Sol Kerzner
Sol Kerzner

Sol Kerzner was one of SA’s most influential entrepreneurs. A trailblazer in the leisure and hotel industry, he was straight-talking, fearless and fiery, and he put SA’s hotel and tourist industry on the global map.

Kerzner, who died this week at the age of 84, founded the country’s two largest hotel groups — Southern Sun and Sun International — and developed resorts that transformed tourism in Mauritius, the Maldives, the Bahamas and Dubai. Each project was bigger and bolder, always created to "blow the customer away".

The youngest of four children, he was born in Doornfontein, Joburg, to Lithuanian-born Jewish immigrants. Though he qualified as an accountant, he found himself more enamoured of the leisure and hospitality industry than numbers.

After a trip to Florida, he saw an opportunity for resorts in SA. And so in 1962, at the age of 29, he built the first five-star hotel in the country, the alluringly named Beverly Hills, on a deserted stretch of coastline north of Durban.

More hotels followed, but it was Sun City that was the global game-changer.

Kerzner built Sun City (called Sin City by some) from scratch in Bophuthatswana. The development included a lake, game park and entertainment centres and brought high-stakes gambling and glamour, with relatively easy access, to conservative apartheid SA. There were topless dancers, "adult movies", films on Sundays and slot machines too.

In 1992, a £150m extension gave rise to the Lost City — complete with fake oceans and fake earth tremors. Again, it was more luxury and more excess.

At one point, it was reported that 1.5-million people a year were making the three-hour trip from Joburg and Pretoria to see entertainers they’d never see in SA — including Frank Sinatra, whom Kerzner paid $2m for a week’s work in 1981.

The "Sun King" went on to create a cross-continental empire of hotels, casinos and resorts.

Kerzner was impatient, didn’t like incompetence and had a temper. It wasn’t uncommon for him to phone someone in the early hours of the morning and demand an immediate meeting. And though his intake of coffee, cigarettes and whisky was legendary, he gave up drinking after a heart attack and played with worry beads instead.

Kerzner’s career was not without controversy. Allegations surfaced in the late 1980s that he had bribed former Transkei leader chief George Matanzima for an exclusive gambling licence. When Matanzima was overthrown by Bantu Holomisa, an extradition application was made to bring Kerzner to trial, but he was let off the hook after the homeland’s attorney-general refused to prosecute, citing a lack of evidence.

Kerzner went on to operate casinos around the world, but sold his interests in Sun City and SA in early 1992. His first international project was in the Bahamas, where he took over a bankrupt estate and turned it into a destination resort, Atlantis.

Kerzner and his son Howard "Butch" Kerzner launched One&Only Resorts in the casual luxury space — an understated departure from the projects that had come before.

When Butch was killed in a helicopter accident in 2006, Kerzner returned to the position of Kerzner International CEO.

Jeff Rubenstein, a lifelong friend, says if tragedy was a burden to Kerzner, hard work was the antidote. After Butch died, Kerzner oversaw his company’s return to SA, opening the One&Only in Cape Town in 2009.

Ian Douglas, who worked with Kerzner for 20 years, describes him as a hard taskmaster. But you always knew where you stood with him, he says. "If you did a great job, he acknowledged it."

At the same time, he says: "I don’t believe he was driven by the money. It was a great consequence of what he did … He was the rock and anchor of his family and wanted to ensure they were always taken care of."

His family was everything, and his daughter Andrea says he’d fly halfway across the world for a grandchild’s birthday party.

His friends, too. "There’s the image of Sol as the rock star travelling the world internationally and having lunch with Bill Clinton," says Douglas. "There was that, but in a very simple sense his mates were his mates. He made time for them, he’d spend every Christmas with them."

Kerzner was, according to former Kerzner International general counsel Richard Levine, a remarkable man: a visionary who paid attention to the details; fearless, but fully aware of the risks; immensely demanding, but remarkably compassionate — "a true original".

When asked by the Financial Times what his three best features were, Kerzner answered: humility, creativity "and a sharp left hook. I used to box as a kid and am still boxing on."

Kerzner leaves a legacy of more than 80 hotel and casino properties in more than a dozen countries. He founded and funded the hotel school at the University of Johannesburg and in December 2010 he was recognised in the queen’s birthday honours list. Married four times, he is survived by his children Andrea, Beverly, Brandon and Chantal, and 10 grandchildren.