x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

The man who raised Atlantis

Known to be an uncompromising boss with an obsession for detail, Sol Kerzner built his latest project, Atlantis, The Palm, quite literally from the bottom of the sea.

Sol Kerzner invested Dh2.2 billion (US600 million) in the 1, 600 room-Atlantis, The Palm. The hotel is due to throw a US$ 30 million launch party tonight, the Middle East's biggest opening gala.
Sol Kerzner invested Dh2.2 billion (US600 million) in the 1, 600 room-Atlantis, The Palm. The hotel is due to throw a US$ 30 million launch party tonight, the Middle East's biggest opening gala.

Dubai // For a man who escaped unpromising origins by seizing opportunity in the desert, Sol Kerzner was perhaps destined to turn up in Dubai. Mr Kerzner, the 73-year-old South African behind Atlantis, The Palm, will tonight throw the Middle East's biggest opening party at the resort for more than 2,000 guests, including a list of top celebrities such as Robert de Niro, the actor, Oprah Winfrey, the chat show host, Priyanka Chopra, the Bollywood actress, and the former basketball player, Michael Jordan.

Such glamour is a far cry from Mr Kerzner's modest beginnings in a working-class suburb of Johannesburg, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, and the unparalleled glitz of his resorts across the world have led to accusations of vulgarity, something he himself dismisses. "I think whether you make a great movie or create a great icon some people will say it's an icon, others might think it's a monstrosity or whatever words you want to use. The bottom line is whether it is going to be successful. That's what my responsibility to our shareholders and the board is, to create things that are profitable, that are successful and to do things that will enhance the image of the brand."

The young Kerzner trained as an accountant and joined a Durban law firm, where his sharp eye for business saw him become one of the firm's partners by the age of 25. He got his break by buying an unpopular and underdeveloped site in the veld north of Durban and turning it into a five-star hotel. A few years later, in 1979, Mr Kerzner opened Sun City, the most ambitious resort development in Africa at the time.

Sun City was not without controversy. It was located in the bantustan of Bophuthatswana near Johannesburg, which the apartheid South African government of the time declared an independent homeland for black South Africans. Because South Africa did not consider it part of the country, it was exempt from the country's laws banning gambling and exotic dancing and was quickly dubbed Sin City. Bophuthatswana was reincorporated into South Africa in 1994 after the end of apartheid, but Sun City's success continued, allowing Mr Kerzner in 1994 to create the first Atlantis resort by buying the failing Paradise Island in the Bahamas and turning it into a 2,300-room resort and casino - a project that he says dwarfs what he is spending on Atlantis, The Palm.

"When you think of our brand, the investment here is US$1.5 billion. And if we took the Bahamas you might think, 'What would that cost to build today?' You're talking about five or six billion dollars. The launch of the brand or something that we are doing to enhance it has got to be seen against that cost." Known as an uncompromising boss and a micromanager, Mr Kerzner has allied to his keen radar for opportunity an obsessive attention to detail.

The 2,000 guests who will cross the threshold into Atlantis for tonight's eagerly anticipated bash have been personally vetted and approved by Mr Kerzner, according to a source within the Kerzner Group. "Kerzner personally goes over the guest list with a fine-tooth comb vetting the guests and nothing is left to chance. Only those who serve a purpose are invited," said the source. "Even senior managers in his company are only allowed to come to the party if they make themselves useful by serving food and drinks."

Mr Kerzner now bases himself in London, where he lives with his fourth wife, Heather, 39. While his business empire has gone from strength to strength, however, the hospitality magnate has had to overcome heartbreak in his private life. His second wife committed suicide in 1978 and his son Howard, known as "Butch", was killed in a helicopter crash in Oct 2006 in the Caribbean. His first and third marriages to Maureen Adler, Butch's mother, and Anneline Kriel both ended in divorce.

Mr Kerzner has had to temper his wild lifestyle, giving up his 60-a-day cigarette habit and alcohol after undergoing a triple heart-bypass operation just weeks after his son's death. He was running on a treadmill at his gym in London when his heart began beating irregularly. Before turning his attention to Dubai, Mr Kerzner had been involved in moves to introduce super casinos to the UK under government legislation, first at the site of the Millennium Dome in Greenwich, London, and then in Manchester. The plans were eventually scuppered after the British government changed its mind.

Mr Kerzner is now investing Dh2.2 billion (US$600m) of his money into the 1,600-room Atlantis hotel, with the rest being provided by Dubai property giant Nakheel, and is also spending more on building up his One & Only hotel chain in the UAE, with a second hotel being built on The World. All of this is money well spent, he said, and will do much to boost Dubai and the UAE's profile in the world. "It depends on whether you believe that the place is this good that media will give us credit for what it is. If you can get media fired up throughout the world and to establish something you believe the consumers are going to love, then you have an event that does exactly that.

"You can ask why for the Olympics do people spend what they spend and do what they do. It's there to promote the host country. And I think the scale of this is such that the opening, which will cost about $20 million relative to our investment of $1.5 billion... put in that context hopefully will give us huge coverage throughout the world. Atlantis represents so much of what has happened in this area."

Even the setback of a fire in the Atlantis lobby in September, just three weeks before completion, could not prevent the project from opening on time, something Mr Kerzner described as "amazing". "I'm very pleased with Atlantis. It was completed on budget which for a development of this size in Dubai where there's more cranes than anywhere in the world is incredible. I think our people did an outstanding job. When the fire occurred it was remarkable how quickly it was dealt with.

"Our construction guys believed they could get the hotel ready for this opening. On the other hand, nobody expected that the place would be totally completed and up and running after the first week of October, so that was pretty amazing." tspender@thenational.ae Sol Kerzner speaks about his life of glamour with Philippa Kennedy in Arts & Life in the National on Sunday Raising Atlantis * Mr Kerzner tried to buy the entire world stock of £500-a-bottle (Dh2,745) Cristal champagne for the Atlantis launch - but champagne maker Louis Roederer turned him down because it said the mass order would send world champagne prices skyrocketing. Instead, Dom Perignon champagne will be served.

* Marine security has been intensified for tonight's party, with an exclusion zone for boats of two nautical miles around The Palm. * Some 20 tonnes of fish have been flown in by sushi guru Nobu Matsuhisa. But one fish whose fate remains undecided is the captive whale shark taken from the waters off Jebel Ali and now housed in an aquarium in Atlantis. The shark has caught the imagination of nature lovers worldwide, spawning a plethora of groups on the popular Facebook networking site, boasting more than 15,000 supporters, calling for the shark's immediate release into the wild.

* Tonight's party promises more pyromania than ever before, with several times as many fireworks as were launched at this summer's Beijing Olympics opening ceremony set to light up 43km of the palm-shaped shoreline. Dubai hotels with views of The Palm are selling tickets of up to Dh950 just to view the fireworks.