A Better Billionaire

These days, when you hear the terms “hotels,” “billionaire” and “net worth,” one particular person probably comes to mind.

I don’t want to talk about that person — at least not yet.

Instead, here’s someone much more worthy of our attention.

OK, in the interest of sticking to the facts, Harris Rosen is probably, in reality, a millionaire. We know this because, unlike a lot of self-proclaimed billionaires, he’s reasonably open with his financial statements. He owns a $500-million hotel and resort chain (seven properties) in the Orlando area and is an active philanthropist, having donated a large portion of his wealth to the education of underserved, low-income families — many who happen to work in hospitality at his hotels.

Rosen is not just another white man with a big ego and a thick wallet. If you’ve never been to Central Florida, you probably haven’t even heard of him.

I’m fortunate to have met him several times when I worked for my dad. He was a potential stakeholder and a big supporter of our proposed train connection between Orlando International Airport and International Drive, which is basically the doorstep of his two flagship properties. Much of him was stereotypical of a tycoon — his name was on everything; people tended to stop and acknowledge him like royalty when he walked by; meeting with him often required an appointment weeks in advance.

But there was something about how he spoke to us — stoically, quietly, kindly — that shattered any perception of pretension or intimidation. I think he was reasonably skeptical of us — two Georgia boys hoping to build the country’s first floating train. But he treated us with respect and generosity, comping us hotel rooms when they were available, and giving us deep discounts at his restaurants when we had to entertain out-of-town investors.

The fact is, he needed — and still needs — that train, which would give him an invaluable, direct connection to the airport. Rosen’s bread and butter is the International Drive district, which is packed with malls, restaurants, t-shirt stops, the Orlando Eye and other tourist traps, where people stay who generally can’t afford hotels on-site at Universal Studios or Walt Disney World. If Rosen had his way, the tourists wouldn’t even want to go to those overpriced theme parks — they could jump on a train at the airport, step off on I-Drive, and never have to leave the vicinity of his properties and investments.

Rosen likes to talk about how he got to where he is today, and in his defense, it’s an inspiring story. He started his career in hotel convention sales, and he ended up working for the Walt Disney Company in the early ’70s. Wikipedia says he left in 1974 due to an economic downturn, but to hear Mr. Rosen tell the story, he was tired of the bureaucracy already present in the Disney system. As director of hotel planning, he was told that he would never have an opportunity to advance in his career, as long as he worked for “the Mouse,” as he calls it.

So, he quit Disney and spent all his savings on purchasing the Quality Inn on I-Drive (now the Rosen Inn). He lived at the hotel full-time, because he was broke and could not afford an apartment. He hitchhiked to New York City, his hometown, to market his hotel and drum up business from potential travelers to Central Florida. He says the only way he got back to Florida was hitching a ride from a couple going on vacation, in return for a free hotel room.

He worked for the next two years in his hotel buffet restaurant carving the roast beef. He saved enough money to buy his second hotel, and then business slowly started to take off.

Fast-forward 40 years later, and he now owns seven properties and 6,300 hotel rooms — with no debt. That’s unheard of in luxury real estate. There are many strategic reasons why global firms carry debt, and I imagine you can learn all about them in business school. Our president’s plutocracy carries worlds of debt, though it’s unclear how much due to the murky business practices. But to carry NO debt and to own your assets outright like Harris Rosen is unmatched in modern real estate.

That, combined with the fact that he has invested tens of millions of dollars in his employees, makes Rosen a different kind of tycoon. He offers full scholarships for members of several communities around Orlando (many who work for him or family members of employees) for vocational school, college or university. As of last year, he had put 200 people through college. He has built preschools with his own money and currently funds the salaries of 50 teachers and administrators. The University of Central Florida opened the Rosen College of Hospitality Management in 2002, thanks to a $25 million and 20-acre donation from Mr. Rosen himself. Today, the school has 3,000 students who undergo state-of-the-art hospitality training. Most of them find immediate employment upon graduation, including some who land senior positions at the nearby theme parks, which Rosen considers his competition. This is a classic “win-win” situation — his employees flourish, and he reaps the benefits of an educated, stable base of driven workers who respect him.

So why did I wake up this morning and decide to write about Harris Rosen? If I can get politicky for just a brief second, I think our last election cycle has warped our nation’s perceptions of people with money.

Bernie Sanders ran on a platform focused on breaking up the big banks, stripping political power from the “millionayuhs and billionayuhs” of Wall Street and bringing it back to the regular citizen (“Main Street”). Hillary Clinton eventually matched Sanders on this, but her ties to Goldman Sachs and other big money lost her a lot of credibility. The loser who ultimately won the election is actually one of the rich guys Bernie was talking about bringing down, but he ended up winning over much of the white working class who, through persuasion and propaganda, were duped into voting against their own interests.

The fact is, regardless of party affiliation, the vast majority of Americans don’t relate to the wealthiest of the wealthy. Many of us resent the uber-rich, because they don’t know our story, so how could they care about the issues that matter to us? In the general election, it pitted a rich Democrat against a rich Democrat-turned-“Republican,” so most of us felt unrepresented (among a variety of other reasons). The alt-right looks up to our president as a “successful businessman” who can turn our country around. The far left calls bullshit on this (and the seven-figure loan he got from his dad), and furthermore sees super-wealth as a crippling problem in our government.

I guess what I’m getting around to is this — we shouldn’t let the current and recent political circus damage our overall perception of people with money.

Money is a funny thing. We all want a lot of it, but we tend to resent those who have a lot of it. Our commander-in-chief, who claims a net worth exceeding $10 billion, isn’t helping this perception. (For what it’s worth, Forbes magazine says it’s closer to $3.7 billion, while recent valuations by North Fork Bank ($1.2 billion) and Deutsche Bank ($788 million), based on his financial statements, tell a different story.)

But there are people out there — albeit, not enough people — who started from zero, and through years of hard work, made millions. Then, they did great things with the money for the betterment of society.

When we think of wealth and what it’s doing to our government, we also need to stop and smell the Rosen. If you go to I-Drive in Orlando, you’ll see his name on hotels, but you probably won’t hear much about him otherwise, because he has no need to compensate for or prove anything. Instead of being obsessed with winning popularity contests, making outrageous claims about wealth without any evidence and facing scrutiny for screwing people out of bogus college “degrees,” Rosen can point to hard facts that show the thousands of people he has helped put through college, seven hotels that stay perpetually full and a growing legacy that the media rarely talks about because it lacks a juicy, controversial storyline.

There are plenty of rich assholes out there, and then there are people like Rosen, who embodies the American dream of years past. Money is indeed the root of a lot of evil, but sometimes it’s refreshing to hear stories about people who didn’t let it go to their (orange) heads. As scarce as they may be these days, they’re still out there.

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