If you have grown up with the hotel industry surging through your veins, no doubt you will be no stranger to these three names. Charles Forte, Sol Kerzner and Conrad Hilton. I have worked for one of them, recruited for another and met the great grand daughter of the third. Mind you, I recon that Conrad Hilton would turn in his grave if he saw the antics of Paris !

Three icons of our time. Their influence on the modern hotel industry can be measured by some of the most majestic hotels and resorts in the world. The Hilton Group, Forte Hotels and One and Only.

What was it that made these three so successful and influential?  Certainly not by inheriting anything materially significant. It takes more than luck and financial backing to build these empires. So what personal attributes do these three gentlemen have in common?

  1. 1.      Succeed or starve ( drive and a strong work ethic)

The Hilton family owned a general store in new Mexico USA. Charles Forte was the son of Italian immigrants to the UK who were so poor they had to leave Italy for better opportunities in Scotland opening an Ice Cream business. Sol Kerzners Father was a Russian immigrant born in Troyville Johannesburg – no silver spoon there.

All three worked for family businesses from a young age. These small enterprises taught them about customer service, control, sales and the value of hard work. One simple business philosophy learned, if you can run one property at a profit the same could be replicated elsewhere with a product that people love.

Those who have worked for Kerzner, Forte or Hilton will tell you about their uncompromising drive for perfection in all aspects of their business. They had little time for much else in their lives. Excluding Conrad’s penchant for film stars and Sol’s weakness for beauty queens. They worked long hours and expected everyone around them to do the same. It was almost like survival for them.


  1. 2.      Passion and Vision for the hotel industry

Everyone talks about passion, but unless it is channelled in the right direction and contains action, it’s just big talk.

Hilton was known for ensuring that each hotel in the group fitted the personality of it’s country and city. Hilton was the first international hotel chain and promulgated a certain worldwide standard of hotel accommodation. His 1957 hotel building policy was to bridge the gap between luxurious personal service and the necessity of keeping the price reasonable.

Kerzner famously flew in a helicopter over the Pilansburg and pointed to a spot that became Sun City. He had the ability to conceive and build some of the greatest modern hotels and resorts of our generation

Forte loved aristocratic hotels such as the Savoy and Grosvenor hotels in London. He was determined to purchase the Savoy and eventually did. His reasoning was that he could not stand to see such a fine hotel run so badly

  1. 3.      Independent thought ( not dancing to anyone else’s tune)

All three were incredibly disciplined individuals with an independent and creative view of how they wanted things to be done.

Sol Kerzner is known as being uncompromising when it comes to hotel development and has been known to knock down whole sections of buildings to correct errors. He has an uncanny eye for detail whether it be construction or balance sheets. Adele Lucas said of Sol “ he wasn’t flashy” “ he didn’t eat foi gras, he ate hamburgers. He had tremendous energy. He did not work to make money, he worked because he loved the hotel business. He was always great fun but, of course, he liked things the way he liked them”

Conrad Hilton was never easily deterred from an ambitious project. He was an highly disciplined man who had not only a strong faith in God but also in his own ability. Though certainly more humble than Sol and less ruthless, he was equally uncompromising when it came to a deal.

Charles Forte was often criticised for running a mass catering operation. He was never deterred by his rival’s sentiments, these critics having to eat humble pie when Forte bought controlling stakes in their hotel groups.


  1. 4.      Surrounding themselves with great people

These three gents were aware that they could never run their business without hiring the best.

Conrad Hilton management plan in 1947 included that they must hire good managers and give them the authority they need ( unusual for the day) and to train and develop good management and staff in order to maintain standards and progress. He was famously loyal to his managers. When he lost everything during the great depression, he was lent $15 by his concierge as he left his office for the last time. This was never forgotten and that Concierge became a top manager with Hilton when Conrad bought his hotels back

Sol Kerzner would pay top rates for the best advisors, lawyers, designers and builders as well as managers. He would drive them relentlessly hard. And was either loved or disliked but always admired. To open a hotel with Sol was an incredible journey.

Lord Forte developed the largest hotel group in the world, over 800 hotels in the early 1980’s. The group developed measurable management development programs and groomed managers by further education and new challenges. He tended to nurture talent rather than simply buy it.


  1. 5.      Persistence and Courage in the face of adversity   

Conrad Hilton lost his entire fortune during the American depression of the 1920’s. When the markets crashed he walked out of his business without a dollar in his pocket. He was retained as a manager at one of his hotels and persisted until he bought back all 7 of the hotels he lost.

Charles Forte was arrested as a prisoner of war in the UK after the Italians joined world war two. When he was released, he returned to his business in a bombed out London. He eventually got his British citizen ship became a lord and built a hotel empire. He never gave up living to the ripe old age of 98.

Sol Kerzner is probably facing one of his greatest challenges now with the world wide recession. He may have lost the bricks and mortar of his hotels and resorts but has started a management company to run them. This was the same decision that Conrad Hilton made and no doubt we will see Sol fight every step of the way.

So it’s simple. Be born into a dirt poor family. Work hard instead of starving to death. Find something you love to do. Think creatively and know how to implement your ideas. Find some good people to work for you and never give up. This coupled with your ability to get others to believe in you and lend you money should make you a Kerzner, Hilton or Forte.

Five things and a little luck perhaps.