x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Man from Atlantis

Sunday Interview The developer of Atlantis speaks about his business, his health and his biggest loss.

Sol Kerzner, the developer of Atlantis in Dubai, built his first self-contained hotel resort in South Africa in 1964.
Sol Kerzner, the developer of Atlantis in Dubai, built his first self-contained hotel resort in South Africa in 1964.

The developer of the Dubai hotel speaks to Philippa Kennedy about his business, his health and his biggest loss Amid the razzamatazz and excitement of the $20 million (Dh73m) "party of the decade", Sol Kerzner will surely have been thinking about the one face missing from the array of stars on the red carpet. His beloved son and heir, Howard "Butch" Kerzner, was killed in a helicopter crash two years ago and Thursday night's celebrations were a particularly poignant time.

Butch, who had been the CEO of Kerzner International for two years before his tragic death, was surveying potential development sites in the Dominican Republic when the Robinson 44 helicopter in which he was travelling crashed into a building in bad weather, killing all four people on board. Kerzner was devastated. At the age of 70, he had handed over the day-to-day running of the firm to his 42-year-old son and was enjoying a less frenetic working life planning new projects and spending time travelling with his wife, Heather. Within weeks, he was back at the helm of the company and last week saw the spectacular official opening of the project that meant so much to Butch.

"I guess that's just about the worst thing that can happen to anybody. But you've just got to box on," Kerzner says simply, using the terminology of the welterweight boxing champion he once was. "I had handed over to Butch and he was the CEO so I had to really think hard about whether I wanted to go back because I had really just been doing the planning and development stuff and Butch ran the company. It took me a couple of weeks to step back and decide. I asked the board to give me some time and I thought there was nothing I could do about what had occurred so I decided that, from a lot of different standpoints, I should come back as the CEO just for a period of time. I really wanted to get this Atlantis project off the ground and we had two big projects in the Bahamas, The Cove and The Reef, which opened six months later."

There's a weariness about the pugnacious and colourful hotelier these days that has nothing to do with energy and, although he appears as driven as ever, one can sense that his son is never far from his thoughts, although they were utterly different in character. The gruff and often taciturn Sol has never been known for his diplomacy, whereas the charismatic Butch was quieter, more thoughtful and hugely popular within the company.

Kerzner pauses, momentarily struggling for words as he remembers the weeks and months after Butch's death, which saw him close to death himself. "Yeah, you never really stop thinking too much but you have to carry on and the best way to do that is to move on." His way of dealing with this overwhelming grief was to plunge himself back into work, driving himself to such an extent that he ended up in hospital. He buried his son on a Friday, and 24 hours later he was on a plane to Singapore to give a presentation that Butch had planned to make in an attempt to persuade government officials to grant the company a licence to build a casino. Butch's voice was on the video he used and, although Kerzner made a strong bid, the application failed. Three weeks later, Kerzner collapsed while running on his treadmill. Surgeons told him that he needed immediate surgery to clear blockages in his heart.

"They diagnosed me on a Tuesday and by Thursday morning I'd had the surgery. The doctors weren't sure if there was one, two or three blockages but it turned out to be a triple bypass. It was one of these things that you've got to get done and the sooner they can do it the better. It took a little time to recover from that," he says. While it doesn't appear to have slowed him up, he is careful of his health now. He used to smoke 60 cigarettes a day, but gave up smoking after his first heart attack in 1983.

"The cardiologist told me I was wasting his time because I'd be going back and smoking and I never did," he says. Heather, 37, is with him this week, along with his daughters and his younger son who flew in for the party. His daughter Chantal, 29, runs the boutiques business for the One&Only branded hotels and lives in London. Andrea, 47, jointly runs the family funds with Sol in New York. Beverly, 46, lives partly in New York and partly in a small village in India and is not involved with the company. His son Brandon, 32, lives in South Africa and helps oversee the family estate.

Kerzner speaks touchingly of his fourth wife, who is 25 years his junior and younger than two of his daughters. His first marriage to Maureen Adler (mother to Butch, Beverly and Andrea) ended in divorce. His second wife, Shirley Besthier committed suicide in 1978. His third marriage, to Anneline Kriel, a former Miss World, ended in divorce after four years. A high profile romance in the 1990s with the statuesque model Christina Estrada ended when he suddenly married Heather, one of her friends.

"Heather is wonderful. She is the most wonderful girl who has made a huge difference to my life. She's been a great supporter of the business side. Right here on this launch she has been very helpful to me. She gives me some great advice and she's got superb instincts, not just decor but general ideas and marketing. She has all sorts of ideas and she has a great interest in the business." It was Heather who gently persuaded her husband to ease up on his partying and made him watch his diet and fitness regime, building a gym in the garden of their London home. "She doesn't bully me but she did influence me," he says.

They had been married for two months when Kerzner had another health scare. He was diagnosed with colon cancer but that, too, was successfully treated. Heather persuaded the surgeon to operate sooner than he was planning to, and to limit the number of operations he performed that day so that he wouldn't be tired when it came to her husband's turn. "I was very fortunate because when they undertook the surgery it became clear that the cancer was only related to a couple of polyps which had not moved into the colon so it was just one day of surgery," says Kerzner.

Heather, who is divorced from her first husband, the American banker Charles Murphy, has a son, Charlie, 13, and a daughter Savannah,11. She and Sol have an incredibly glamorous lifestyle, with homes in the Bahamas and the south of France, a private jet and a yacht. Sol likes her to travel with him when she can. "I have to travel a lot. I'm away for about six months of the year and she has just been fantastic," he says.

He says he feels "fine" now and this week his schedule was as intense as ever as he oversaw preparations for the Atlantis launch. "Well, I'm not sure I look like a spring chicken but nevertheless I'm feeling well. It has been quite tough," he concedes. The youngest of four children, Kerzner was born on Aug 23 1935 in a poor suburb of Johannesburg to Russian Jewish immigrants. It was a tough childhood that led him into boxing. At the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where he studied accounting, Kerzner won several titles at welterweight and considered taking up the sport professionally. Instead, he joined one of Durban's largest accountancy firms, where, by 25 he was a junior partner.

His first venture into the hotel business was when he bought The Palace Hotel in Durban. When that and a second hotel proved successful, he began to develop his vision of self-contained hotel resorts on a piece of land north of the city with very little apparent tourist appeal. The Beverly Hills Hotel, South Africa's first five-star establishment, opened in 1964 with entertainment and sporting facilities and a variety of speciality restaurants, a revolutionary new concept. Butch was born that same year.

The new hotel became the country's premier resort within a year, and the 450-room Elangeni, overlooking Durban's beachfront, followed. In 1969, in partnership with South African Breweries, Kerzner established the chain of Southern Sun Hotels, which, by 1983, was operating 30 luxury hotels with more than 5,000 rooms. His first venture overseas was Le Saint Géran, in the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, which became the first of his One&Only brand.

One of the most ambitious projects was Sun City, a development of four hotels, a man-made lake, two golf courses, an entertainment centre with an indoor 6,000-seat arena, a casino and a beach with its own wave-making machine. Situated just over the border in Bophuthatswana, it was out of reach of South African gaming regulations, which caused Kerzner no little difficulty. He was accused by the post-apartheid justice ministry of bribing tribal leaders in Bophuthatswana and Transkei for gaming rights but despite four separate investigations nothing was ever proved against him. Sun City was dubbed Sin City and Kerzner "the sultan of sin" but to many, including Nelson Mandela, he was a popular entrepreneur who brought jobs and tourism to South Africa.

In 1994, he bought the Paradise Island Resort in the Bahamas and launched a major redevelopment, turning it into the 2,300-room Atlantis resort and casino with its own marina and man-made marine habitat - a particular interest of Butch, who was being groomed as his successor. Last year, the company opened a $1 billion (Dh3.67b) expansion at The Cove and The Reef with a shopping complex, Marina Village and five restaurants, including one run by the internationally acclaimed chef Nobu Matsuhisa, who also has a restaurant at Atlantis Dubai.

The One&Only luxury brand was launched in 2002 and now has hotels in Mauritius, the Maldives, Dubai, the Bahamas and Mexico, with more in the pipeline in South Africa, Zanzibar and Costa Rica. Plans for expansion into the UK market have been less successful. Opposition to the idea of a super casino in Manchester has caused the project to be put on hold. Kerzner has not yet revealed his plans for the future or how long he will remain at the helm of Kerzner International. And in the present economy, planned projects will have to be cost effective.

"You've got to be practical. You can't just dream up something and think it's going to work because at the end of the day it can't just be something that people admire. It has got to show a return. That's why we are in business, to show our shareholders a pretty decent return. So I think the secret is being able to balance the two things, spend the money but in such a way that you will get a return."

pkennedy@thenational.com