It’s a long way from the poor suburbs of Johannesburg to the Atlantic shores of Paradise Island. Sol Kerzner tells his epic tale of a meteoric rise to success and what it means to “blow away the customer.”
By Seth Semilof & Ayesha Khan
Photography by Yann Dandois
Both husband and wife are beaming at an intimate naming ceremony for their two newborn dolphins.
Louis XIV, France’s Roi Soleil, wowed the world with his elaborate manifestations of luxury, inimitable sense of style, dedication to his kingdom, and, most importantly, the largest and most elaborate palace Europe had ever seen. Today, over 300 years later, a new Sun King reigns supreme. His Versailles: a 171-acre mega flagship resort that is, quite simply, second to none. His vast realm reaches from the shores of Mexico to the tranquil waters of the Maldives, and his future is just as packed with pyrotechnics as his illustrious, sometimes controversial past. But the fact that, unlike his famous French namesake, he was not born into royalty makes his meteoric rise to success all the more remarkable. He is Sol Kerzner, the man who convinced the world that building a rainforest replete with one million hand-planted trees, waterfalls, and a man-made beach in the South African Bushveld makes perfect sense, and that a glass encased waterslide plummeting into a shark tank is great fun.
The self-made gaming magnate’s tough as nails reputation always precedes him, but today there is an endearing warmth about him. It must be Heather, the Columbia University-educated 37-year old beauty who became the fourth Mrs. Kerzner in 2000, and promptly convinced Kerzner to quit drinking. “It is an honor to be married to Sol and to be able to spend as much time with him as I do. He is incredible and the thing that I find most inspirational about Sol is his sense of humility and his sense of values, and how his family means everything to him in the world,” she confides to us. Both husband and wife are beaming at an intimate naming ceremony for their two newborn dolphins. The international press will soon be all over the young additions to Dolphin Cay, the 10 million gallon marine habitat that is home to 16 charming creatures rescued from Hurricane Katrina. But, for the moment, there is something almost magical about being with the Kerzners for such an important moment.
Heather recounts how Kerzner, despite his take-no-prisoners business attitude, has a soft side. “He takes time to head to schools to talk to eight-year-olds about following their dreams, which is what is special about Sol. While he is running a billion dollar corporation, he also cares about the little things,” she explains, as we proceed to a chic cabana at the soon-to-be launched Cain at The Cove poolside lounge/bar to talk to the gaming czar and his first lady about his past, present, and future.
“We like to do things on a bigger scale,” asserts Kerzner, whose cohorts and colleagues take his “blow away the customer” mantra very seriously. “Everything we do is based around ‘blowing away the customer,’ and it is lead by Sol. He is a gracious host and he has this incredible way of making every welcome a unique experience, and this is passed down into the hotel staff and through to our guests at the resort. Being able to leave the guest pleasurably astounded at each turn is a real talent,” explains Alan Leibman, Kerzner International president and managing director. Leibman has worked closely with Sol Kerzner for over 12 years. “It has been wonderful to have Sol as a mentor and boss, being able to work by his side from the initial dream and taking each project through to reality. Whilst Sol has to be one of the toughest people to work for, because he genuinely lives and breathes that ‘good enough is never enough,’ he also brings to the table the tools and resources that enable us to deliver exceptional properties like no one else I have ever seen,” admits Leibman.