Beginning 41 years ago with the purchase of a former Quality Inn, Harris Rosen single-handedly built Rosen Hotels & Resorts into an award-winning seven-hotel chain with some 6,500 total rooms and 3,500 employees in the Orlando, Fla., area.
In an industry known for high turnover, the native New Yorker has secured the loyalty of many longtime staffers, due in large part to some of the best employee benefits in the country:
• Free college education for workers and their children.
• A robust health care plan that includes a wellness program and a private clinic with its own doctors and nurses.
• A shares-of-success financial rewards program for employees.
Rosen’s philanthropic contributions include the endowment of a hospitality school at the University of Central Florida, the redevelopment of a blighted area in Haiti and the establishment of early-childhood education in Orlando’s underserved Tangelo Park neighborhood.
But it’s not all business for this entrepreneur. An avid traveler, Rosen has been nose-to-nose with a giant sea turtle in the Galapagos and with hammerhead sharks off the Ecuadorian coast.
SUCCESS asked the septuagenarian what keeps him so energetic and involved.
Q: You were raised on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. How did that shape your views about work?
A: I grew up for 17 years in pretty much that same neighborhood, a couple of blocks from the Bowery and Chinatown, and that had a lot to do with who I am today. Millions of others like me took advantage of the opportunities that we find here in America. I was the first one in my family to attend college. I was accepted into Cornell. In the freshmen dorm, guys would ask me to get on the phone and talk “New Yawk” to their parents. That was sort of the Ivy League experience, and what a transition that was. Then after the military, I applied for a job at the Waldorf Astoria.
Q: Did you get interested in the hospitality industry as a young kid when you would visit your dad who worked as a safety engineer at the Waldorf?
A: You would bump into famous people. I met Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Jackie Robinson. One day—and this is what got me interested in the hotel business—the most incredibly beautiful lady I’d ever seen in my life was there. I said to myself, If I could meet someone like Marilyn Monroe in an elevator in a hotel, I gotta go into that business.
Q: You spent some time developing hotels for Disney. Why did you leave?
A: I did a lot of the planning and created a lot of the operational procedures. The hotels did beautifully from day one. I was told, “Harris, you’ve done a magnificent job, but we’ve come to the conclusion that you will never really become a top Disney executive.” I just had a hard time being in that corporate environment. I made up my mind that never again would I work for a large organization. Even if I was selling hot dogs from a stand, I would have to be my own boss.
Q: What do you think it takes to create a winning customer service experience, especially in the hospitality industry?
A: It’s about service, amenities… it’s about everything. You have to love what you’re doing. If you’re not really thrilled about helping folks, making them happy, trying to go above and beyond and making sure it goes well with their group, their banquet, their bar mitzvah or whatever it is, then this is not the business for you. It’s a tremendous amount of hard work but also a tremendous amount of satisfaction.
Q: How would you describe the culture at Rosen Hotels & Resorts?
A: We don’t have much bureaucracy. I don’t really believe in organizational charts. My office is where it’s been for the last 41 years, in the first hotel that I bought. I think we certainly respect the organization, but I think people feel absolutely free to discuss whatever they want to. I know the names of many of my associates, and I love to walk around the hotels and chat with them. They know that my office is always available.
Q: How do you stay competitive as a small company?
A: I don’t necessarily believe that there’s a formula or secret. You just have to work harder than they do. I’ve always believed that I can outwork almost anyone, and at my age, I’m still doing it. I think our health care plan is the best in America. You work for me for three years, and your kids can go to college here in Florida for free; after five years, my employees have that option as well. We have a shares-of-success program. People appreciate that.
Q: Was it hard building your business from the ground up?
A: If I was going to survive, I had to work 24/7 and do as many jobs as was humanly possible. I was the general manager. I was the director of sales. I did the breakfast cooking, the carving of meat with my chef, all of the night runs. If somebody had a stopped-up toilet at 3 or 4 in the morning, they called me. I was security. I was the gardener. The money I saved by doing five or six or seven jobs was my cash flow.
Q: Can someone have a nontraditional background at your company?
A: We like to hire people who have completed college. Because of my own military experience, we love to hire individuals who have served. But there’s not a cookie-cutter kind of a Rosen associate. We have tremendous diversity with about a third of our associates [coming] from Haiti. Anyone who demonstrates enthusiasm, who genuinely loves people and wants to serve, that’s who we’re looking for.
Q: What would you like to tell us about your philanthropic work?
A: As I was becoming more successful, I kind of thought that maybe one day I would provide scholarships to individuals who needed a helping hand. I think that was the genesis. If you’re going to take on the kind of projects that we have, it does require some resources. When you have that desire and you have the means, it’s the perfect opportunity. If every disadvantaged neighborhood in the United States of America had a sponsor, someone who would create a Tangelo Park program, we would not recognize ourselves in 10 or 15 years—and that’s my dream.