Harris Rosen | 2018 Business Leader of the Year

HARRIS ROSEN
Rosen Hotels and Resorts
2018 BUSINESS LEADER OF THE YEAR

With a collection of nine hotels and nearly 7,000 guestrooms along Orlando’s bustling International Drive tourist corridor, Harris Rosen still remembers being a young boy in New York City near the Bowery, where homeless people slept against columns beneath the elevated train. His parents, both born to immigrants, were doing their best to raise two boys.

Rosen and his brother were at the public library one day when a sightseeing bus pulled up. The boys, curious, watched people come off. They heard two women say, “So this is how they live.” Rosen later asked his mother what the women meant. “Not everyone lives the same way,” she told him.

Rosen became the first person in his family to go to college and the first to enter the military as an officer. “The impossible American dream happened to me,” he says today. His life changed when he risked all of his savings on a business investment. It was thrilling, it was scary, and it was a stretch out of his comfort zone.

It was 1974, and vacationers couldn’t afford to drive to Central Florida because an oil embargo by Arab nations was keeping gas prices high. Hotel occupancy rates hovered at less than 30 percent — nowhere near the 79.3 percent Orlando recorded in 2017. Rosen had just lost his job helping plan the launch of Walt Disney World’s hotels and campground, and he was thinking about going into business for himself.

He drove past a 256-room Quality Inn near Sand Lake Road and International Drive, and he liked the way it looked. He pulled in and asked the person at the front desk whether he could speak with the general manager or the owner. After a short wait in the lobby, he saw the owner come toward him.

“I stood up, extended my hand and said, ‘Sir, I’m Harris Rosen and I’m interested in buying a hotel.’ He took a step toward me, wrapped his arms around me, and said, ‘God has sent you!’”

The owner had been devastated by the oil crisis. He had let go of most of his staff and was working so many hours that he hadn’t seen his wife and children in weeks. He offered to set up a meeting with his lender.

Rosen arrived at the meeting with a resume showing he had graduated from Cornell University with a major in hotel administration, had served time in the U.S. Army as a first lieutenant in Asia and Europe, and had worked for some of the biggest names in hospitality, including the Waldorf-Astoria, where he had come to love the hotel business by shadowing his father as a boy. The lender seemed impressed.

“Then he asked me a rather strange question, and I’ll never forget it,” Rosen recalls. “He said, ‘Harris, how much money do you have in the bank?’” When the lender heard Rosen had $20,000 in savings, he extended a hand to seal the deal, and Rosen assumed a mortgage of $2.5 million.

Rosen had a plan, and he went to work on it right away. He knew the motorcoach companies in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts were first in line to get gasoline supplies because they were bigger customers than individual consumers. He asked each company to write on the back of one of his business cards a room rate they would like him to offer their passengers for the next two years. He promised to honor those rates.

The traffic the motorcoaches brought was enough to sustain the hotel until the economy turned around. In the meantime, Rosen wore about seven hats, handling duties for jobs ranging from landscaper to night manager. He calculates he saved as much as $250,000 a year he would have paid out in wages. He soon made a deal to acquire a second hotel that had been hit hard by the economy.

“All I thought of was surviving,” Rosen says. “After that second purchase, I started to think about the future and what might be in store for me. The first two years, I was working seven days a week, 15 to 17 hours a day, focused laser-like on staying alive and making sure we operated as successfully as we possibly could.”

He lived in one of the guestrooms in the Quality Inn for 16 years, eventually making it his office, where he still works today. He remembers what it was like to exist without money, and this has helped him connect with people.

Rosen is legendary for his generosity with associates as well as his philanthropic work in the community. About 28 years ago, he created a primary care medical facility for his employees, and he has expanded it since. Employees visit it on the clock, and the company provides transportation. He created an insurance company so he could offer associates the highest coverage at the lowest cost to them. He instituted a program to pay for their children to attend college. He offers bonuses and profit sharing, and not just for supervisors.

As a result, his employees are loyal. The company’s turnover is just over 10 percent, mostly from retirements, compared with more than 50 percent in the rest of the industry.

As his company kept growing, Rosen wanted to do more. He established The Harris Rosen Foundation, and today he continues to invest in the community in a variety of initiatives. He donated $18 million to build the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida, which opened in 2004, and has supported it with annual scholarships amounting to $3.6 million to date. His $9.6 million in funding helped build and expand the Jack and Lee Rosen Southwest Orlando Jewish Community Center, and most recently the Rosen YMCA Aquatic Center was named in his honor for his continuous efforts and contributions to improve the facility.

He invested in helping rebuild Haiti after the 2010 earthquake in honor of his Haitian associates. In 1993, he adopted the Tangelo Park community in west Orlando, where he provides free childcare, funds a parent resource center, and pays tuition, room, board and books for students who continue their education after high school. In 2016, he adopted the Parramore neighborhood in downtown Orlando, funding a similar program that is five times larger. His greatest hope is that others will replicate these programs across the country.

“When you put it all together, people really do appreciate how much you care for them,” Rosen says. “My philosophy is very simple. It’s just to treat other people the way I would like to be treated, and to respect them as much as they might respect me, and to do whatever I can to make their lives as comfortable as I possibly can.”

Rosen is also a champion of the I-Drive area, where he plans to expand his hotel operations as the Orange County Convention Center grows.

“Whatever progress we make here, there is a multiplier effect,” he says. He points out that the hotel linens, food, housing, clothing, construction materials, vehicles and other items people who work on I-Drive purchase come from other areas of Central Florida and beyond. “I-Drive is a huge benefactor for all businesses in Central Florida. There’s no doubt about that.”

About the author

Diane Sears

Diane Sears

A career journalist, author and advocate for business growth, Diane Sears is the editor-in-chief of i4 Business. She is the founder and president of DiVerse Media LLC and co-founder of the Go for the Greens Foundation, which helps connect current and future women business owners with growth opportunities. She also serves in leadership roles with the Women Presidents’ Organization, Women’s Business Development Council of Florida/Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, and Athena PowerLink.

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