Cap­tain of the ho­tel in­dus­try

The Canadian Jewish News (Toronto) - - News - — JESSE KLINE

When Isadore (Issy) Sharp grad­u­ated with a diploma in ar­chi­tec­tural tech­nol­ogy from Toronto’s Ry­er­son In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy in 1952, he had no in­ten­tion of start­ing his own business. But he would go on to be­come a cap­tain of in­dus­try, build­ing a ho­tel em­pire that now op­er­ates 105 ho­tels and re­sorts in 43 coun­tries, with an an­nual rev­enue of US$4 bil­lion ($5.38 bil­lion).

Sharp’s par­ents moved from their na­tive Poland to Is­rael in the 1920s, be­fore set­tling in Canada. His fa­ther made a liv­ing build­ing houses in down­town Toronto, largely for Jewish clien­tele. Think­ing he would go into the fam­ily business, Sharp stud­ied ar­chi­tec­ture and worked for his fa­ther dur­ing the sum­mer months. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing, he started work­ing with his dad full time and, in 1955, was hired to build a mo­tel out­side the city.

“I thought, if a mo­tel on a lim­ited-ac­cess high­way was suc­cess­ful, why wouldn’t it work down­town?” Sharp wrote in For­tune mag­a­zine. “So I decided to build a mo­tel in the in­ner part of the city.”

It took him five years to raise the money, but in 1961, he was able to open his first mo­tel on a seedy sec­tion of Jarvis Street. “I needed a lot of land, and that seedy area where pros­ti­tutes plied their trade was the only part of town where I could buy a lot of land that was quite cheap,” he told the BBC. It was a far cry from the lux­ury ac­com­mo­da­tions his ho­tel chain, Four Sea­sons Ho­tels and Re­sorts, is known for to­day.

De­spite not know­ing much about op­er­at­ing a ho­tel, he ran the business un­der the phi­los­o­phy that they should “wel­come cus­tomers and treat them like guests com­ing to our home.” It was such a success that he soon opened his sec­ond lo­ca­tion, a 200-room re­sort on the out­skirts of the city, called the Inn on the Park. In 1970, he ex­panded over­seas, open­ing the Inn on the Park Lon­don in the United King­dom.

His lux­ury ho­tel chain ex­panded fast, thanks to a cus­tomer-fo­cused business phi­los­o­phy and con­stant in­no­va­tion: Four Sea­sons was one of the first chains to of­fer such mod­ern-day sta­ples as complimentary sham­poo and 24-hour room ser­vice.

The com­pany was taken public in 1986 and re­mained that way un­til 2007, when Bill Gates and Saudi Prince Al-waleed bin Talal pur­chased 95 per cent of it for US$3.8 bil­lion. Sharp re­tained a five per cent stake and con­tin­ued as CEO un­til 2010, when he moved to the role of chairman.

With Talal’s help, the com­pany, led by a Jewish CEO, ex­panded rapidly in the Middle East. “Busi­nesses are all re­la­tion­ships based on com­mon val­ues – val­ues such as stay­ing true to your word,” Sharp told the Globe and Mail. “Ev­ery re­li­gion also en­shrines those val­ues, so you can have dif­fer­ent re­li­gious be­liefs, but un­der­ly­ing those be­liefs, you’ve got peo­ple who must have sim­i­lar val­ues and can work to­gether.”

Sharp is not only known for be­ing a business ty­coon – he’s also been rec­og­nized for his great phil­an­thropic work over the years. In 1978, he and his wife, Ros­alie, lost their teenage son to melanoma. In­spired by Terry Fox’s at­tempt to run across Canada to raise money for can­cer re­search, Sharp reached out to Fox.

“No one seemed to be tak­ing him se­ri­ously. I mean, a kid with one leg, run­ning all the way across Canada? It seemed so far-fetched. Peo­ple were cut­ting him off with their cars on the high­way,” said Sharp, who sup­ported Fox through­out his run, in­clud­ing pro­vid­ing him with complimentary lodg­ing.

Even­tu­ally, Sharp would be­come in­stru­men­tal in en­sur­ing that a Terry Fox run would be held each year to raise money for can­cer re­search. He even or­ga­nized runs in other coun­tries, in­clud­ing China.

Aside from his sup­port for can­cer re­search, Sharp has pro­vided fi­nan­cial back­ing to nu­mer­ous other in­sti­tu­tions, in­clud­ing OCAD Uni­ver­sity and Mount Sinai Hos­pi­tal in Toronto, and He­brew Uni­ver­sity in Jerusalem. He also do­nated $20 mil­lion to help build the Four Sea­sons Cen­tre for the Per­form­ing Arts in Toronto.

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