Harris Rosen '61 has built a hotel empire in Florida's tourist mecca (and he likes to jump out of airplanes)
Harris Rosen can admit it now, because there's nobody around to beat him up: he used to cheat at marbles. Growing up on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Rosen was the self-described "king of the marbles." But more than six decades later, the jovial hotel owner can cop to the fact that it wasn't all about skill. "When no one was looking, I would find the smallest obstacle to put right in front of my pee-wee so that the marble would go this way and that," he recalls with a grin. "I took very few hits. When marble season came, that's when my entrepreneurial juices started flowing."
In addition to being a marbles shark, Rosen used to run a nightcrawler business; when he found a particularly long one, he'd cut it in half and sell it as two. And while serving in the Army in Germany after graduating from the Hotel school, he bought tulip bulbs and sold them on the base; he hired a local woman to dress in a Dutch-girl costume notable for its décolletage and instructed her to bend down whenever possible. They sold out within hours.
Clearly, Rosen had the enterprising itch from early on. Today, he's the president and CEO of Rosen Hotels & Resorts, an Orlando-based firm whose holdings range from the nation's largest Quality Inn to the luxurious Rosen Shingle Creek Resort. "I'm a hands-on person and I enjoy walking around, chatting with people—the personification of an owner-operator," he says. "If you've got 100,000 people in your company you can't possibly meet them all, and I think that's a great disadvantage." A former executive for Hilton and Disney, Rosen got his first taste of the hotel business through his father, a safety engineer at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. His dad had a lucrative sideline doing calligraphy for banquets; he'd pay Rosen a penny to erase the pencil guidelines on each placecard. "We would take the elevator up to his office and, on occasion, there would be some famous person," he says. "Marilyn Monroe lived there. Ty Cobb lived there for a while. I got to meet Jackie Robinson, Pope John. So it became a very exciting thought for me to be involved in this incredibly exciting life."
Rosen eventually enrolled in the Hotel school, where his most vivid memory is mixing up the salt and the sugar during a cooking lesson, prompting the professor to spit out his sample in front of the entire class. "So I failed baked apple," he admits with mock gravity. "That's on my record and I have to live with it for the rest of my life." After service as an Army officer in Germany and South Korea, Rosen started his hotel career back at the Waldorf, where he worked as a convention salesman. Although he went on to become Disney's director of hotel planning—he was heavily involved in designing Disney World's two original hotels, the Contemporary and the Polynesian—he ultimately decided he didn't fit the company's mold and struck out on his own.
In 1974, he bought a 256-room Quality Inn and spent the next decade and a half building the business with a single-mindedness bordering on the obsessive. He lived there with his German shepherd, the two of them acting as the hotel's security team. He took particular pleasure in carving meat on the buffet line, often bantering with foreign tourists in the German he'd picked up in the Army. "The chef loved when I carved because there wasn't any meat left," he says. "If there was a bone in, it was ready to give to the dog." Rosen even did his own landscaping. "I would be out there when it was ninety-five degrees and I'd be sweating and planting my marigolds and petunias and periwinkles and people would come by and bring me lemonade and ask, 'What kind of a boss do you have?'" he recalls with a laugh. "And I'd say, 'He's actually a very nice guy, he just wants the work done.' "
Rosen's intense focus on the business led him to marry late in life; now in his seventies, he is the father of four teenagers, three boys and a girl. Still trim and athletic, he swims an hour a day, holds a black belt in judo, and jumps out of an airplane every year on his birthday. "You are what you are, and 99.9 percent of humankind are not entrepreneurs," he says. "There's nothing wrong with that. Some work for the postal service, and thank God for them. Some are firemen and policemen and teachers, and that's beautiful. And some are crazy—they have ideas and they do something with them. But you can't teach someone to take the risk."
In addition to his philanthropy in Tangelo Park, Rosen gave the University of Central Florida some $15 million and twenty acres adjacent to Shingle Creek to found the Rosen College of Hospitality Management, which opened in 1994. Although he thinks some of his kids may attend, he says he doesn't "hit them over the head" with the idea of going into the family business. In any event, Rosen seems nowhere near retirement. "If you don't have passion for what you're doing, then forget about it," he says. "Are there challenges and aggravations? Of course there are. But I enjoy every part of what I do."