its  employees,  guests  and the local community where Aman is established. I focused, put my head down and did the best I could for the company and for our partners. This brand is so huge that everyone wants to have a piece of it. Everybody’s fighting to get Aman. There’s never a dull moment at Aman. Behind the peace of the place,  there’s  always  been  some  activity,  battle or issue; maybe part of the brand has always been like this. But now everything is settled and Aman is stronger than ever.” 

Legal battles aside, Jolivet also engaged in more operational “battles” to direct Aman’s course. “I’m trying  to  keep  everything  true  to  Aman  but  also to change everything. Internally, we also had our own debates. We did not agree on everything.” He cites the digital revolution as an example. When he joined Aman in 2008, Jolivet had to convince Zecha, who did not own a computer, of the importance of investing in social media and an online presence. 

“I think it’s important in a company, after 30 years, that it moves forward. We have about 7,000 employees today; we need to move forward and the world is changing.” 


Aman is certainly not standing still. It has already moved past its original winning formula of building resorts  in  remote  locations  by  launching  a  new generation  of  hotels  in  urban  cities,  beginning with Aman Tokyo in December 2014. Jolivet says this  strategy  was  conceived  by  “listening  to  its clientele”, who wanted a “120 sq m suite”, in the “perfect  location”  and  “perfectly  managed”.  The company  plans  to  launch  similar  hotels  in  New York, London, Paris, Singapore and Hong Kong. 

His  next  ambition  is  to  develop  a  series  of hotels along the Silk Road between Aman Beijing and Aman Venice, where its customers can travel on a journey akin to the one taken by Marco Polo. “We don’t want to be the biggest. We just want to be who we are. We don’t do things differently; we do different things and we believe simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” 

This year sees the launch of Aman Wellness, a forward-thinking concept that includes individual immersions  and  group  retreats  to  help  restore mental,  physical  and  spiritual  wellness.  “It's  part of our DNA to deliver wellness. Now, we want to go a step forward. We want to convert our properties into a complete wellness destination.” 

The road to paradise hasn’t been a bed of roses but  he  wouldn’t  have  it  any  other  way.  “I’ve  had opportunities  to  make  more  money,  but  I  don’t want  to  be  the  richest  man  in  the  cemetery.  Life is short. We need to enjoy it, and it’s important to be passionate.”