Sun City Founder Sells Out To Dubai Investors, Says He Isn’t Quitting

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Written by Dana Sanchez

One of the most controversial, colorful, and successful businessmen South Africa has produced, Sol Kerzner made billions — and lost some — building hotels such as Sun City and The Palace of the Lost City, according to SACommercialPropNews.

He has been described as South Africa’s Donald Trump.

This week, the “Sun King” sold his family interests in Kerzner International Holdings — the group he started 20 years ago when he moved from South Africa to London — to Investment Corporation of Dubai.

Investment Corporation of Dubai‘s investment portfolio is comprised of wholly and partly owned government businesses, according to its website.

Kerzner’s divestment comes at a time when the group is developing phase two of Atlantis, The Palm, in Dubai. Several new One&Only-brand hotels have been opened and others are being planned.

Kerzner helped put South Africa on the tourist map, developing some of the country’s top hotel brands — first Southern Sun and Sun International, and then Sun City and The Palace of the Lost City, SACommercialPropNews reports. These put him in the big leagues of hotel tycoons.

In London, Kerzner developed the Atlantis brand, attracting global attention from the day
the first lavish hotel opened in the Bahamas in 1994 with the world’s largest aquarium. Atlantis opened in Dubai in 2008.

Kerzner became bigger news and more of a celebrity than some of the stars he’s worked with over the years. His grand parties and spectacular hotel openings are legendary. His wives and girlfriends included a Miss World (Anneline Kriel) and supermodels. He faced allegations of bribery. He’s a prominent London philanthropist and socialite.

So what’s next for this overachiever known as a hard worker and taskmaster with an eye for detail? He plans to open an office in London, and has been approached to do a few “consulting jobs,” SACommercialPropNews reports.

“It’s the end of one chapter. I’m a little older now and you can’t think one would achieve what I’ve done over the last 50 years, but I’m not ready to retire,” he said.

Kerzner said he moved to London “to go international” according to the report. Getting established there was difficult because of the anti-apartheid movement and being South African.

But he succeeded. He received an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth after being nominated by the Bahamas government as the country’s largest employer. He was the first non-American to be inducted into the U.S. Gaming Hall of Fame.

Kerzner says he had been a “boring accountant” working for a Durban firm before he started out in hotels.

At age 29, his first opportunity was to develop the Beverly Hills Hotel in Durban. Back in 1964 few believed he would succeed because he was a young kid spending too much money. The Beverly Hills became South Africa’s first five-star hotel.

Kerzner said he has a soft spot for his first venture, the Beverly Hills, and also loved coming up with concept for the Palace of the Lost City. “I think The Palace, to this day, is one of the finest masterpieces in hotels,” he said.

Kerzner’s “cozy” relationship with bantustan leaders in the 1980s attracted much media attention. Suggestions of favors exchanged for exclusive casino licences followed him and he left South Africa under a cloud of bribery and corruption allegations, according to the report.

When Kerzner made a presentation of the Sun City concept — hotels, a monorail, lake and golf course — to Lucas Mangope, president of the Bophuthatswana bantustan and his cabinet, they were blown away, he said. “That’s the reason we got the casino concession. It was a huge investment at the time.”

It was just a matter of time before he sold out of the London business, Kerzner said. He initially saw it as a family business. His son Butch took over as CEO in 2004. Sol stayed on as chairman. They took the business private in September 2006 in a $3.8-billion
buyout. Butch died in a helicopter crash a month later while looking for potential hotel sites in the Caribbean.

“I always thought of it as a family business,” Kerzner said, “but with Butch gone I realized it wasn’t going to be a family business. There was no one who could fill his spot.”

Kerzner has no assets in South Africa other than his house in Hout Bay well known for New Year celebrations. He has no plans for other developments in South Africa, SACommercialPropNews reports.

A friend of Nelson Mandela, Kerzner helped organize Mandela’s inauguration.

He attributes much of his drive to his parents, Lithuanian Jews who emigrated to South Africa and worked seven days a week, first running a cafe in Johannesburg and then a modest kosher hotel in Durban, according to the report.