Hotel magnate Sol Kerzner quits but not retiring

Posted On Monday, 14 April 2014 09:53 Published by
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Sol Kerzner is not retiring, even though the 78-year-old hotel magnate has sold out of the group that made him a global powerhouse and spawned some of the world's best-recognised hospitality brands.

Sol Kerzner

The "Sun King"  sold his family interests in the group he started 20 years ago when he moved from South Africa to London  Kerzner International Holdings to Dubai's Investment Corporation.

Kerzner was pivotal in putting SA on the tourist map. He developed some of the country's top hotel brands: first Southern Sun and Sun International, and then the projects that catapulted him into the league of hotel tycoon, Sun City and The Palace of the Lost City.

Based in London, he developed the flagship Atlantis brand, which attracted global attention from the day the first lavish hotel opened in the Bahamas in 1994 with the world's biggest man-made aquarium (another opened in Dubai in 2008).

It became the kind of place where the rich and famous go to get married, retreat when things get tough and to be photographed for Hello magazine.

One & Only is the elegant upmarket offering on the coastlines of the Maldives, Mexico, the Bahamas, South Africa and soon Australia.

Kerzner is one of the most colourful, contentious and successful businessmen South Africa has produced. With 50 years of big projects, bold moves and making billions and nearly losing much of them he has been described as South Africa's Donald Trump.

He has become bigger news and more of a celebrity than some of the stars he's worked with over the years. He throws grand parties and has spectacular hotel openings. He has four previous wives (including a Miss World, Anneline Kriel), supermodel girlfriends and allegations of bribery from back in the days of the bantustans. He is prominent on London's social and philanthropic scene.

So what now for this notoriously hard worker, known to be a hard taskmaster with a relentless eye for detail? He will open an office in London, and has been approached to do a few "consulting jobs", though this might be a euphemism.

"It's the end of one chapter . I'm a little older now and you can't think one would achieve what I've done over the last 50 years, but I'm not ready to retire," he said, speaking from London's Mayfair.

One reason for his move to London was that he wanted to go international. He says it was difficult to get established there because of the anti-apartheid movement and being South African.

But he succeeded. He was the first non-American to be inducted into the US Gaming Hall of Fame. He received an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth after being nominated by the Bahamas government as the largest employer in that country.

Kerzner says that when he started out in hotels he was a "boring accountant" for a firm in Durban, but he knew then that wasn't where his future lay.

His first opportunity, at 29, was to develop the Beverly Hills Hotel in Durban, but back in 1964 many did not believe he would succeed because he was a young kid, spending too much money. The Beverly Hills became the first five-star hotel in the country.

At that time Kerzner had never been overseas. So, while the hotel was being developed, he headed for Miami and New York to see what was on offer. When he landed in Miami in 1963 he got a taxi driver to show him every hotel on the strip.

By two in the morning he was satisfied that he'd seen everything. He was confident that what he was doing back home could hold its own anywhere. Kerzner does not like to talk of favourite brands or hotels, like a father not wanting to prefer one child above another.

But he has a soft spot for his first venture, the Beverly Hills, and loved conceptualising The Palace of the Lost City.

"I think The Palace, to this day, is one of the finest masterpieces in hotels."  Much has been made of his "cozy" relationship with bantustan leaders in the 1980s. Some imply that favours were peddled for exclusive casino licences, and he left South Africa under a cloud of bribery and corruption allegations.

 Kerzner explains it like this: The biggest investment he had made at the time was the R7 million Elangeni Hotel in Durban. The first phase of Sun City was R35-million, "which doesn't sound like a lot now, but it was then".

He met Lucas Mangope, president of the bantustan Bophuthatswana, and his cabinet, and made a presentation of Sun City concepts: hotels, a monorail, lake and golf course.

"After we presented, he and the cabinet were blown over. That's the reason we got the casino concession. It was a huge investment at the time."

Kerzner says it was only a matter of time before he exited the London business. He initially saw it as a family business, and his son Butch took over as CEO in 2004 (Sol stayed on as chairman).

They took the business private in September 2006 in a $3.8-billion buyout, but Butch died in a helicopter crash a month later while surveying the Caribbean for potential hotel sites.

US casino and property developer Donald Trump called Butch a "great visionary". "He was one of the few sons who was able to stand up in terms of talent to a great father, and you don't see that much in my business," he said in the LA Times.

"I always thought of it as a family business," said Kerzner, "but with Butch gone I realised it wasn't going to be a family business. There was no one who could fill his spot."

Kerzner's selling out comes at a point where the group is developing phase2 of Atlantis, The Palm, in Dubai. Several new One & Only hotels have been opened, and others are being planned.

He has no assets in South Africa other than his house in Hout Bay, renowned for New Year bashes, and he plans no developments in South Africa.

Kerzner and Nelson Mandela were firm friends. Kerzner was famously asked to help organise Mandela's inauguration, which he did. So has he made any big mistakes?

"Obviously you can't be in business for 50 years and say I'd never do anything different. I've always believed that when you're in business you're going to make mistakes the only thing is try to avoid the big ones.

He says much of his drive is comes from his parents, Lithuanian Jews who emigrated to South Africa and worked seven days a week, first running a cafe in Johannesburg and then a modest kosher hotel in Durban. "I've had a ball. Every day I've gone to work and had fun and enjoyed the ride."

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