Wednesday 16 October 2019

Obituary: Barron Hilton

Businessman who consolidated his family's fortunes by expanding hotel empire into the Las Vegas casino scene

Legacy: Barron Hilton
Legacy: Barron Hilton

Barron Hilton, who died, aged 91, on September 19, inherited the leadership of the global hotel empire founded by his father and bolstered its fortunes by expanding into owning Las Vegas casinos.

Conrad Hilton (1887-1979), the son of a Norwegian immigrant, built a small chain of hotels in Texas in the 1920s which expanded nationally in the post-war years and went on to become the first truly international hotel brand.

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His son Barron held the reins of the business from 1966 to 1996, exercising shrewd long-term financial stewardship while broadening its portfolio. In 1970, Hilton bought - from the hard-dealing entrepreneur Kirk Kerkorian - the hotels that became the greatly expanded Flamingo Hilton and Las Vegas Hilton, which between them offered 6,700 bedrooms.

The latter was also the venue for hundreds of Elvis Presley concerts, as well as celebrated bouts by boxers such as Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson.

The Vegas hotels also raised the Hilton profile in the increasingly lucrative corporate convention market, and in bumper years they generated almost as much income as the group's other 160 US hotels combined.

William Barron Hilton was born in Dallas, Texas, on October 23, 1927, the second of three sons of Conrad Hilton by his first wife, Mary Barron; after divorcing Mary, Conrad became the second of nine husbands of the actress Zsa Zsa Gabor. Barron's playboy elder brother, Nicky, was the first husband of the film star Elizabeth Taylor.

Barron attended the New Mexico Military Institute before enlisting at 17 in the US Navy. Deployed to Pearl Harbour, he worked in a photographic lab while learning to fly; after discharge, he attended the University of Southern California's aeronautical school and made his way as an entrepreneur in lines of business including aircraft leasing and oil before joining the hotel empire in 1954 as a vice-president, running its franchise operations and in-house credit-card service.

In 1959, he also became a founder franchisee of the American Football League, an upstart rival to the existing National Football League: his team, the Chargers, first played in Los Angeles but moved to San Diego in 1961.

As president of the AFL he helped forge its 1965 merger with the NFL; but the Hilton board asked him to drop his football involvement when he succeeded his father as president and chief executive.

Conrad Hilton was a devout Roman Catholic who left almost all of his fortune, including a 28pc stake in the hotel company, to a charitable foundation, declaring that "There is a natural law, a divine law, that obliges you and me to relieve the suffering, the distressed and the destitute".

Barron Hilton held only a 3pc stake, but embarked on a decade-long legal battle - which pitted him against several orders of nuns who were beneficiaries - to gain control of the lion's share of the foundation's holdings.

He was, however, credited with helping to grow the value of his father's charitable bequest from $160m in 1979 to some $3bn; and in 2007 he announced in turn that he intended to leave 97pc of his own fortune to the foundation, which he chaired until 2012; the legacy is expected to double its endowments to more than $6bn.

He married, in 1947, his childhood sweetheart Marilyn Hawley, who died in 2004. Their eight children survive him; one of his granddaughters is the reality-television star Paris Hilton.

© Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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