The One and Only

Hotel magnate Sol Kerzner (78) has no intention to slow down
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South Africa’s very first hotel magnate says as long as he is enjoying what he is doing, he will not consider retirement.

It is a Friday morning at Leeukoppie Estate, a sprawling property nestled on the mountain between Llandudno and Hout Bay outside Cape Town. I am told by the security guard to only drive up to where the road is tarred and proceed to the ‘main house’.

At the main house, I am greeted by Yvonne, who swiftly opens the door and offers me something to drink. Entering the lounge area, I am awestruck by the sweeping views of sea, forest and mountain. To my right the double wooden sliding doors are closed and I can just make out the familiar drawl that must be Sol Kerzner. I assume he must be in a meeting or on a conference call.

A friendly face peers around the corner and introduces himself. It’s Brandon, Kerzner’s son. He lets himself into the boardroom, greets everybody and walks off again.

A short while later, the big wooden doors open. Kerzner walks towards me and extends his hand to introduce himself. He is informally dressed in a white T-shirt and a pair of shorts. Grey hair frames his face and his blue eyes still glisten when he speaks of his passion for the hotel industry. He sits down and sips on a bottle of Perrier water. It’s obvious: at 77, there’s still a lot of fire in the belly of the biggest pioneer in the South African hospitality sector.

Kerzner is still passionate about what he does and says because of his love for his work – and being in the hotel industry for over 50 years, he sees no reason to start diversifying.

As chairman of Kerzner International, he is hands-on with the planning and execution of new developments and hotels for the company.

“I still continue to be very much involved in the running of the company, despite the fact that I handed over the reigns as Chief Executive Officer to Alan Leibman in  2012. Alan has been with the company for eighteen years, so he really deserves to be where he is today. Apart from my involvement on all new developments for the company, I still travel to visit new destinations, which could be suitable for either a One&Only or Atlantis Resort," he said. 

“At the moment, we have a One&Only being developed in China, which is due for development soon. We are also exploring possible sites for a new Atlantis resort in China. For those who don’t know, One&Only and Atlantis are two different brands within one company – Kerzner International,” he told Leadership.

So what does the rest of 2013 hold for him? He lets out a loud chuckle. “Nobody knows what 2013 holds and it would be nice if we knew. Right now, what we do know is that the economy seems to be a little better in different parts of the world. Some parts of the world are still struggling."

“We have taken the view that putting the effort into China at this point in time makes a lot of sense. We have some great properties from as far as Mexico, the Maldives and in South Africa and we just think that it’s important to build from what is a great brand with a limited number of units—there are only seven resorts at present, but we are hoping to build at least three or four new One&Only’s.”

Kerzner rates his biggest accomplishment of 2012 as ‘staying alive’ – the global recession made everybody feel the pinch; hence the ‘staying alive’ in hotel occupancy.

“The last couple of years have been tough in terms of business not being completely back to normal after the global recession,” Kerzner laments. “In 2012, we had also just come out of a restructuring of the company, which is always quite challenging. I think our sales for the year had not been that different than we expected. But we are looking to the future and our aim this year is to get construction going in China. We are also looking at building two resorts in the Middle East and one in Europe. I don’t want to be more specific than that before the management contracts have been signed.”

Apart from hard work, what does Kerzner attribute his success to? “It’s also a question of how you define success,” he responds. “In terms of the business, I think it is dedication. I love the business I’m in, I’m really dedicated to it and I enjoy working. I put a lot of time into it. It’s been good to me.”

Asking Kerzner about his favourite hotel, he says it’s a very tough question to answer. “Obviously the Atlantis properties are a lot more complex, as they are so much bigger. Besides a normal hotel with its different facets - food and beverage and service - Atlantis is just a different animal. With One&Only, we’d like to be the best in the destinations where we operate. It’s challenging just trying to make sure that they are One&Only, in other words that they are the best, wherever we built them."

"With Atlantis, we are building so much more than the hotel—it’s the creation of a total entertainment destination and we want to be the best in that region. Atlantis has a broad and diverse market and the resort offers many different experiences to the various guests that go there. Apart from the One&Only in Cape Town, there are no current plans to expand the brand into other provinces in South Africa. I just think that the South African market isn’t big enough to support a project the size of Atlantis.”

As a frequent traveller, Kerzner has his pick of places to stay and when he stays at one of his resorts, he says he is not the ‘normal guest’. “I am a guest when I go to a hotel that I’m not involved in. When I go to New York where we have no hotels, I always end up staying at the same place. I’m not trying to test the market. I stay there because I’m comfortable. As for hotels we’ve built, I don’t like to talk about favourites – they’re like my kids - I love them all. Building places like Sun City, building places like Atlantis; I guess it’s more complex. I try to think that I enjoyed building each and every one of the projects.”

However, Leeukoppie is one of his favourite places in the world. “Look at this view; it doesn’t get much better than this,” he says, pointing to the ocean and the blue yonder. “I am fortunate enough to own one of the great estates in the Cape. I just love being here in Cape Town.”

His home in Hout Bay rates as the place he calls home. “Being South African and always feeling very South African, I think of this as home. I can’t say that I don’t think of London as home as well, because London is where I have based myself since 1987 when I relocated to get the business going offshore. After I moved to London, I still built the Lost City at Sun City.”

Having met hordes of celebrities in his illustrious career, Sol singles out his friendship with singer Frank Sinatra as a lasting kinship and describes ‘old blue eyes’ as being really humble. “Frank specially came out to do a concert for us at Sun City. We remained great friends until the day he passed away. As far as the other superstars go, I found most of them to be terrific. I’ve had the opportunity of meeting a lot of folks and I just find that most of them are really nice. They are some of my very close friends.”

Does he have any plans to retire? Kerzner looks pensive for a moment and then, with a charming smile; “For the moment, I am really enjoying this. So as long as I’m enjoying this, I think I won’t really consider retirement.”

 Building cities and islands

  • Kerzner was born on 23 August 1935 in Johannesburg. He began his hospitality career in 1962.
  • He built South Africa’s first five-star graded hotel, the Beverly Hills Hotel, in Durban, which opened in 1964. In the same year he built the 450-room Elangeni Hotel, overlooking Durban’s beachfront.
  • In 1969, in partnership with South African Breweries, he established the chain of Southern Sun Hotels. Kerzner opened his first hotel outside South Africa, Le Saint Géran, in Mauritius in 1975. 
  • In 1979 he developed Sun City, the most ambitious resort project in Africa. Over a period of ten years, Sun City included: four hotels, a man-made lake, two Gary Player golf courses and an entertainment centre with an indoor 6 000-seat multi-purpose arena in which he presented many superstars including Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli and Shirley Bassey. Sun City was also the venue for many World Title fights.
  • In 1994 he hosted the VIP function by President Nelson Mandela’s Presidential Inauguration. Later in 1994 Kerzner made his first major acquisition outside Africa through the purchase of the Paradise Island Resort in the Bahamas. Kerzner launched a major redevelopment and expansion programme, which transformed Atlantis, Paradise Island into a 2 300-room resort, which included one of the world’s largest man-made marine habitats and the Caribbean’s biggest casino. In 1996 Kerzner opened the hugely successful Mohegan Sun in Connecticut and in 2000 he opened the second phase of the project including a 1 200-room hotel. The property is one of the largest gaming and entertainment complexes in the US. 
  • In 2002, Kerzner launched One&Only Resorts. Created exclusively for the luxury resort market, One&Only resorts are conceived as hallmarks of excellence. Set in some of the most beautiful locations in the world, each award-winning resort offers guests a distinctive style and personality born of its local culture, a genuine hospitality and a lively energy that is unparalleled. These seven properties include the spectacular One&Only Reethi Rah (Maldives), One&Only Le Saint Géran (Mauritius), One&Only Royal Mirage (Dubai), One&Only Ocean Club (Bahamas), One&Only Palmilla (Los Cabos, Mexico), One&Only (Cape Town) and One&Only The Palm (Dubai). A new One&Only, Sanya, is under construction on Hainan Island in China.
  • In early 2007, Kerzner expanded Atlantis, Paradise Island with new boutique hotels, The Cove and The Reef, which added 1 100 new rooms to the property. Kerzner extended the Atlantis brand globally in 2008 with the development of Atlantis, The Palm, Dubai.
  • In 2010 Kerzner’s true passion for hospitality was recognized by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II by confirming that Sol Kerzner was invested with the insignia of the Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George (KCMG) for his outstanding and exemplary contributions in the areas of business and community in the Bahamas. 
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