Be My Guest
These days Conrad Hilton is a historical figure, obscure to most people compared to his celebrity great granddaughter, Paris. Yet it is so easy to forget that our prosperity often rests on the hard work and vision of our parents or grandparents.
Given that his name is synonymous with the great wave of American post-war business success, Hilton’s autobiography is less celebrated than it should be. Most people come across it in their bedside drawer during a stay at a Hilton hotel. Yet it is one of the more engrossing of the hundreds of ‘how I did it’ self-told business stories, to be enjoyed alongside titles such as Sam Walton’s Made in America. And unlike most books of this type, Hilton actually wrote it himself.
Be My Guest is a fascinating window into the life of a frontier American family around the turn of the 20th century, and a gripping story of the creation of one of the world’s biggest businesses and brands. It is also a superb motivational work on why it is important to think big. Here we trace some of the key events in Hilton’s life and his reflections on his career.
Conrad Hilton was born on Christmas day, 1887. His father Gus was a Norwegian immigrant who made his living selling supplies to men working in the backwoods of New Mexico. From his store in the small town of San Antonio (not the Texas city), he eventually made enough money for the family to leave behind the dusty South West frontier. They moved to Long Beach, California, where it was hoped Mrs Hilton could enjoy an easier life.
But with a financial crash in 1907, Gus Hilton was caught holding a lot of stock no one would buy. The family reluctantly moved back to New Mexico and took a hard look at their assets. These included: a very large adobe house next to a main railway line; Mrs Hilton’s great cooking; and with several kids, plenty of helping hands. The Hiltons decided to turn their house into a hotel. With room and all meals only $2.50 a day, the business did well.
By the time he was 23, Conrad had been working for his father for 11 years. He was finally made a business partner, but was eager to do something on his own. Not particularly interested in trading or hotels, he ran for the state legislature in Sante Fe, but his dream was to own a chain of banks. At 26, he had raised enough money to start a very small one of his own.
World War One intervened, however, and in 1917 he enlisted. He spent most of his service in France, but while on active duty back in the United States received news his father had died in a car accident. Returning to New Mexico, his home town now seemed like “a toy town of adobe and wood surrounded by emptiness”.
Looking for opportunities
Now in his early thirties, and having to sort through his father’s financial affairs, Hilton took stock. He had savings of $5011 (about $50,000 in today’s money) and “big ideas”, but was not sure what to do. A friend of his father’s gave him some advice: ‘If you want to launch big ships, you have to go where the water is deep’. So he went to Albuquerque, then only a town of 15,000 but quite cosmopolitan compared to where he had come from. He continued to pursue his dream of owning a chain of banks, but didn’t really get anywhere.
A dying man, another friend of his father’s, instructed him to go to Texas, saying, “There you will make your fortune”. So in 1920, now 33, Hilton moved to Cisco in Texas, where he looked around to buy a small bank. Again his efforts came to nothing, and one day, exhausted, he entered a small, very crowded hotel to find a room for the night.
It then dawned on him that this bustling, rundown hotel, the Mobley, might be a better proposition than owning a bank. He got talking to the owner, who despite his good turnover and margins was desperate to sell. This was a town crazed by the possibility of oil riches, and the owner, too, wanted to make his fortune in oil. The Mobley was the first of several ‘old dowagers’ that Hilton would buy, decrepit properties yet whose books were good and had room for potential.
Hilton’s dream now shifted to owning a chain of hotels around Texas. He bought one, The Waldorf (not the famous Waldorf-Astoria) in downtown Dallas. Included in the manager’s library was a set of books by seminal inspirational author Elbert Hubbard, Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great. Though already ambitious, Hilton’s idea of what might be possible grew through the stories of financiers and entrepreneurs such as Meyer Rothschild, Andrew Carnegie, Stephen Girard, Peter Cooper, plus the great statesmen, artists, scientists, and philosophers.
Times good and bad
Hilton ran his shabby collection of hotels for several years, but began to want something more: His own ‘Hilton’ hotel.
The Hilton Hotel, Dallas, was a much bigger project than anything he had done before. He had to race against time to raise a million dollars, and in 1924 he broke ground on the site. After running out of money twice, in August 1925 the hotel finally opened.
With his confidence high, Hilton got married and had two kids, Nick and Barron, in quick succession. By the time of his 41st birthday, he had nine hotels, including the new El Paso Hilton. Opened in the fall of 1929, and built at great expense, it seemed like the crown of a growing empire. Yet as Hilton ruefully records, “Nineteen days later the stock market crashed”.
Looking back, Hilton marvels at how he got through the torturous years of the Depression. Many times it seemed as if he was about to go bankrupt, but then ‘something happened’ (a family friend or business acquaintance would step in at the last minute to provide an injection of funds) that would enable him to keep going.
Reflecting on his Catholic faith, he notes that in these years it seemed that it was “the only gilt-edged security” he owned.
Yet the time, energy and constant travel required to keep things afloat also meant time away from his wife and family, and it cost him his marriage.
The book reveals a surprising fact: despite later becoming known as the founder of a an international hotel chain, Hilton was almost 50 before he bought a hotel in a state outside Texas.
After acquiring the esteemed Sir Francis Drake in San Francisco, he then bought the coveted Stevens Hotel in Chicago, the biggest in the world at the time with 3,000 rooms. Then little known in the hotel industry, the sale took him six years of negotiations. On the challenges of financing and organizing such large purchases, Hilton noted: “If you are content with planting radish seeds you’ll get radishes in a few weeks. When you start planting acorns, the full-fledged oak may take years. And I was beginning to learn what all gardeners know – patience”.
Yet what seemed like slowness at the time had its benefits. By buying and operating all these other hotels before the Hilton franchise was properly established, it allowed him to truly master his industry and avoid risking the Hilton name.
The need for a dream
Hilton’s life bears out the great observation made by David Schwartz in his famous book The Magic of Thinking Big: “Most people fail in life not because they aim too high and miss – but because they aim too low, and hit”
In the depths of the Depression, deep in debt with a court judgment against him and his clothes at the pawnbroker, Hilton had clipped out a picture of the newly completed Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. Later, when he had enough cash again to buy a desk, he put that picture under the desk’s glass top. At that time, owning it seemed like a ridiculous fantasy, yet it was a recognition to himself that you had to have things to aim for.
He recalls that his mother’s tip for success in life could be boiled down to one word: ‘Pray’. His father’s philosophy could be reduced to another: ‘Work’. By the time he and his siblings had grown up, they had heard the ‘pray and work’ mantra hundreds of times, yet his brother Barron had noted, ‘There must be some other ingredient that goes in but I can’t put my finger on it’.
Writing the book at age 70, Hilton recalls sitting in the ballroom of the legendary Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York – which he now owned – and wondering whether there was in fact anything to be added to his parents’ wisdom. It was only then that it came to him:
“You had to dream!”
He is quick to note that “nobody ever called me a dreamer”, yet this was where, he believed, great things had to start.
The details of Hilton’s life are outlined above to give an idea of how long it took for Hilton to achieve his dreams, and against such odds. He was, after all, well into his thirties before his life really started in terms of setting his own course and moving out of his father’s shadow.
His story also provides inspiration for anyone who does not yet know what they want to do, but are hungry for a big opportunity. It suggests keeping our eyes and ears open, as the next chance meeting, purchase or trip may be the turning point in our lives, just as Hilton’s discovery of the Mobley hotel was to him. The moral of the book is that it does not matter if you have not yet found your life’s mission, as long as you are in a state of readiness to seize it when it comes.
Source: 50 Prosperity Classics: Attract It, Create It, Manage It, Share It by Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey).