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Phone: 760-994-9266

That Commitment to Excellence is Harry Mullikin’s Legacy

David Brudney & Associates- Hospitality Marketing Consultants
David M. Brudney, ISHC, a nationally recognized spokesman for hotels and a veteran with four decades of experience, is the principal of David Brudney & Assoc. of Carlsbad, CA

David M. Brudney, ISHC, May 2011

It was the summer of 1967 and while the country was heavily polarized over the war in Viet Nam and debating who would be our next president, Lyndon Johnson was due to arrive for a political event at the Century Plaza Hotel in West Los Angeles.

Gathering momentum with each passing month, the Century Plaza was clicking on all cylinders. By then, it was already establishing itself as the "go to" hotel of corporate America, professional trade organizations, television networks, Hollywood celebrities and, to be sure, the White House indeed.

This particular visit was going to make the three TV network newscasts that evening. A highly charged crowd estimated to be more than 5,000, demanding an end to the war, was expected to confront the presidential entourage at the hotel’s entrance, according to an alert from the Los Angeles Police Department.

Still a junior member of the Century Plaza’s sales team at that time, I was directed to attend a meeting along with my fellow sales associates in vice president and managing director Harry Mullikin’s office. I had no idea of the reason for the meeting, but when I saw the hotel owner’s attorney waiting for us, I knew it wasn’t about why we needed to keep the sales office open on Saturdays.

Harry - - more than four decades later, it’s still difficult for me to call him anything but Mr. Mullikin - - was such a strong, authoritative figure, one who demanded excellence from all those who served under him, that entering his office was the closest thing to meeting with the commander-in-chief or even the Lord Almighty.

The suspense ended quickly. Harry wasn’t asking, he was "volunteering" the sales team to personally, face-to-face, wage into the crowd, handing out single page notices advising that any protestor stepping on private property would be subject to arrest.

So there I was, armed with only a stack of notices, walking straight through a mass of angry protestors attempting to hand out documents no one wanted to see - - all the while Muhammad Ali was exhorting the crowd on a very loud P.A. system.

I completed my mission doing my best to block out being jeered, vilified, and nearly spat upon. Reflecting back, that was no task for a hotel employee. The sales team was put in harm’s way with no consideration given to whether we - - as private citizens - - might agree politically with the protestor’s cause.

I did it for one reason and one reason alone: Harry expected me to do it and I was not going to disappoint him. Doing whatever Harry expected was pretty much the order of the day at the Century Plaza.

Mullikin’s Picasso

The Century Plaza was Harry’s masterpiece - - an original Picasso, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, built on the back lot of 20th Century Fox Studios. Western International Hotels (WIH) president Eddie Carlson dispatched Harry to visit the great hotels of the world to gain ideas several years before construction began. Harry’s fingerprints were all over Minoru Yamasaki’s bold and creative design - - taking such interest in every phase of the construction, he knew where every piece of pipe went.

He left nothing to chance in making the work place employee friendly. The employee cafeteria was state of the art - - so atypical of industry standards of the mid-‘60s. And the employee uniforms, locker rooms and showers were all of such high quality and no doubt helped create a very strong sense of pride that resonated throughout the hotel.

Perhaps one of Harry’s greatest assets was in surrounding himself with talented people and building a team to operate the hotel. Time and space will not allow mention of all of the high quality professionals with whom I had the honor to serve.

I’ll limit it to just four. Dan McClaskey was Harry’s chief of staff and he is the one who managed the day-to-day operations. There was none better than Dan. Dan took a keen interest in sales and I learned a great deal from him personally. Jack Vaughn - - yes, that Jack Vaughn - - was the opening rooms exec. The legendary Gina Tucker was executive housekeeper and the one-and-only Walter Roth was executive chef.

“Let’s put Brudney in housekeeping for three weeks”

Harry set the tone. Harry was the visionary. And Harry’s attention to detail was unparalleled. I was able to witness that attention to detail first hand. I had been hired as the northern California regional sales manager shortly before the hotel’s opening. Harry decreed "let’s put Brudney in housekeeping for three weeks." No one explained why, but I was sure that my new employers didn’t think much of my limited operations background - - my only hotel work experience had been 18 months as a sales rep for two very modest hotels in San Francisco.

Those three weeks in housekeeping became a priceless learning experience for me. The highlight, of course, was the personal interest Harry demonstrated. He would come find me - - day or night - - to join him for inspecting guestrooms. He’d pick a random floor and then show me in minute detail what constituted a "perfect room." We’d then go from room to room with his inspection of my inspecting.

I could not believe that I was standing in an empty guestroom at 10 o’clock at night, with the managing director of a spectacular new hotel, one that he helped design, looking for any mistakes that housekeepers might have made.

I’ll never forget how he pointed out I had missed the placement of a tent card on one of the tables - - it was "off" by no more than three inches.

The misplaced knife and the unbuttoned coat

Harry could also be brutal with his sharp criticism of employee etiquette and appearance. Over dinner one night with a department head he scolded the manager for his incorrect placement of a knife on his dinner plate. And once noticing a three-piece suit I was wearing, he admonished me for leaving my coat unbuttoned. "Century Plaza sales managers don’t do that," said Harry.

We would joke behind Harry’s back, "Harry is such a perfectionist that if he was married to Raquel Welsh, he’d expect her to cook." Another favorite later on when asked by a hotel competitor if Harry ever smiles, I answered, "I don’t know. I’ve only worked for him for five years."

We never knew Harry had a sense of humor - - I discovered it by accident one day when Harry was speaking at a special lunch in recognition of all the hotel vendors. He told the group about an experience he had the first day the hotel opened. Standing in the elegant lobby, watching guests checking in, having cocktails in the sunken lobby court bar, obviously beaming proudly at what he had created, he noticed a restaurant bus person approaching him with a soiled blouse carrying a tray of dirty dishes. Harry knew every inch of that hotel, all service traffic patterns, and there was absolutely no reason for that employee to be where he was. Harry was livid, but must have counted to 10 before he spoke. "Where did you come from?" Harry demanded. Obviously shaken when recognizing who was speaking, the employee answered, "P-P-P Peru!"

More Mullikin "teaching moments"

Business goes where it is invited and stays where it is well treated. Price offers an inducement, but quality and service offer a reason. The first lesson in the hotel business: the guests are always right if they believe they are. If you have trouble with the first lesson, go back and study it until you are absolutely certain it is the most important lesson.

If you take good care of the employees, the employees will take good care of the guests, and the guests will take good care of the owners. "We’re not in the business of building churches for Easter Sunday" - - Harry’s response to the sales team’s plea to build a tower and additional event space based on the Century Plaza’s early success and large group demand.

WIH - - a company, thanks to the Century Plaza, Harry helped put on the map - - became Westin. A tower was eventually built at the Century Plaza and Westin’s parent company Starwood put a St. Regis flag on it. The property is now a Hyatt Regency.

Harry Mullikin has long since left the building. He moved on to WIH’s corporate offices in Seattle where he became chairman and CEO before his retirement after 48 years of service.

Harry died April 30th in Tucson, AZ. He was 84. I have many more lessons learned and memories of Harry but those and other stories will be addressed in a book I’m writing about my first 50 years in the hotel business. He had great impact on a great many hoteliers. I will be forever grateful that I was one of them.

About David Brudney & Associates

David M. Brudney has become a charter member of Laguna Strategic Advisors and was a founding member of the International Society of Hospitality Consultants. Brudney is a veteran sales-and-marketing professional concluding his fifth decade of service to the hospitality industry. Brudney advises lodging owners, lenders, asset managers and operators about hotel sales and marketing best practices and standards of care, and conducts reviews of sales-and-marketing operations throughout the world. Brudney is a professional speaker, teacher, mentor and sales trainer. Previously, Brudney held sales and marketing positions with Hyatt, Westin and Marriott.

Contact:  David M. Brudney, Principal
David Brudney & Associates
Carlsbad, CA 92009
Phone:  760-994-9266
Email David Brudney
Web Site:   www.DavidBrudney.com

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