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Staying Power

Horst Schulze overcame an impoverished childhood and life-threatening cancer to become one of the most heralded hoteliers in the industry

Jill Becker

Horst Schulze describes his newest hotel property, the lush Capella Pedregal in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, as a gorgeous painting that you want to look at and admire over and over. The CEO of the Atlanta-based Capella Hotels and Resorts is the Michelangelo of the hotel industry. His company is responsible for some of the most beautiful and opulent accommodations in the world, from the plush Setai in New York City to the elegant Breidenbacher Hof in Düsseldorf. But Schulze’s childhood growing up in war-torn Germany hardly heralded such wealth and luxury.

“There was nothing,” says Schulze, who was only a toddler during World War II when his father was required to fight at the front. His family lived off the land near their small German village, spending days in the forest foraging for berries, nuts and whatever else they could find. “We relied on things nature gave us,” he says. Times were so tough that each Christmas he and his brother would receive the same rewrapped gift from the previous year.

Worrying about whether there’d be enough food on the table is what attracted Schulze to the hospitality industry. He’d never even set foot in a hotel, but at age 11, he told his parents that’s where he wanted to work. He figured a hotel was a place you could always get a hot meal.

His parents balked at the idea, preferring that he become a doctor or lawyer or even a mason. “My family was embarrassed,” Schulze says. “They thought that my working in a hotel didn’t have honor.” But Schulze was determined, and at age 14, he quit school, packed his bags and traveled the hundred or so miles to the nearest luxury hotel to become an apprentice. He worked in the hotel restaurant as a busboy for three years, learning the tricks of the trade and sleeping each night in a tiny room with five other employees. “Having never been in a hotel before, I found it a little overwhelming,” Schulze recalls. Yet he worked hard—even going to hotel school one night a week—and managed to find a valued mentor along the way.

“A key influence on my life there was the maître d’. He was an exceptional man,” Schulze says. “All of the diners there were very important people, but it was clear that when this man was in the restaurant, he was the most important man in the room. He didn’t just go to work; he went to work to be exceptional.”

The concept of creating excellence was magical for Schulze. He wrote an essay about the maître d’ for school, praising his remarkable approach toward customer service. (“It was the only ‘A’ I ever got,” Schulze jokes.) One passage from his school paper proved especially fortuitous: “We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen,” Schulze scribbled, referring to a concept that is at the crux of his philosophy and business model to this day.

On the Move

From there, Schulze traveled around, taking seasonal work at top hotels across Europe, including the Savoy in London and Plaza Athénée in Paris. In 1964 he moved to the United States to take a job at a Houston hotel.

The job in Texas didn’t last long (it was the middle of summer, and there was no air conditioning, which Schulze found “barbaric”), so he packed up and moved to San Francisco, where a friend had told him about a job in a restaurant. At age 25, Schulze told himself it was time to quit jumping around and start getting serious about his career.

Less than two decades later, he had moved up the chain of command in companies such as Hyatt and was in charge of the newly formed Ritz-Carlton Group, now one of the most recognized hotel names in the world. Under Schulze’s leadership, Ritz-Carlton was repeatedly named the best hotel company in the world for its unparalleled standard of sophistication and service. Schulze himself received an honorary doctorate in hospitality management from Johnson & Wales University, was named Corporate Hotelier of the World by Hotels magazine and was awarded the prestigious Ishikawa Medal for his contributions to the quality movement.

One of the ways Schulze helped revolutionize the business while at Ritz-Carlton was to focus as much on the food as he did on the rooms and amenities. He successfully set out to attract several Michelin-starred chefs from Europe to work at his hotels. Schulze also stood out for empowering every one of his employees—no matter their rank or occupation—to do whatever was necessary to please guests.

“A human being is not a chair or a phone,” Schulze says. “You have to train them and motivate them and create an environment where the employees are part of something. You have to enable people to be part of the dream.” It’s all part of what Schulze refers to as “the art of service.”

“We respond to whatever our customers want,” Schulze says, unwaveringly, “as long as it’s legal, moral and ethical.”

Against the Odds

Eleven years into his tenure at Ritz-Carlton, Schulze was delivered some devastating news. He had a rare and aggressive form of cancer, and his doctors didn’t hold out much hope, telling him that the disease would most likely take him within a year. But Schulze wasn’t ready to leave behind his wife and two young daughters—or his life’s work. “In that moment, you concede or you fight,” Schulze says. So he began investigating his options, ultimately deciding to have surgery to remove the tumor, but opting to go the alternative medicine route rather than undergo chemotherapy. “The thing was, I had to take action myself,” Schulze insists. An acquaintance recommended he go see a Japanese healer, who told Schulze that if he went on a super-restrictive macrobiotic diet for a year he would be cancer-free. “It put tears in my eyes,” Schulze says of having to eat a menu of nothing but brown rice and steamed vegetables. “No bread, no sugar, no salt, no oil. Nothing.” After a while, as an occasional treat he was allowed two slices of bread with sauerkraut and tofu.

The sacrifice seems to have paid off, though, because 17 years later, Schulze is cancer-free and still going strong.

When asked whether he felt the need to slow down after his cancer scare, Schulze remarked, “It never occurred to me. We are put here to do something, to create something. Happiness is tied to creating excellence in whatever we’re doing, and I couldn’t give that up.” So a week after his surgery, Schulze was back at work, eventually adding a seat on the board of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America to his impressive résumé.

At the top of his game and in tiptop shape (the macrobiotic diet had helped lower both his blood pressure and cholesterol), Schulze retired from Ritz-Carlton in 2001. It was a Friday. “All weekend long I kept thinking about what I should have done differently. But that painting had been painted,” Schulze recalls. “So I told my wife I wanted to start a new company.”

“You’re crazy,” she replied.

At age 63, Horst Schulze started over, forming the West Paces Hotel Group—a hotel management company and consulting firm. But managing other people’s properties wasn’t enough. Thus, Capella Hotels and Resorts was born.

Through Capella (named after the brightest star in the constellation Auriga), Schulze can concentrate on building hotels from the ground up, in exactly the way he wants them to be built. The five deluxe properties already bearing the Capella name will soon be joined by over-the-top accommodations in Washington, D.C.; Mexico; Japan; Russia and Thailand. The plan is to double Capella’s portfolio by the end of 2013.

Already, his hotels, like the Capella Singapore, with its opulent suites overlooking the South China Sea, are garnering record numbers in guest satisfaction and retention.

“We’re doing something special. We’re created that way,” says Schulze, who still believes the magic in life lies in creating excellence.

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