Hanky Lee, the owner and founder of the intrinsically Filipino vintage-modern The Henry hotels, describes many beginnings of his ventures as a product of chance. It is a concept afforded to many people, but it is only with the entrepreneurial foresight of someone like Lee that opportunity evolves into successful and expanding businesses.
You may call it a funny kind of serendipity that Hanky Lee’s road to The Henry Hotel was by way of Yellow Cab. Not the New York taxi, of course, but the pizza business he founded with two business partners in 1999. It was during this time that Hanky, entrepreneurial even when he was young, travelled heavily across the Philippines as he was in charge of opening the pizza joint’s different branches. Through these travels, his love affair with hotels began.
“The Philippines is really a beautiful place,” Lee begins one afternoon just outside his The Henry in Pasay. “I traveled from Baguio to Davao, and so on. And for me, it got kind of frustrating because the different hotels that I stayed in were not up to standard—my standard. And during that time with Yellow Cab, I was lucky enough to travel abroad. Those travels abroad also broadened again my perspective of what a hotel should be. What I should expect from a hotel.”
If it was by chance that he discovered his fascination for hotels, a trip to Cebu would open an opportunity for Lee to translate this fascination to practice. After he sold his Yellow Cab shares in 2011, he found himself in Cebu. “I was with a friend, and then we passed by this hotel. It was for sale. I looked at it, I went inside, and I loved what I saw. I asked my friend to schedule a meeting with the owner. Then, I bought it. That was the start of The Henry.”
His initial foray to being a hotelier was a success, allowing him to expand and open his next hotel. While he and his family were having their house built, they went to Pasay to look for the studio and store of highly-accomplished interior designer Eric Paras. Eric lives in the compound where The Henry Hotel Manila now stands. “I remember, as we were driving inside the compound…” he shares, as he points to the renovated houses that surround the hotel, “It takes you back to a different time. It’s so different. It’s a sanctuary. Lo and behold, my friend owned this property. I was able to talk to the family.”
In retrospect, it was him being Hanky—his real name is Henry—that paved the way for his ideas to come to life. He knows when to grab an opportunity when it shows up under his nose. Also, Hanky lives the brands he promotes. Like The Henry, he celebrates the Philippines whether through words or his ventures, or through the little details, like wearing a boutonnière made from old bus tickets. He found the materials in a comiket (comic market) in Quezon City, and found an artisan to fashion them into a dandy’s accessory.
Hanky is balance personified. Spirited, yet never ostentatious. He loves seeing the world as much as he loves his country. He is practical, yet fun as the same time. Classic yet on the radar. Like his beverage of choice: the flat white. Like him, essentially, and The Henry. A short conversation with the man exposes an air of humility and cheerfulness, like he’s always taking the role of a gracious host.
We spent time with Mr. Lee, and asked him a few questions about his love for design and travel, as well as the international and local cities that shaped his worldview and his eye for design.
What is your favorite city in the world?
Stockholm is one of my favorite cities. I love the Swedish, Scandinavian designs. They are very clean, uncluttered, very straightforward. They use a lot of wood. It’s very warm.
What’s your favorite city in the Philippines?
Cebu is one of my favorite cities in the country because it’s very design-forward. I met a lot of exporters there [who are] as famous as Kenneth Cobonpue or Vito Selma. The aesthetic that they have is world-class. There’s another guy, Carlo Cordaro, and they’re really very good at what they do. What makes Cebu close to my heart is the people.
Did you ever consider a career in design, as you are very interested in the subject?
No. I think I was exposed to design during my travels. When you travel, you get to see different places. After a while, it kind of settles down to what you like and what you don’t like. So I’m that kind of person. I can’t say that I’m a purveyor of good design. I’m just like, when I see something and I like it, then for me that’s good design.
What are your must-haves when you travel?
Slippers and my toiletry kit. Slippers because—especially before when I would travel all over the Philippines—I don’t like to walk around barefoot because, well, it’s dirty? I like to wear slippers. I always bring my slippers. Rubber slippers. And then my toiletry kit.
Are you fashion-conscious?
When you travel, there’s a lot of walking involved. So the shoes really have to be comfortable, so I wear more sneakers. Then, the clothes I wear depend really on the weather. If it’s summer, then it’s shorts and t-shirts. I also do walk around in slippers. I think the operative word really for me there is comfort. Practicality.
What do you do during downtime?
Outside of work, I’m boring. I like to stay home and be with my family. I mean, they are my first priority. I have three children. I have a sixteen-, a fourteen-, and a 10-year-old. So they are really my priority. And weekends, when it’s my downtime, I like to spend it at home.
How do you bond with your family outside of your home?
Our primary bonding experience is traveling. We always look forward to trips. This December we are going to Vancouver City and Whistler.
Who decides where you go?
My wife decides where we go. But if it’s just the two of us, it’s a collaboration. We talk about it.
What is your family’s favorite city?
Outside of the Philippines, our favorite city as a family is Melbourne, Australia. Melbourne is a very compact city, so the central business district is just about, I think, six streets. It’s very walkable. And there are free trams that take you anywhere in the city. And they have very, very good coffee—very good coffee. And the cuisine is also good.
Are you a foodie?
I like hearty food. I can have pasta, sandwiches, I’m fine with that, as long as it’s good. I don’t consider myself a foodie. There are some people when they eat, they eat in Michelin-starred restaurants. I’m not one of those. I go for the local restaurants where the locals eat on a day-to-day basis. That’s how you get to know the place.
How do you take your coffee?
Flat white. No sugar. Well, it’s two: flat white and piccolo. If piccolo kasi it’s very small. I mean when you drink it, it’s done, diyahe ka na to stay in a place.
Are you on social media?
I am on social media. I’m just on Facebook and Instagram. But for business, yes I am very conscious. I look at our Instagram and Facebook. I look at what people post. I’m also active on this site called TripAdvisor [a travel and restaurant website company]. I monitor the reviews and the feedback of our guests. These feedbacks are not controlled. If the guest is happy, they’ll post. If the guest is unhappy, they’ll also post. For me, it’s real-time feedback.
Do you still read the news?
I don’t read the print version. I read the news online. Actually, it’s weird, now that Apple actually has a function that tells you how long you’ve been using the phone. I was shocked. It sends you a notification: I’m on my phone six hours a day of my waking time, which really for me is, “Wow.” Now, it’s less 20 percent. I’m down to five hours and something.
Portraits by Paul del Rosario