Executive Insights

Obituary | Sol Kerzner, a perfectionist with a short fuse

Business Insider SA
Sol Kerzner. Photo: Foto24
  • Sol Kerzner died at the age of 84 in Cape Town, after almost 60 years developing new hotel properties in a sometimes controversial career.
  • He wanted to become a mechanic but his father encouraged him to study accounting.
  • His legacy includes massive resorts in Dubai and Bahamas.
  • For more stories, go to the Business Insider home page.

The 84-year old Sol Kerzner died in Cape Town on Saturday, after a sometimes controversial career developing some of the world’s most spectacular resorts.

The youngest of four children, he was born in Doornfontein, Johannesburg to Lithuanian-born Jewish immigrants. His parents ran a store selling fruit and vegetables.

He was a keen boxer 

A diminutive child, Kerzner was bullied at school and took up boxing as a form of defence. He would later become a welterweight champion.

He told the Financial Times that he considered his “sharp left hook” one of his three best features (along with humility and creativity).

Kerzner wanted to become a mechanic

After he matriculated from Damelin College, he wanted to work on cars, but his father, Morris, encouraged him to go to university. He graduated with a B.Com Honours in accounting from the University of Witwatersrand, and qualified as a chartered accountant while working at an accounting practice.

He established his first hotels in Durban

In 1953, his father bought the Minora, a kosher hotel in Durban. Kerzner moved down to help, and a couple of years later, they bought another Durban hotel, the Palace.

In 1962, he purchased his own hotel, the Astra, in Durban and by the age of 29, he opened the Beverly Hills, which became the country's first five-star hotel. Its development was reportedly financed by clients and colleagues from the accountancy practice where he worked. According to one story, he used photos cut from an American holiday brochure to sell the venture to them.

Next, he launched the R7 million Elangeni Hotel in Durban and, in 1969, he was approached by the then South African Breweries (SAB) to establish a chain of hotels. Within five years the Southern Sun group had more than 30 hotels, and by the mid-70s, he launched the Le Saint Géran hotel in Mauritius.

The Sun City years

Sun City.

In 1979, Kerzner developed Sun City for R35 million in the homeland of Bophuthatswana. It had two casinos, a conference centre and an 18-hole golf course. While it was initially developed as part of the Southern Sun group, Kerzner would retain the Sun City assets when he launched a competitor, Sun International, in 1983.

In the next decade, he added four new hotels at Sun City, a man-made lake and the SuperBowl arena in 1981. Frank Sinatra – who described Kerzner as ”the best saloon-keeper in the world” – was paid $2 million to open the SuperBowl, which would later also host Elton John, Cher, Cliff Richard, and Rod Stewart.

But this also caused Sun City to become an infamous byword for apartheid across the world.

In 1985, the music album “Sun City” was released, and featured anti-apartheid songs performed by Bono, Ringo Starr, Miles Davis, Peter Gabriel and Bruce Springsteen. One of the songs, also called Sun City, featured lyrics including “Relocation to phony homelands “ and “23 million can't vote because they're black”, with the chorus: “We're gonna say, I Ain't gonna play Sun City”.

“They were over-paying everybody to come down there and perform at Sun City, so I decided to use that as a symbol, and told myself if I could really tighten up the cultural boycott we could then make the next move toward the economic boycott,” former member of Bruce Springsteen’s band, Steven Van Zandt, who wrote the song, told Fast Company.

In 1991, Kerzner opened the Lost City, a 338-room hotel which was designed to mimic an ancient city, at Sun City. The site included a man-made forest (with more than one million trees and plants) and the water theme park Valley of Waves.

Kerzner sold Sun City and his South African assets in the early 1990s.

Bribes and accusations

In 1996, Bantu Holomisa was kicked out of the ANC after claiming at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that former cabinet minister Stella Sigcau accepted R50,000 as part of a bribe of R2 million paid by Kerzner to Transkei ruler George Matanzima.

Holomisa, who later became the leader of the United Democratic Movement (UDM), was a major-general in the Transkei Defence Force. Kerzner was accused of paying the bribe in exchange for gambling rights in the Transkei.

Matanzima was jailed for the bribe, but corruption charges against Kerzner were dropped. Questions were also raised about how he secured gambling rights in Bophuthatswana, as well as massive tax breaks for Sun City and Lost City.

He gave millions to both the ANC – Nelson Mandela confirmed a Kerzner donation of R2 million – and the National Party before the 1994 elections.

Global expansion

In the mid-90s, Kerzner opened a casino in Connecticut in the US, and then bought a bankrupt development in the Bahamas which would eventually become the thriving Atlantis Resort. It features a massive water park, with various hotel options and a casino.

Atlantis, Paradise Island in the Bahamas.

In 2002, Kerzner launched One&Only Resorts which operates various hotels in the Bahamas, Mexico, Mauritius, The Maldives and Dubai.

In 2008, he opened the $1.5 billion Atlantis, The Palms on a man-made island in Dubai.

Atlantis, The Palms.
Atlantis, The Palms in Dubai.

Its $20 million launch party was the most expensive on record, and featured the world’s biggest fireworks display at that stage, as well as artists like Kylie Minogue and Michael Jackson. The hotel features a life-size replica of a Mayan temple and almost 3 000 rooms.

Kerzner was knighted by the British Queen in 2010 after being nominated by the Bahamas government as the largest employer in that country.

Personal life

Kerzner was married four times. He had three children – Butch (Howard), Andrea, and Beverly – with his first wife, Maureen. Two children – Brandon and Chantal – were born from his marriage with his second wife, Shirley, who took her own life after the birth of their daughter. In 1980, he married Miss World 1974, Anneline Kriel. They divorced in 1985. He got engaged to model Christina Estrada in the late 1990s, but ended up marrying her friend Heather Murphy instead, in 2000. They divorced in 2011.

Sol and Heather Kerzner at the launch of the One&Only hotel in Cape Town. Photo: Netwerk24

Heather Kerzner later got engaged to ex-Bell Pottinger CEO James Henderson, and lost millions in his PR firm, which went bust after it was found to have incited racial hatred in South Africa through its campaign to divert attention from state capture.

Butch Kerzner

After matriculating from King David's School in Johannesburg, Butch Kerzner studied in California, eventually graduating with an MBA from Stanford. He worked on Wall Street before joining his father in 1992, where he was credited with engineering their company’s listing on the New York Stock Exchange in 1996.  Ten years later, the company was taken private again in a $3.8-billion buyout —backed by the Dubai government, Goldman Sachs, with the Kerzners upping their stake to 25%.

In 2004, Butch became CEO of Kerzner International – allowing his father to go into semi-retirement. But less than two years later, he died in a helicopter crash while inspecting property sites in the Dominican Republic.

US President Donald Trump called Butch a "great visionary". "He was one of the few sons who was able to stand up in terms of talent to a great father, and you don't see that much in my business," he said in the LA Times.

Kerzner senior returned as CEO, and oversaw his company’s return to South Africa, with the One&Only hotel in Cape Town in 2009.  

But he retired as chair in 2014 after the Investment Corporation of Dubai (ICD) took a sizeable stake in Kerzner International.

One of his last personal developments was the new Kerzner Estate on Leeukoppie, a 10ha estate on the Atlantic Seaboard.

It has 48 luxury houses, priced from just over R20 million each.

Kerzner died at his home in the Leeukoppie estate on Saturday.

A perfectionist with a short fuse

According to the Daily Mail, Kerzner liked to start meetings with the phrase: “What the f***’s going on”.

He told the Financial Times that he considered his worst attributes being impatient, having a short fuse and finding it difficult to relax. He was famously meticulous about service and details at his hotels, spending a lot of time on hotel floors to make sure that staff complied with his exacting standards - including following a four-page manual for pouring a glass of beer.

He was also known for his large network of celebrity friends including Robert de Niro and Trump, and he also was close with Nelson Mandela. "We became really good friends and had dinner from time to time at my home," he said. Mandela called him  ”by far the greatest entrepreneur in the tourism industry

Over the years he donated millions to establish a hotel school in Johannesburg, and in 2005, the Kerzner Building, which housed the University of Johannesburg's School of Tourism and Hospitality, was opened in Auckland Park.

Before a heart attack in 1989, he smoked 60 cigarettes a day, which he then replaced with worry beads. In 2006, amid concerns about his drinking, he ended up in the Betty Ford rehabilitation clinic – where he complained about having to share a room. By 2010, his biggest indulgences were white chocolate, Starbucks skinny cappuccinos and biltong, he told the Financial Times.

When the publication asked him how he wanted to be remember, he replied: “I don’t think about it.”

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