Laurence Geller, president, CEO and director, Strategic Hotels & Resorts Inc.
Like his inspiration Churchill, hotelier won't stay down
During a visit this month, luxury hotel investor Laurence Geller inspects a model room and makes suggestions about plans for a $9 million renovation of hundreds of rooms at the Intercontinental Chicago hotel. At left is Intercontinental general manager Raymond Vermolen. ALEX GARCIA/TRIBUNE PHOTO (Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune / February 18, 2013)
As chairman of the Churchill Centre, a not-for-profit dedicated to preserving the legacy of the iconic British statesman, Britain-born Geller has rubbed shoulders with the likes of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Churchill's daughter, Mary Soames.
His West Loop office is filled with Churchill-related memorabilia, including an exact replica of Churchill's stand-up desk. And early last year, Queen Elizabeth II named Geller a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, an honor stemming in part from his Churchill-related endeavors.
For Geller, who started out as a hotel busboy in Switzerland at age 15, Churchill's leadership during the darkest hours of World War II strikes a deep chord. While Geller's battles have been smaller and more personal in scale -- a near-death experience and several professional setbacks, including a perilous corporate nose dive during the recession -- he has pushed through to firmer ground and this year was awarded a one-time extra bonus worth about $15 million.
Churchill "got knocked down so many times, and the silly old bugger kept getting up," Geller said, with his characteristic blend of respect for achievement and salty irreverence. "In the end, he had a date with destiny. Perhaps I do. I just don't know where."
For the foreseeable future, the frenetic dealmaker, at age 64, is trying to steer his stabilized real estate investment trust, Strategic Hotels & Resorts Inc., into a more robust recovery or toward an eventual sale.
"If we could get more GDP growth ... it would make our properties a lot more valuable, and either my stock would go up or we'd find somebody to buy the company," he said. "I'm not into empire-building anymore."
Meanwhile, as chairman of an ad hoc committee formed by Choose Chicago Chairman Bruce Rauner, he is working to guide Chicago's long-range efforts to reinvigorate its tourism and convention industries.
"What I've been looking for is a way to have the same impact of an Olympics every year for tourism," said Geller, founder, president and CEO of Strategic, which has ownership interests in 18 high-end hotels and resorts, including three in this area: Fairmont Chicago, InterContinental Chicago and Lincolnshire Marriott.
Elements on the table: How to drum up greater marketing funding and how to lure privately developed attractions. He declined to be more specific about evolving plans, however, noting that Mayor Rahm Emanuel hasn't seen them all.
"If I showed you now, the mayor would have the little testosterone I have nailed to the flag at City Hall," he said with a laugh. "He's terrifying. He's brilliant in many ways."
Geller, too, is a complicated amalgam, according to those who know him well or have observed him over the years. A largely self-taught Renaissance man with great stores of charm -- he speaks seven languages, has penned two thrillers centering on savvy hoteliers, paints in miniature, runs marathons and sky-dives -- Geller also is known as a far-sighted strategist, a shrewd dealmaker, an exacting asset manager and a demanding boss.
He runs on overdrive, at least partly because of the influence of his late father, a conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, whom he describes as larger than life and hard to please.
Hotel industry consultant Ted Mandigo recalls when one of his staff members decided to accept a job with Geller.
"I said, 'Let me tell you, you'll be working at 11 at night getting financial reports together, and he'll say: Here are three revisions it needs, and I want five bound copies, and meet me at the airport in the morning. I'm on my way to London.'"
Subsequently, the former employee reported back to say, " 'Ted, you were wrong. He was on his way to Tokyo,' " Mandigo said.
Geller acknowledges a reputation for being tough. "Mediocrity is unacceptable," he said. "Ninety percent of your best is not acceptable." But, he said, his early years in the "sharp end" of the business, in hotel kitchens, taught him the importance of delivering serious messages with humor and grace.
"I knew how tough it was to execute," he said. "I knew when I was beaten up I lost my motivation."