Childhood & Early Life
Conrad Nicholson Hilton was born on December 25, 1887 in San Antonio, New Mexico. His father, Augustus Halvorsen Hilton, was an immigrant from Norway while his mother, Mary Genevieve (née Laufersweiler) was an American citizen of German descent. The couple had eight children, out of which Conrad was born second.
When he turned 21, he joined his father’s general store on profit sharing basis but soon was frustrated by the lack of freedom. Therefore, he began to look for some other career opportunity and joined politics.
When the state of New Mexico was created in 1912, he was elected to its Legislature Assembly on the Republican ticket. He served the assembly for two terms but the governmental red tape as well as underhand deals soon frustrated him.
After expiry of his terms Conrad returned to San Antonio and raised enough money to start a bank. When in 1917, the United States of America joined the First World War, Conrad sold off his bank to join the war.
For two years Conrad served in the Quartermaster Corps in France and on being discharged in 1919, he went back to San Antonio. His father had died by that time and he had to take charge of his father's businesses, which was not really doing well.
Moreover, having seen the world, Conrad was not interested in living in a small town like San Antonio. Therefore, he started looking for some alternative. An old friend advised him to go to Texas, where the oil boom had already started.
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In 1919, Conrad Hilton set out for Wichita, where he tried to buy a bank and backed out when the seller raised the price at the last moment. Instead, he bought ‘Mobley Hotel’ in Cisco, Texas. It had 40 rooms and in spite of that he had to build additional rooms to cope with the demand.
From the beginning he believed in two principles. The first was ‘digging for gold’, which meant prudent use of space. For example, he noticed that the guests preferred to dine out and the hotel made very little money on food. Therefore, he converted the restaurant into additional guest rooms, which were in short supply.
His second principle was ‘esprit de corps’. It involved motivating the staff to provide excellent service and this he did by giving them credit when the guests were pleased with their stay at the hotel.
Moreover, he opened small shop windows in the lobby, which kept a variety of items such as newspapers, magazines, razors, toothbrushes, toothpastes etc. They not only earned additional revenue, but also helped to attract more guests. Very soon, ‘Hotel Mobley’ turned out to be a huge success.
Within one year, Hilton recouped the money he had invested in it. Subsequently, he bought the ‘Melba Hotel’ in Fort Worth and the ‘Waldorf’ in Dallas. Both these hotels were in bad condition, but after renovation they looked so magnificent that he began to call them ‘dowagers’.
In 1924, Hilton decided to build his own hotel, ‘Dallas Hilton’ which was opened to the public the following year. It was not only the first hotel that he built, but it was also the first hotel with the name ‘Hilton’ attached to it. However, not wanting to tie up his money, he took the land on lease for 99 years, a concept that was still new in Texas.
Thereafter, he built the ‘Abilene Hilton’ in 1927; ‘Waco Hilton’ in 1928; and ‘El Paso Hilton’ in 1930. Unfortunately, the Great Depression set in just then and had a very negative effect on hotel industry. At one point, Hilton was almost forced into bankruptcy, having a debt of $500,000.
Soon he was forced to give up many of his properties and start working as a manager in a combined hotel chain. During this bad period, he remembered his mother telling him that the prayer was the best investment he could make and indeed, it helped him a lot.
As the depression came to an end, Hilton was back into his hotel business. He not only bought back his old properties, but in 1939 he also built ‘Hotel Andaluz’ in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was his first hotel outside Texas.
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Later he moved westward to buy ‘Breakers’ in Los Angeles and ‘Sir Francis Drake’ in San Francisco. In 1942, he shifted his headquarters to Los Angeles and from there he began to expand eastwards.
In 1943, he bought the ‘Roosevelt Hotel’ in New York City. Next in 1945, he acquired Chicago's ‘Palmer House’ and the ‘Stevens Hotel’, which was till then the largest hotel in the world, and after renovating it he renamed it ‘Conrad Hilton’.
Although it was very large, Hilton continued using his ‘digging for gold’ policy. He added an entire floor by dividing a ballroom horizontally and building it halfway between the original floor and the high ceiling.
So far, all his hotels were operated independently. In 1946, he formed ‘Hilton Hotel Corporation’ and had it listed under the New York Stock Exchange the following year. Hilton, with his $9 million worth of stock, was the largest shareholder.
Next in 1949, Hilton obtained ‘Hotel Caribe Hilton’ in San Juan, Puerto Rico on a 20-year lease. This was the group’s first hotel outside the United States and with it was born ‘Hilton International Company’, which became the first international hotel chain.
In October 1949 he fulfilled one of his long-cherished dreams and acquired the management rights of the prestigious ‘Waldorf-Astoria Hotel’ in New York City. The Hilton Hotels Corporation finally bought the hotel outright in 1972.
So far, Statler Hotels was his main competitor. In 1954, he purchased the company for a record price of $111,000,000. The move was possible because Hilton had earlier enlisted his company under New York Stock Exchange and so he was able to obtain additional capital from outside investors.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he kept on acquiring hotels both at home and abroad. Besides, he also acquired interest in other enterprises such as Carte Blanche Credit Company and American Crystal Sugar Company. However, they were not as successful as his hotel ventures.
In 1966, he gave up the active management of the company, naming his son Barron the President. However, he remained Chairman of the Board until his death almost 13 years later.
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The first major hotel that Conrad Hilton built was ‘Dallas Hilton’. For the site, he chose the highest point in downtown Dallas. The building consisted of 14 storeys and the hotel offered all kinds of services. Built at a cost of$1,360,000, the hotel was officially opened on August 6, 1925.
Among the other major hotels later acquired by Hilton were the Mayflower Hotel in Washington DC, the Palmer House in Chicago, and the Plaza Hotel and Waldorf-Astoria in New York City.
He is also known for his book, ‘Be My Guest’. Published in 1957, the book is still considered a sort of Bible to all hoteliers.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1925, Conrad Hilton married Mary Adelaide Barron. The couple had three children; Conrad Nicholson Hilton Jr., William Barron Hilton, and Eric Michael Hilton. Later in 1934, when trouble broke out between the couple, he granted her a divorce going against his will and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1942, Hilton married Hungarian actress ZsaZsa Gabor in a civil ceremony. The marriage was a disaster from the beginning and ended in a divorce in 1946. They had one daughter Constance Francesca Hilton.
In 1976, Hilton married Mary Frances Kelly. This marriage happened in a church. Their union lasted until his death in 1979.
Hilton died from natural causes on January 3, 1979, at the age of 91. He was interred at Calvary Hill Cemetery, a Catholic cemetery in Dallas, Texas.
The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the trust he founded continues his legacy.