Richard Kessler develops hotels on a grand scale

Richard Kessler is not an "if only" kind of man. He turns his dreams into reality — without fear of failure, without regret.

Kessler, IE 69, MS IE 70, sits back and looks around a meeting room in his Celebration Hotel, opened in November 1999 in the Disney-built town of Celebration, Fla. Pouring himself a glass of imported water, Kessler describes himself and Walt Disney as kindred spirits.

"I had always admired Walt Disney and what he had done. I think he was one of those people who live for the experience and try to do something of value. Making money wasnít his sole objective. I would have loved to have known him, to have worked with him. He and I would have gotten along famously, I think," Kessler says.

"Celebration was a Disney dream. He said a long time ago he wanted to build a town. I contacted the Disney people. I wanted to be part of a Disney dream."

Then with only one hotel, the Doubletree Castle in Orlando, Kessler was a relatively small fish in the big Orlando pond. That didnít stop him from inviting the Disney town planners to lunch. They told him they liked his Castle, with its art and Renaissance theme, but they were looking for a big name, a company that could develop a hotel along the lines of the Mulberry Inn in Savannah.

"I developed the Mulberry Inn in 1981 as an independent, boutique hotel when I was running Days Inn," Kessler told them. "The Disney people about dropped their forks. It was total silence at the table."

Kessler got the project and the Disney production became one of Kesslerís three Grand Theme Hotels to open in 1999. In addition to the Celebration Hotel, Kessler reopened a 21-story octagon-shaped Orlando hotel as the Sheraton Studio City, themed as a throwback to Hollywoodís heyday, and unveiled the $17 million renovation of a St. Augustine landmark, the Casa Monica.

Kessler has never been afraid to go after what he wants. The native of Rincon, Ga., did not grow up with a silver hotel key in his hand. But he did grow up with a determination to excel. As a high school junior, Kessler sat down with his guidance counselor.

"We talked about colleges for a few minutes. I said to him, ĎWhatís the most difficult school in Georgia?í And he said, ĎAcademically, the toughest school in Georgia is Georgia Tech.í I said, ĎFine, thatís where I want to go. Iíll take on the most difficult.í

"Georgia Tech was the hardest thing Iíve ever done. You get tough. You have to be to survive. But I never dropped a course. I never failed a course. I did make some Ds," he admits.

"Georgia Tech really taught me tenacity. When I left Tech, I was very focused. I knew how to work. I had a lot of good conceptual ideas. I had developed a sense of how to build an organization. I had very clear mental images of what I wanted to do.

"I had already decided at Georgia Tech that I was going to have my own business one day," says Kessler, who received more than a dozen job offers before graduation. But he was looking for a small company, a mentor who could teach him the ins and outs of real estate development and finance.

A family acquaintance, Cecil Day, IM 58, volunteered to be that teacher and invited Kessler to join the Atlanta-based Days Inns of America, where the young man quickly moved up the corporate elevator. By 1972, Kessler was responsible for all Days Inn construction and development.

In 1984, six years after Day died of bone cancer, his family sold the company for $750 million. "I didnít think it was the right time to sell," Kessler says. "I didnít think it was best for the people in the company or for the company itself."

After the first mortgage was paid off, the net from the Days Inn of America sale was $275 million. As the second largest shareholder, Kessler walked away from the job with $50 million.

Still in his 30s, Kessler could have retired and maintained a luxurious lifestyle. Instead, he put his fortune on the line.

"I donít live my life for money. Money is a byproduct, profit is a by-product of what we do. Itís not the driving, single force. I live life for experience. Entrepreneurship is a way of life. That is my life. With entrepreneurship comes risk. I live for the adventures. I live for projects that I think truly make a difference, that still should have value 50 years from today, that hopefully wonít be torn down."

The Kessler Enterprise was formed in Atlanta in 1985 and developed a 900-acre industrial park and a 500-acre residential and commercial project. And Kessler took some time off in 1989 and spent a year in Europe with his family, but he says that wasnít temporary retirement, just "research."

"Failure is not acceptable to me," Kessler says. "I have had a couple of temporary setbacks in my life. In 1990, I started a chain of banks. We started 10 banks around the United States, which was a feat in itself. All of a sudden, banks that had been in business hundreds of years were going broke. New banks were going broke around us. There were failures in the banking industry that had not been seen since the í30s. I was in an industry I couldnít control. That was tough. You were working like heck just to maintain, just to minimize your losses.

"Thatís part of being an entrepreneur. You have to be able to work both sides and not panic. We came through it. We never lost a bank. We struggled on two or three of them, but there are others that we made a lot of money on. The whole banking experience was a trade-off."

Kessler sold the banks and a bank management company he launched, pocketed a profit and moved on. "The banks were eating at too much of my time and thatís not what I enjoyed. I learned something about myself. I learned that creativity must be a significant part of my lifeís work for me to enjoy it."

The biggest cost of the banking experience was time, Kessler says. "It cost me about four or five years. Iíve always said we have more money than we have time."

In 1994, Kessler returned to Orlando. He wasted no time going back into the hotel industry.

"Hotels enable me to do a variety of things. They allow me to create very interesting projects and I can get paid for them. People will pay a premium to experience what we labor to create."

Kesslerís Grand Theme Hotels stand apart from the big names in the business. Many hotel chains are recognizable by their signs, building shapes and sizes, rectangular pools, standard rooms and continental breakfasts. Each of Kesslerís hotels is unique in look and feel, from the Southern charm of the Celebration, to the glitz of the Sheraton Studio City, the magic of the Doubletree Castle, the history of the 113-year-old Casa Monica and the jaw-dropping art collection in the Westin Grand Bohemian.

The Celebration alone cost "millions" to build, but Kessler says he has learned how to get his moneyís worth, how to develop hotels efficiently. He also has final approval on everything inside and outside his properties.

Through this Grand Theme Hotels, Kessler has been able to put his natural creative skills to use. "I may be walking down the street and all of a sudden get a mental picture of a new idea. It will just come to me. Itís like seeing something in color and in three dimensions. I see years of work in one quick picture. Right then Iíll write several pages and capture all the details. I have a couple of them on the shelf right now, new projects we plan to do outside Florida."

Kessler remains firmly rooted in his Lutheran faith and professes that, as a teen-ager, he briefly considered going into the ministry. Last summer, Kessler was elected chairman of Lutheran Brotherhood, a Minneapolis-based, $29 billion Fortune 500 company that gives away about $85 million a year.

Kessler also is chairman of the Ebenezer Retreat Center, an organization he has been involved with for 26 years. And he is a devoted Georgia Tech alum. He donated the Kessler Campanile, also designed by artist Richard Hill, for the Tech Plaza in 1996 in preparation for the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, where the Institute campus served as "Home of the Olympic Village."

"I have my life on two or three different tracks. One track is the business track. Another track is the giving track. I feel as much passion about that as I do the Grand Bohemian hotel," says Kessler, named the Florida Ernst & Young Master Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000.

©2001 Georgia Tech Alumni Association

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