Harris Rosen, president and COO of Orlando-based Rosen Hotels & Resorts, said starting at “the bottom” helped to shape who he is today. But he credits one special moment, during what was technically his first job in the industry, for setting him on this path.
ORLANDO, Florida—If not for a hug that Harris Rosen received around age 9 in an elevator at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, he might be an artist today, rather than president and COO of a hotel company that has seven properties in Orlando.
The life-changing embrace happened on what was technically Rosen’s first job in the hotel industry—as an assistant to his father, Jack Rosen, who was working as a safety engineer and poster artist at the Waldorf Astoria.
Jack, having been recognized by his boss for his calligraphy skills, was assigned to make name place cards for weddings, banquets and other events at the hotel. When that work began to stack up, he asked his son Harris to help out on weekends—erasing pencil-sketch lines around the inked names on the cards, alphabetizing them and arranging them on tables.
For his help, Harris’s dad paid him a penny for every card he touched. There were hundreds of them, which Harris excitedly calculated could be worth “one or two dollars.”
“I said, ‘when can we start?’” Rosen recalled. “A dollar in those days went a long, long way. My buddies knew about my job … and they’d be waiting for me when I came home, and would say, ‘What are you going to get for us?’”
There were other perks with this job, too. Often, riding up and down in the hotel elevator with his dad on the weekends, he encountered the Waldorf’s famous guests.
On one of those elevator rides, sometime around 1948, he remembers whispering, awestruck, to ask if his father could introduce him to the “most beautiful blonde lady” he had ever seen.
“He said, ‘Harris, I’d like you to meet Marilyn Monroe.’”
Harris extended his hand for a handshake, but the actress “put her arms around me and hugged me,” he said.
“If I close my eyes, I can still feel it,” Rosen said. “It was that good of a hug.”
And though he had inherited much of his father’s artistic ability, had his own art exhibit at age 10 or 11, and had planned to attend a top fine arts school after high school, “I kept thinking about Marilyn,” he said. “And I thought, how wonderful would it be to be in the hotel business, and be able to meet such wonderful people on a regular basis.”
He applied and was accepted to the Cornell School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University. Thinking about it now, he admits, “it was Marilyn who was really responsible for me being in the hotel industry.”
Rosen discovered something else about himself during those weekends, earning a penny a place card working with his dad. He enjoyed the work, and the fact that he was being paid “made it even more worthwhile.”
“I do believe that there is an entrepreneurial gene,” he said. “Some people are born with this horrible, little gene that creates this anxiety to always be doing something creative and to never be satisfied. And I think I must have it.”
That trait exhibited itself while Harris was a kid at camp, digging up nightcrawlers after dark to sell them, three for a quarter, to the eager fishermen at the docks the next morning; and after college, during his three years in the U.S. Army when, stationed in Holland, he decided he could make easy money on the side selling tulip bulbs to his love-struck fellow officers, and sunshades (complete with paid advertising on the back) to beach loungers.
“All along, I’ve had this horrible little gene making me do silly things,” Rosen said.
In 1964, when his military service was up, Rosen returned to the Waldorf Astoria, and asked for a job.
“I was told they really didn’t have anything available for someone with a four-year degree from Cornell. I said, ‘I don’t care; I’ll start anywhere.’”
The only opening was for a file clerk in the personnel office. Thus, Rosen began his first “official” job in the hotel industry. It didn’t last long.
One of his responsibilities in the personnel office was to file new job openings.
“If it was something I had an interest in, I would not file it,” he said. “Instead, I would go and interview for the job. It wasn’t very long, maybe three months, that I found a job that was not in sales—which is what I wanted to do—but was on the sales floor.”
That job was to set up for events. His coworkers—most of whom “didn’t speak very good English”—asked him why he was there. He told them, “it’s a beginning. It’s a start.”
Soon, he was noticed by the hotel’s director of sales, a fellow Cornell grad, who promised to hire him whenever a sales job opened up. Just about a month later, he did, and Rosen eventually became the Waldorf’s top convention salesman.
After going through Hilton’s management program, he spent about six years with the company, managing hotels from Dallas to Mexico to Acapulco.
“I was not married, was able to travel like crazy and did,” he said. “I seemed to enjoy it. It’s not something I would care to think about now, but that was the beginning. The rest, I guess, is history.”
Today, in addition to his hotel company, he is founder of The Harris Rosen Foundation, which is his way of giving back for all he’s been “blessed with” in his life; the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida, which he is proud to say rivals his own alma mater; and Rosen Medical Center.
He also owns and operates restaurants at his hotels, including one named Jack’s Place, which displays some of the autographed caricatures his father drew of celebrity guests at the Waldorf. While he hasn’t lifted a paintbrush himself for about 50 years, Rosen said his artistic ability is exhibited still in his design vision for his hotels.
He has four children—Jack, 27; Joshua, 26; Adam, 25; and Shayna, 23—all of whom attended Rosen College.
Rosen credits who he is today with his humble beginnings, both in the hotel industry and as a boy growing up on the lower east side of New York City.
“It was the bottom. … I know it sounds crazy to say that growing up in that neighborhood was an advantage, but it was,” he said.
And the hard work he put in at the beginning of his career “certainly does help to empathize with all of our associates, who I do believe are family members,” he said.
“I know what it’s like to work hard, to be disappointed, to struggle. I think that all helps,” he said.
That’s why his company offers all employees a profit-sharing plan, the “best healthcare plan anywhere,” and pays college tuition for their children, and the employees themselves, after a certain amount of time with the company.
“I really empathize with all of our associates, so I guess I do things others are not inclined to do,” he said. “I do it because I want to, and because I want to help.”