February 12, 2007

Hilton

And the man behind the brand is...
Conrad Hilton

The first Hilton hotel was set up by Conrad Hilton in his family’s adobe home in
San Antonio, New Mexico in 1907. Business reversals in his father’s general store necessitated the conversion of six of the rooms in the house into quarters for transient lodgers. Hilton, then 19, worked all day in the store and went to the train station at 1:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. to meet the train and solicit guests. Room and board was $2.50 a day.

Slowly the Hilton family’s financial health was restored. By 1912 Hilton became interested in politics, winning a position in the state legislature just when the New Mexico Territory was accepted into statehood. He introduced nine bills which became New Mexico law but on balance found politics confining and frustrating. He came back home after two years.

Hilton decided San Antonio needed a bank. He organized a syndicate to establish the town’s first bank but the shareholders rewarded him by electing an aged former banker from Illinois as president and made Conrad Hilton a cashier. He began maneuvering for control of the bank. It wasn’t much of a bank,
but he had started it.

Hilton wrested control of the bank from the board of directors but there wasn’t much time to savor the victory. He wore out hot, dusty Texas roads tracking down new depositors and then World War I shattered his plans for a garland of New Mexico banks. Hilton was off to France to serve in the Army.

In 1919, following the death of his father in an automobile accident, Hilton returned from the army. He left for Cisco, Texas looking to buy an interest in a bank. When the slow pace of negotiations forced him to stay overnight he found all the hotels in town overbooked. Instead of a bank Hilton wound up making a deal for a hotel, the 40-room Mobley Hotel.

It didn’t take Hilton long to become a hotel man. He surveyed every inch of The Mobley to eliminate non-revenue generating space. He sawed the front desk in half and added a shop; he ripped out the dining room a nd spaced it off into bedrooms; he rented his own bed and slept on a leather chair in his office.

A few months later he purchased the Melba in Fort Worth, and in 1920 he added the 140-room Waldorf in Dallas. In 1925 Hilton committed himself to building a million-dollar hotel in Dallas, the first hotel to carry his name.
When the Depression hit Hilton controlled eight hotels. It was too much.

In 1931 Hilton defaulted on a $300,000 loan. His creditors hired him to manage his lost hotels but it was a turbulent business marriage. Nine months
later the business arrangement disintegrated into legal matters. Hilton eventually emerged from the Depression with five of his eight hotels; by 1937 he was free of debt.

Hilton began in earnest to take advantage of depressed hotel properties.
In the next few years he took control of the Sir Francis Drake in San Francisco,
the Town House in Los Angeles, the Roosevelt and Plaza in New York and the Stevens and Palmer House in Chicago. In 1946 the Hilton Hotels Corporation was formed, the first hotel company to have its stock listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Hilton cherished tradition. With each of these great houses he recognized an obligation to retain the atmosphere and individuality which gave it its prestige.
In 1949 he realized a life-long dream with the purchase of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, America’s greatest hotel. In 1954 Hilton executed the largest hotel merger in history, purchasing the Statler hotel chain for $111,000,000.
Hilton clinched the deal by pleading with the widow Statler to keep the great
hotels in “the hands of hotel people.”

Hilton turned the presidency of Hilton Hotels over to his son, Barron, in 1966. The next year Barron Hilton persuaded his father to swap his Hilton International stock for TWA stock. The stock plummeted by half in the next 18 months and the 80-year old Hilton lost the rights to his name overseas.

Conrad Hilton became the world’s premier hotelier by acquiring America’s most prestigious hotels. Only a handful ever carried his name. He assiduously avoided resort hotels and eschewed gambling houses. But under his son the Hilton name was franchised and the Las Vegas Hilton and Flamingo Hilton were purchased. When Conrad Hilton died in 1979 at the age of 91 the hotel-casinos were responsible for nearly 40¢ of every $1.00 Hilton profit. The business he had built proudly on the grandest hotel rooms in the world was being supported by roulette wheels and blackjack tables.

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