An oil heiress, at 83, is expanding her chain of small, posh, profitable hotels.
(FORTUNE Small Business) – You're sitting on the porch," says Caroline Rose Hunt, 83, rolling her vowels charmingly, "where they used to sit out here and sweat." Though it's steamy in Dallas today, we're cool. The porch was enclosed and air-conditioned in 1979. The library and living room of the stately home were made into a restaurant; the dining room is now a bar. A nine-story tower went up next door, with guest rooms. When it came time to name the place, someone suggested the King's Inn, after Sheppard King, who built the big house in 1923. "We x'd that," says Hunt. "We thought it sounded like a motel." Since they'd always called it the mansion anyway, they went with that: the Mansion on Turtle Creek.
It's now the flagship of a 15-property, $300 million global hospitality empire--Rosewood Hotels & Resorts--under the unlikely (honorary) chairmanship of the charming Miss Hunt. One of the richest women in the world, she is looking lovely today in a robin's-egg-blue suit, with her rose-red lipstick, double strand of pearls, and beautiful long gray hair. She's the third child (there were 14) of Texas oilman H.L. Hunt. Her mother was H.L.'s first wife (there were three), Lyda Bunker, who was descended from seven generations of Nantucket Quakers. Two of her brothers are Bunker and Herbert, whose failed plot to corner the silver market in the early 1980s was a factor in Caroline's decision to carve off her own piece of the Hunt family fortune and pursue a solo business career. "They felt endangered," Hunt says, tactfully, "and they didn't see any reason for my sister [Margaret] and I, who had nothing to do with it, to be hurt by it."
Until then Hunt had been largely indifferent to business. "I devoted my life to my home, my children's school, and community work," she says. The Mansion began as a real estate investment, nothing more. But hotels enthralled her. "Everybody has opinions about hotels, including me," she says. "I found business lots of fun. Especially since we were successful from day one."
Successful in part because Hunt is tough. She doesn't comp rooms for friends. ("Everybody pays!") She's famously frugal. ("I don't waste anything. I'll press a piece of soap onto the next piece of soap. I turn the water off when I'm brushing my teeth and turn it back on. I fly coach--unless I'm in our company plane.") And she refuses to let her sensibility interfere with her business sense, as exemplified early in her career by the painful decision to sell her beloved Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles in 1989--according to press reports, the first time anyone had gotten more than $1 million per room. "I miss it still," she says. "It was a charming place. And then we sold the Hana Maui [in Hawaii] to the same people, also at a very good price. But that enabled us to continue in the hotel business, so we didn't look back."
Rosewood's niche is ultra-luxury on a human scale. "Not the huge atrium three stories tall," says Hunt. "All our properties have an intimacy to them--your home away from home." (If you live in a castle, but whatever.) Rosewood is opening two new hotels this spring, including the 127-room Corniche in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, overlooking the Red Sea; it features a royal suite, staffed with two butlers, at $4,000 a night and a "dedicated ladies' floor." Other Rosewood properties offer complimentary GPS navigators and advance copies of bestsellers-to-be by Candace Bushnell and Stephen King.
Does she find business exciting?
"It's interesting," says Hunt, after a pause for thought. "I'm not like some people--that's all I can think about--not at all. But you know, someone once said that happiness is having interesting thoughts. Well, it's interesting." Another pause. "Especially if you don't have to go out and dig the ditch, you know."
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