After Harris Rosen was fired, he needed to figure out what to do next.
His bosses at Walt Disney World didn't believe he would ever become a "company man", and he didn't disagree with them. After his successes in developing the Contemporary, Polynesian and Fort Wilderness resorts, he realized he couldn't be what Disney wanted him to be.
“I finally came to the conclusion that I most likely didn’t have the organization man’s personality,” says Rosen. “I’ve known since an early age that I’ve been inflicted with what I call that awful defective entrepreneurial gene. Deep down inside I knew that one day I was destined to be in business for myself.”
He wasn't the type of man to play it safe.
So after leaving Disney, he withdrew his last $20,000 from savings and used it as a down-payment on a 256-room Quality Inn on Orlando's International Drive.
As Watergate neared its culmination and the Vietnam War was winding down in 1974, the country was in the middle of an oil embargo. In Orlando, nearly every hotel that wasn't associated with Disney faced a severe financial crisis.
“It was the best possible time to buy a hotel and the worst possible time to buy a hotel,” says Rosen.
At the time the hotel had a 20% occupancy rate and the entrepreneur couldn't afford a bus ticket or airfare to reach his customers in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
So he hitchhiked.
His efforts were rewarded. He offered bus companies a rate of $7.25 and $8.25 per night honored for 1 year to come to the hotel. The buses started rolling in and the hotel stayed busy.
Today, the same Quality Inn hotel continues to defy expectations. His office isn't representative of a successful business man that built the largest independently owned hotel group in Florida. It's more like a cozy living room filled with family photos and mementos from his life, including his U.S. Army ID card and an autographed sketch of a baseball great Jackie Robinson.
“I’ve been in this room for 37 years,” Rosen says. “This is not exactly what people who aspire to be successful dream of having … beautiful offices and private planes and condos all over the place. But for me, it’s very comfortable.”
Harris Rosen's first job in hospitality was helping his dad to finish and deliver hand-lettered place cards for banquets. He was paid a penny per card, which was a fortune for the 10-year-old at the time.
“One day, we walk into the elevator and the most magnificent lady, a blonde lady with a beautiful figure, was there with a very tall, distinguished gentleman,” he recalls. “I whispered to my dad, ‘Who is that?’ … He turned and said, ‘Ambassador Kennedy, Marilyn, this is my son, Harris.’ It was Marilyn Monroe. That sealed it for me. I thought if I could meet all of these incredible people in an elevator, this really was a business that I might enjoy.”
Manhattan's Lower East Side in the 40's and 50's was a crowded ghetto riddled with homelessness and afflicted by disease. Rosen and his brother, sons of Ukrainian immigrants, would regularly step over people on the street on their way to school. It wasn't until they heard a passenger remark on a sightseeing bus,“So this is how they live.” that they saw there was another way to live.
“My brother and I didn’t know what she meant,” he says. “Mom had to explain to us that not everyone lives this way. And if we didn’t want to live here for the rest of our lives, we had to work hard in school and get a good education.”
He took his mom's advice, and earned a bachelor degree in hotel administration from Cornell University.
See how getting an education changed his life and the lives of an entire neighborhood on the next page.