Jun 19, 2024

Episode 133

Sam Nazarian


In 1979, as the Iranian Revolution swept through the streets of Tehran, Younes Nazarian and his wife Soraya Sarah made the decision to leave behind a successful construction business and move their family to the U.S., ultimately landing in Los Angeles. His youngest son, Sam, was only 3 years old at the time, but he watched his dad build a new life in America.  Younes’ business acumen led him to become an early investor in technology company Qualcomm and eventually chairman of Nazarian Enterprises, which focused on a variety of interests in the private, public, and real estate markets.

Like his father, Sam, showcased a formidable drive. A smart, athletic kid, he played baseball and basketball in high school and college before attending NYU’s Stern School of Business. By 23, Sam had become the country’s largest distributor of Nextel, a wireless digital communications provider. A year later, he ventured into hotel real estate, buying the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills. By the time he was 26, Sam had invested in 10 hotels and had even dipped his toes into film production on the side.

In 2006, he launched SBE—Sammy Boy Entertainment, a callback to a childhood nickname. After a series of successful nightclub venues, the first SLS hotel opened in Beverly Hills, a testament to his vision of blending F&B and nightlife into a cohesive luxury-meets-lifestyle experience.

As the SBE brand grew, so did Nazarian’s ambitions. In 2020, he sold the company to Accor, and this January, he announced HQ Projects, a strategic partnership with Wyndham that provides hotel owners with the freedom to craft their own hospitality stories.


Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I am here with Sam Nazarian. Sam, thank you so much for joining us here today.

Sam Nazarian: What a pleasure. Nice to see you again.

SSR: Good to see you too. It’s been so long. All right, so we always start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?

SN: I grew up in LA, in the Beverly Hills School District. We came from Iran in 1979. After the Revolution, it started there, so I was three, so that was kind of all I knew.

SSR: Yeah. Did you have family in Beverly Hills then, or did everyone move?

SN: Yeah, the communities, the Iranian communities moved generally to two big pockets of New York and LA. A lot of them thought that the Revolution was going to be a short-term moment, and obviously it wasn’t. So the assimilation started and it was a very trying time for my parents and the community as a whole, but it became the epitome of the American dream.

SSR: What were you like as a kid?

SN: I don’t know. I was the youngest of four kids, so my oldest siblings were a lot older, and so assimilating to a new school, the new culture, the culture at home, and the culture of the American culture in school. So I was a very athletic kid. That was the one thing that was the constant. Forgetting about showing the school. A lot of kids, American kids had their lunch boxes and this, and I was coming in with Persian food and things like this. But as a whole, I think I was very entrepreneurial. I was gifted, I was very smart in math. So that kind of helped me get into certain parts of not having to study and learning things quick. And by the same time, I think sports was really the constant for me. So I was very blessed to be athletic from that side. So that was really where I spent most of my time.

A rendering of HQ in Montreux Villa Toscane in Switzerland. Rendering courtesy of SBE.

SSR: Was there one sport in particular?

SN: Baseball. Actually, I was really good at baseball, which is ironic because nobody in my family could understand the game. It was the most boring game to watch. It was like learning cricket and basketball. I ended up having, I cut my hand when I was 15 pretty bad and I had a lot of nerve damage, so I couldn’t play baseball anymore. But I ended up continuing playing basketball, so played varsity basketball and played a little bit for the NYU team here, when I went to NYU, and then tore my ACL. So that was that.

SSR: That was that. End of the basketball career.

SN: Learned about fraternities.

SSR: Yeah, even more fun. All right. So you went to NYU?

SN: Yeah, I got into the Stern School as a freshman, which I didn’t realize was a pretty big deal. Coming from Beverly Hills to Washington Square Park was something actually I loved. There were seven kids from my high school that went to NYU, and I was the only one to stay after the first semester. It wasn’t like what you see now with kids going to universities and welcoming committees and all this other stuff. I remember coming here, getting dropped off with a taxi, just me by myself. And it was like a drug deal gone bad at Washington Square Park with cops everywhere. And I was going to the dorm, Weinstein dorm, which is the authentic freshman dorm at NYU. So it was a big shock, but it was really cool. I loved it.

SSR: Yeah. How did you decide to go from LA to NYU? Was it anything your parents drove you to, or you just wanted to get out of LA?

SN: It’s a good question. For me, I always built my own path. Obviously being very respectful of the family and that perspective, but ultimately, I did want to go to the East Coast, and I spent a lot of summers here in New York working for my uncles. My uncles were big antique dealers. So I just loved that. Every summer I could, I’d work instead of going to camps or things like that where a lot of my contemporaries would go. So that’s what I loved. I loved working in factories. I loved delivering antiques on the Lower East Side. So New York to me was a good, and getting into NYU was also something that I didn’t expect. Actually I thought I was going to go to Boston University, which I got into also. But it was a learning for both my parents and I, because all my siblings went to USC and grew up in and around the house. But I kind of forged my own way and came out here.

SSR: I love it. And your dad was an entrepreneur too, right?

SN: Yeah. My dad passed away two years ago at 91, but he was really one of those people that grew up in the ghettos of Iran, lost his dad when he was two, selling light bulbs and cigarettes just at five years old, that kind of really, really story. He built a big business in Iran in construction, and in ’79 lost it all because we had to leave very quickly, as most people did, that were tight. That weren’t part of the Islamic Revolution, if you will. So when we came here, he was roughly my age, I am today. Four kids, new language and new responsibilities. And he built back up in manufacturing, and borrowed money from here and bought a company, things like that. And in 1985, with the vision that he and his brother had, somebody came to him with the technology. And these are kids, these are men with third grade educations, right?

They weren’t engineers. Very smart, very instinctual, but not technical. And somebody said, we have this technology that we think is really cool, and do you want to invest the money you have saved in the four years, five years they’d been there? So they did. They doubled down. And that company ended up merging with Qualcomm, which became not a no-brainer overnight. It was Qualcomm. Some of my first memories are of those moments, the kitchen table. Is the company going to go bankrupt? Is the technology going to get approved? So that was kind of the things that I remember.

SSR: Yeah, that’s amazing. And so how did you get into the hospitality world? What was your kind of first entree into it?

SN: Well, when I was 21, the family was pretty… Qualcomm had become a pretty big stock and a very public stock. But I was always excited about doing my own things. At 21, I decided to start not a tech company, kind of a cellular tech company, not knowing what I was doing. But I saw a product that was really cool called Nextel, if you remember the walkie-talkie digital phone?

SSR: My husband had one in college.

SN: Exactly. So some sales guy came and presented it to a bunch of our friends to sell it to them, and knowing enough about cellular. And back then it was the flip phones and it was like five bucks for a call and things, very expensive cellular at that time, analog cellular. And anyway, I appreciated how cool that this thing was. So I kind of went down to Long Beach where Nextel had just set up small company, and got a license to sell it B2B, business to business. And the guy who gave me the license was like, he was sure I was going to just not be successful. And we became the largest Nextel distributor by 23. So that was kind of my first thing. And I sold the company back to Nextel and our partners for a couple million bucks. So I started it with nothing.

So I was proud of myself. I thought I was the king of the world. So through that, I started to work with my father and investing in multi-family. That was what he wanted to do. And because of his relationships, I got access to some great private equity guys who would’ve never talked to me. But because of his balance sheet, they were all very intrigued. And so I learned really at first, it was really real estate at its core, multi-family office. Started finding operating partners and just co-investing, that kind of stuff, which was really interesting. Wasn’t really passionate about it. And I was 24. And then one of our partners came to us and said, I want to buy this boutique hotel in Beverly Hills. And we bought 15 apartment buildings with him at that time, and he had this great young designer with him named Kelly Wearstler, who was doing our apartments.

She was renovating our apartments. And Brad Korzen. So we bought the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills, and he led it, it was his deal. And they started this first of many hotels with the core group. And that one worked out fine. It was a really cool little hotel. But I started, that’s when I really fell in love as an investor. Our really big moment with Brad and Kelly was the Viceroy. So that was the one that I saw from every aspect of real estate, design, operations, from beverage, was the emerging part of Boutique hotels. Schrager was just top of his game. Andre was on top of his game. And the Viceroy in Santa Monica, that one was. So we owned a third of that. And that’s when I quickly realized how the thing was all kind of screwed up. The structure of F&B operators and the guys running your bars, the hotel management companies, development delays, construction. But I loved it. So that’s kind of how I got involved to the hotel world.

SSR: Amazing. But you didn’t stay in hotels, you went to F&B first, right?

SN: Well, I realized quickly that if you want to be a hotel operator, you have to understand F&B. And most of the guys, including the Viceroy group, would outsource all the F&B. They’d bring other operators in, chefs, restaurateurs, whatever it was. So at 26, we invested in about 10 hotels. And I said, I want to create my own company and I want to create my own brand. And none of the guys, even Ian or Andre, weren’t building brands. We were building it around an Ian Schrager hotel, Mondrian, Delano, Hudson, whatever it was, or Chateau or Mercer. And even Viceroy wasn’t a brand at that point. Viceroy was Santa Monica, and then Brad was doing other hotels, but that same model. So I became a student of Izzy Sharp and Sol Kerzner and Conrad Hilton, and obviously before the internet. So really, when you wanted to be a student, you really had to commit to understanding how they went from zero to 60 so fast, or in some cases, what was their strategy?

So I created this entity called SBE, and the focus was building a restaurant company. So building a couple of restaurant brands, building a couple nightlife brands, and then ultimately building a hotel brand. And the brand I wanted to build was a brand for myself, which is kind of a luxury lifestyle space, which no one had really saw as an opportunity. All the boutique hotels were, by definition, very limited service as far as amenities and things like that. So that’s what we did in 2002. F&B became the easiest, even though it’s a very difficult business. But we opened our first nightclub in 2003 in LA on Sunset, and it just took off. It took off because we did things that most nightclub operators didn’t do. We self-promoted. I was 26. I was the consumer. And one club went to four clubs pretty quickly, and then we opened our first restaurant brand, Katsuya. We identified Philippe Starck as our designer. So I was thinking more back then, I don’t know why, but instinctually platform rather than asset. And then we built the SLS brand in 2006 and opened the first hotel in 2008.

SSR: Yeah. All right. So before we get there, what did SBE stand for?

SN: I had a stint as a movie producer. I made 12 movies.

SSR: You’re still only 26, right?

SN: From 25 to 30. But when my first film was called Waiting, with Ryan Reynolds and Luis Guzman. The entertainment lawyer asked me, “What do you want this LLC to be?” And back then we’re just naming LLCs based off the address like the buildings. And he goes, “What was your nickname growing up?” He goes, “Let’s have some fun with this.” So I said, “My friends called me Sammy Boy.” And so he goes, “There you go. That should be the name.” And then that grew to Sammy Boy Entertainment, and then that shrunk to SBE.

SSR: That’s amazing.

SN: When we’re trying to get loans from lenders.

SSR: A little more professional that way than Sammy Boy. And we were talking before we started this podcast, but I remember when we first wrote about you, it must’ve been I guess 2006 then, that you also did something very ingenious where you would flip a nightclub after a certain amount. When it started to kind of see its space or its moment decline, you would renovate it and rebrand it. And it was just ingenious because it just kept it alive. Can you talk a little bit about that and what you did?

SN: Yeah. Structurally, most nightclub operators have no money, right? Or they would raise 50 points from 50 investors and people who just wanted to get in and they would syndicate things like that. So I didn’t do that. To me, it was very important that the nightclubs were a component of an overall strategy. So when you look at it from that lens, it was different than just how much can I fee property to death? And profitability was important, but also the relevancy was important. So I understood that early on. Also in LA, at that time, LA was kind of like cities go through these lulls, and then they go through relevancy. So LA in 2002, when I started, was not known for hospitality. There was Nobu and Wolfgang. Those were really the two chefs, and those guys were already out of LA, growing their portfolio.

So it was kind of wide open. And the reality show craze had just started. Seacrest and Entourage and the Hills and all these things that we ended up capitalizing on. So for us, having clubs that you could take investors to or partners to, or whoever your customers to, and get it to scale, which is really what I was focused on. I was also focused on controlling the markets, which we did. And in every year and a half or two years, we would rebrand the nightclubs, just for them to continue to stay relevant and not go through the last three years of a nightclub. You see, it’s horrible. So we just try to eliminate that last piece of it, the last cycle of a nightclub. But in the meantime, we’re opening up restaurants and focusing on the SLS brand, which was really the ultimate goal.

SSR: Right. Wait, I totally forgot about the Hills and Entourage, you totally did capitalize on that. They were at all of your spaces.

SN: Yeah, even TMZ. I remember when we opened our original Hyde on Sunset, it was this 1500 square foot club, lounge, that I was very specific on. Because a lot of the clubs, we wouldn’t find a space and then figure out what to do with the club. We would find locations that we thought were very important to what we were trying to do. So we opened this little club. There was a place in the meatpacking district that I used to come to called Double Seven, and it was just…

New York was on top of the game at that time in every capacity, food and beverage, hospitality, bars. And I said, I’m going to bring that type of mixology to LA. And everyone thought I was crazy. So we bought this little 1500 square foot space next to one of our big clubs, and we designed it and we said, no promoters, only a list. And for the first two, three months, it was slow. But it was around mixology and this and three different types of eyes, things that just hadn’t been part of the conversation like they are now. And then it hit. This club hit to such a level. I remember Harvey Levin had just rented space for his office, this new company called TMZ across the street. And it was so hard to get into this place. Even I was uncomfortable. There was A-list celebrities every night, seven nights a week, I think, up for five years. And it started Harvey putting a camera outside of Hyde, not who gets in, but who doesn’t get in. So the reactions of celebrities saying that, I’m sorry.

Actually one of his, back then it was Tara Reid was the number one relevant actress, and Paris Hilton was just getting going. And there was a very famous scene, if you even go to TMZ and Google that it’s really where the passing of the baton of Paris becoming her own force of nature, if you will.

And walking into Hyde, Tara Reid not getting in, and Paris walks in with some voluptuous girl that no one knew who it was, but ended up being Kim Kardashian. And that’s kind of how Kim got discovered. So that was kind of the ecosystem. And doing it at such a young age, but really continuing to focus on what we were trying to do with the hotels was interesting. But yeah, so the Hills was about us, actually. They wrote the whole concept was those people working for SBE. And then Entourage, the first season was all in our places. And I ended up writing Shahs of Sunset with Seacrest, which ended up becoming a pretty interesting adaptation of the Iranian community in LA. So we’re very involved in that part. And basically what we were doing ultimately was exporting LA to the world. If thinking about all of our brands started in LA, were created in LA, and then were distributed ultimately globally.

A rendering of Zouk LA, featuring a design by Studio Collective. Rendering courtesy of SBE.

SSR: Amazing. So SLS was always the end goal. You said a luxury lifestyle hotel, which didn’t really exist. Talk a little bit about what you wanted to create and then the partnership with Jose. Because that was Bazaar, I think really kind of changed the game, right? In what you could do with F&B in the lobby.

SN: Yeah. So when I first started thinking about the brand, I was looking at comps for what I wanted the brand to be. Obviously I was 26, 27, 28, and we had brought in some people from W, from Hyatt. I brought in some great thinkers that had helped Barry build that brand. But to me, the white space was, the three things that I didn’t find in a hotel globally, was luxury, service and style. And is those three things. What I didn’t want to do is I didn’t want to do what Ian was doing, which was put a rope outside my hotel. Our philosophy was if I can build a hotel that’s timeless, then I could build nightclubs and restaurants around them.

Which is what we did in LA. So that’s where we wanted to position ourselves. And at that time, Starwood was one of the best hotel companies, and Starwood had St. Regis and W. And when we came to New York, you go to the St. Regis, and that was a $1,500 rate or whatever it was. And W Union Square was the highest rated W, and that was like a 550 rate. So there was a huge gap, and there was some really one-off hotels around the world that had done that, mainly in Europe. And then by bringing on Philippe Starck, which I did in 2005, was a game changer for me. It was probably one of the first meaningful milestones in my career. He not only was obviously built the whole category with Ian, but we got him to agree to work with us exclusively for 15 years in the US. And we started building all these brands with him.

He was coming to LA once a month and just became a mentor. And he opened up the doors for me of his world. And when we started building the brand, we started building the F&B components. And this particular asset that we had in Beverly Hills, which was an old Meridian hotel, was repositioning. It was a huge lobby, which is a very traditional atrium lobby and things like that. We decided that to be the F&B. So I created the brand the Bazaar. I like the name. And we’re originally going to work with another chef out of San Francisco from Slanted Door.

That didn’t work out. Actually I just spoke to him not too long ago. But he said, I should have done the deal.

SSR: Shoulda, coulda, woulda.

SN: Charles Phan, very famous guy, amazing entrepreneur, amazing. Just one of the best guys in the business. And he didn’t feel that he had the capacity to bring the infrastructure from San Francisco to LA at that time. So he goes, “That’s the bad news. Good news is there’s this crazy Spaniard in DC.” I said, “What?” He goes, “Yeah, you should go talk to him. He’s got three restaurants. He just got a James Beard Regional and these crazy things called molecular gastronomy.” So I was like, okay. So I got him on the phone and I met Jose. It was an hour conversation, 50 minutes with Jose as he is. He’s just one of the best people to kind of storytell his passion and his story and his ambition for Spanish food and Ferran Adria and El Bulli.

So I went out and met him and his lovely wife and his three little kids at that time, now grown. And he was just a force of nature then. So I said, “Listen, we have this brand. We have this hotel brand, and we have this restaurant brand. It’s in LA, and we’d love for you to be our executive chef.” And he was it. So it was one of those another kind of a milestone for me being around. We had great chefs also at that time, but he was not well known outside of his world. And I think, and he’ll tell you this, that it really put him where he needed to be. It wasn’t that we made him famous, but we gave him an environment for him to showcase his amazing talents, ultimately really philanthropy the most meaningful, I think if you ask him.

SSR: Yeah, you give him a platform that he didn’t have.

SN: I remember he was telling me about World Central Kitchen and bringing it to LA, which we did. We’re one of the first from our philanthropy side and supporting him there. And he’s just a very, very dynamic guy.

SSR: And going back quickly to Philippe, you used him first for Katsuya, and then you brought him into the hotels?

SN: Well, we first used him, we had a site on Sunset, which was our first club. I first reached out to his team, took a year to get an answer. He didn’t want to come to LA, but we convinced him to do the first one, which we started designing. But the club was just so successful that we never shut it down for a period of time, for almost six years. So in parallel to that, then we started talking to him about a broader restaurant exclusivity. So we signed that in 2005. So basically for him to build five brands for us. And Katsuya was the first. Then we started talking about SLS as a brand, and I bought the Ritz Plaza in Miami Beach also. And so we started designing the brand, Beverly Hills, and then South Beach and Vegas.

SSR: Got it.

SN: And that spanned us from 2006, 2021.

SSR: What was it about him? Why did you go after Philippe? I know he’d done so much amazing work for Ian, but what was it about him that you’re like, this is the guy for me?

SN: Philippe is not a designer. He is not an architect. He sees things in a way in which my brain didn’t have the capacity of understanding. And especially I was so young. The first things he would give us weren’t designs. They were stories. Even Katsuya, it wasn’t about traditional Japanese. It was the one Robata guy that he used to go to in Tokyo.

And the long stick and the way he was sitting, and he was an artist. And so the more and more he would take us on these journeys that it’s like, who else? There’s nobody else. Nobody else. I think the disciples that have come from his studio, I see them all. They’re all around, and obviously he’s very specific in his design, and sometimes too specific as people would say. I found him to be so versatile working for the Queen of Qatar, or working for the first Euro that was ever done, the coin. He designed it. But his network and the respect that he garnered globally was overwhelming. You didn’t see that. You saw that in the big architects, but the big architects weren’t putting pen to paper. We work with Frank Gehry, we work with all these amazing legends, but he is still, and we’re still working with him. He’s a dear friend. His lovely wife, Jasmine, and their daughter Justice, and his daughter who did an amazing work with us on the aesthetic work, and just an amazing family.

SSR: Yeah, amazing. Okay, so SLS, were the letters based off of what you said, luxury.

SN: Style, luxury, service. Yeah. When we were naming it, I named all my brands. So we hired a company to name our hotel brand, and it was a complete waste of time. The names these guys were, it was a great branding company out of the UK, very well established, but they were just giving us weird names. And to me, I kept going back to the three things that differentiated us. And I remember driving down one day from my house, and I sat behind an SL-500, and I saw SL, and it just came to me, the letters. It was something that really hadn’t been done. There were three letters for a hotel brand, and I liked the way it kind of came off.

So I basically told everybody, this is what we’re going to call it. And I started building up. At that time, we were working with the Luxury Collection and Starwood, and so there was a lot of things that you could play with it. Then we actually, when we opened the first hotel, we had over 200 acronyms of what SLS stood for. So if you go down to SLS Beverly Hills, you’ll see behind the front desk, See Life Sideways. And there was so many different great acronyms that we came up with. So it was a real brand. We really built the brand. There’s a lady named Theresa Fatino.

She was our chief brand officer, and she was amazing. And a guy named Arash Azarbarzin, who was 12 years as president of hotels. But the ambition was there to make, I made a huge investment upfront in the brand, not just dollar-wise, but time, energy, resources. We started working with Techno Gym. We started working with Murray Moss as our retail partner, obviously Jose. We put the first Kinesis machines in any room, in any hotel ever. Things like that, that maybe I was just stupid and young, but we were trying to push every envelope for the brand. We weren’t building a hotel with a name, we were building a brand. And that’s really, it’s a big difference when you look at it from that lens.

SSR: And why do you think you had that aspect or that thought process back then? You’re young, creative, obviously entrepreneur, but what made you be like, this shouldn’t just be a hotel, this should be a brand?

SN: I don’t know. I don’t know instinctually why. I knew what I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want to just be a guy who just built a hotel and a couple clubs and restaurants. So I was very respectful of the fact that I was going into an industry that my family wasn’t necessarily excited about, going into nightclubs and restaurants.

So for me, I knew a lot of my friends who were great restaurateurs from then, even now, and that’s all they focused on. It’s building great restaurants. Guys like Steven Starr or the Tao Group or guys that we grew up admiring and going to their places. And that was one lane. And to me, it’s like I had to be relevant in nightlife. It was my company. I didn’t have partners. It was restaurants, it was my company and SLS. So ultimately that’s what I think won the day. But I was also, I think when you’re an immigrant, when you’re not, I guess, welcomed in many of these environments, you have a really big chip on your shoulder. So everything we did do had to be exceptional.

And I felt that obligation that if I was going to just do a shit in, shit out type of thing. So I was very, I guess, anxious to make sure that the things we were doing was… Anxious or self-conscious. I don’t know what it was, but we just over-thought things in a positive way. And brought as many great people to the table as I could. When I thought of Four Seasons, which was really the North Star you call it, that was really what excited me, that brand, not boutique brands and things like that. So I really wanted to build a Four Seasons. We call it Not Your Father’s Four Seasons. That’s what we called it. And obviously you couldn’t name a hotel that.

SSR: Would’ve been fun if you could, but you did it. Okay, so Beverly Hills, then Miami.

SN: Well, Beverly Hills, and we opened January 1, 2009 in the global recession. And I had bought the Sahara Casino about a year before that, at 30. And South Beach was about to close a big construction loan. And then the music stopped, especially in Vegas and Miami.

And so I always say that was a moment when I could have just said, great, it was fun, hand back the keys and call it a day. But I think it was probably the most important part of my career, getting through those moments. Getting through working with CNBS, working with lenders, working with your team. Luckily the food and beverage of SLS was really what ramped us up and gave us… The Bazaar was you’ve been there. Back then, it was probably the most important restaurant opening in the US. It was just such a game changer because of the culinary, because of the cuisine, because of Jose, because of the design. We had 500 people. I remember opening up the restaurant and we literally had four or 500 people in the valley just trying to come in to walk a restaurant.

SSR: That’s crazy.

SN: It was uncomfortable. It was like, we don’t want this. We don’t want this to be a club. But these were foodies. These weren’t like hipsters trying to get bottles. And it was such a game changer that helped propel the brand and helped propel the property and vice versa. But we were dealing with the economic headwinds that everybody was, and we got through it. We got through it convincingly with all three properties. Those were kind of like the pivotal three.

SSR: How’d you get through it? Just because of the Bazaar and what you had or just…

SN: Well, to me, everyone thinks, oh, you come from a rich family. This wasn’t family capital at all. It was my capital. It was investors’ capital, it was lenders. It was learning the game. It was learning operations. I think at that time I was 31, 32, and we had maybe 45 properties, mainly the F&B obviously. And I really learned the business. Because when things are just great, everything’s great, you don’t really understand the nuts and bolts operating a hotel, operating F&B, operating a corporate infrastructure. And you’re the guy. You don’t have partners in that side.

And all the things that come with operating huge amount of F&B, liabilities, this, that, workman’s, all the things hit at you at once. So I think it either gives you more conviction, this is what you want to do, this is just a bump in the road. But because I’d never been through it, and I don’t think anyone had been through that kind of, that’s the biggest depressions. I mean, the biggest global financial crisis is the Great Depression. And you start seeing the other side. But I think ultimately when you have, my dad would always say, the glass is half full or half empty. And if you look at it from that perspective. Also, you learn how to negotiate. You learn leverage. You want the keys, take the keys. They don’t want the keys.

SSR: No, not at all.

SN: That’s a pretty interesting game you play, stressful game you play, especially because it’s not just one property. You have to do share to your investors. So the politics of that you understand quickly as well. So we got through it. It wasn’t fun. It was not fun. It set us back, I’d say, like everybody else. Probably have been easier to give back some of the properties and start from scratch. I never had that thinking and I never did. I’ve never handed a property back to a bank. I’ve never in my life never done that. But maybe looking back on it, maybe I should have. I don’t know.

SSR: You made it through. So which one opened first? Was it Miami or Vegas?

SN: Miami opened October 2012. It was the first hotel to open in Miami after the recession. We built it, we developed it. I think it reaffirmed that we could be relevant on the East Coast, not just in LA. It was a meaningful opening. It was little hotel, 140 rooms.

SSR: Great location though.

SN: Yeah. What people realize though, is that you could come into our hotel with a small kitchen, probably the size of this room we’re sitting in now, which is not very big. And you could deliver three brands out of that kitchen. So the Bazaar, Katsuya, Hyde, that was really what we were selling. We’re selling connectivity. To me, that was always the differentiation of SLS, was dealing with one company that had all of these verticals under one roof that we could execute. I always say if we built an SLS and called Jose Andreas and say, “You want to run our F&B?” It’s like, “Yeah, but I want the whole thing.” If I call same thing with Katsuya. But the fact that we could deliver all that to a property with minimal infrastructure, one operator, that was really what we were selling. And ultimately, that really what differentiated us, especially on the residential side.

SSR: And you also grew Hyde too, as its own brand, right?

SN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Little Hyde, which was the original one. We ended up moving it over to another location on Sunset, which became super successful, Big Hyde. And then we opened the first expansion of Hyde was when the owners of Staples Center called us and said, “Hey, we have this need for rethinking an arena, and we have these eight suites at Staples Center.” Which is obviously the most successful arena ever. Lakers and Clippers and Kings and WNBA and all this stuff. “What do you think you can do here?” And I designed a nightclub in the arena. Never been done. Nobody wanted it done except for the owner, Mr. Anschutz. So we did it. We opened it, and it was Hyde Staples Center, and it was a game changer for arenas. You see them now, but back then, it wasn’t a no-brainer.

With three teams how to get in, how to get out? But it was again, kind of pushing the envelope. Then we did Hyde at Bellagio. We did our first Hyde at the 50 yard line of the Bellagio, which is unbelievably successful. Then we put Hyde at American Airlines Arena, and then we put Hyde at SLS South Beach, which is still, to today, one of the best nightclub stories in the history of Miami. And then we had partnered with Related, with our first residential tower in 2014, to build an SLS residential tower in an area called Brickell. I had no idea where Brickell, I couldn’t find it on a map. But George Perez was this unbelievable visionary, and titan and just a larger than life guy, especially in Florida, partnered with Steve Ross and created Related Florida. And they were building all these high rises, obviously coming out of the recession, this was going to be one of the first ones.

And they first offered me, because SLS South Beach was so successful, they said, “You want to do an SLS here? And we’ll do residences on top.” 55 story tower. And I said, “I’d really like if we could all be called SLS and we could sell SLS residences.” He’s like, “I don’t know if that’s going to work. Who’s going to want to buy SLS residences?” So we convinced him. He convinced us. More importantly, we convinced each other, and we launched SLS Residences in 2014. Pre-sales and 450 units, 128 keys. And the thing just sold out, sold out. Maybe it was the right time, maybe it was, I don’t know what it was, but it did really well to the point that we did a tower two blocks away. I call SLS Lux. To your answer your question, we almost became their exclusive hotel partner for Related for better part of seven years, and they needed another brand up in an area called Hallandale. I’m like, where the hell is Hallandale?

The SLS Dubai, with interiors by Bishop Design. Photo courtesy of SBE.

SSR: He’s like, give me the map. Show me where it is.

SN: And so they said, we need another brand. So I was really focused around the four star product. We had opened a brand in Hollywood Hotel called the Redbury on Hollywood and Vine, which was again, very successful, opened up during the recession. We did one in South Beach, but we ended up saying, let’s have Hyde Hotels and Resorts. And we did that in Hallandale. That sold out. We did another 50 story tower with a hotel. That’s where Hyde Hotels became. Now there’s like 14 Hyde Hotels all around the world there.

SSR: All just for a need in Hallandale. Let’s go back to Redbury. That was so fun and eclectic, very different than anything else. And you used, oh my God, what was his name?

SN: Matthew Rolston.

SSR: Yes. He was like a set designer, right?

SN: Well, he was, I think the most impactful music video director at the time. And that was a hotel that was brought to us by an equity partner who had just foreclosed on this red building in Hollywood and Vine. We had built a restaurant across the street, a Katsuya there, and we did 96 condos there. So we knew the corner well, and we had four nightclubs around there. So they said, “Listen, we just bought this loan. We just foreclosed. It’s 57 units residential, but it’s a very weird building.” And with the building was rent. So the partner group called CIM out of Hollywood said, “We have no capital. We haven’t allocated capital more than this just to finish.” And the thing was in bankruptcy so everything was just a shit show. The furniture was there, the vendor wasn’t paid. So they said, “This is your budget. If you can do it, we have 120 days left for the conditional use permit to expire. It won’t get renewed, because the neighbors never wanted it to begin with. It’s this big eyesore.”

SSR: So you’re like, please, I’ll take this off.

SN: It was like a Top Chef cook off. So we had gone to Matthew because he really had an ambition to be a big designer, an interior designer, which he was. And we said to him, this is what we got. We have to build a brand. We have to build an F&B brand for it. We have to basically bring this thing to life and we don’t have a lot of money. Our partners, it was the first deal that I wasn’t leading the equity, so I had to listen to my partners and said, this is what we got. And we did it. And we launched a new Mediterranean brand then called Cleo, which is unbelievable. It was the first kind of mainstream Israeli Mediterranean brand. And that’s how it worked. And it was really…

It was exact opposite of SLS. SLS was like this high gloss, high touch, life’s luxury product. And Redbury was more like this very kind of British townhouse type feel. Very, very eclectic, if you will, on design, which was not really what SB was, but it showed that we could be understanding that market. That was really our second brand. We got up to three of them. I think there’s one still here, 29th and Madison.

SSR: Wait, did you get it done in 120 days?

SN: Yeah. Yeah. We got it done. We got it done. Not easy. But it was 2010, so it wasn’t like we had like 500 deals coming to us. So that’s why we did it. It was a good partner. We grew with that partner, CIM and other hotels that they funded, and became a great relationship at that time.

SSR: So after Miami and you grew Hyde, you also took SLS to Bahamas, to New York. You grew the brand. And how did you evolve it? Did you always stick true to what it was, or did it, because you went through a recession, it grew, probably the clientele was also growing with you? How did you evolve it or how did you kind of keep it going?

SN: It’s a great way how you said it. To me, coming out of the recession, we were shellshocked. And the successes of the hotels just reinforced our confidence that this thing could work. And SLS South Beach, I think was probably a very pivotal moment in that, because it really kind of started getting us some confidence and 10 years of work. But the residential piece, that also helped. And then people started saying, okay, well there’s one, there’s two. Brands always need a proof of concept. They also need kind of the full circle of a property. So it’s not just, is it doing well, great, but can you sell it? Can your investors seek a return in this whole kind of ecosystem that needs to be validated?

And so we started getting people’s attention. The next big signing was in The Bahamas, SLS Bahamas. We announced SLS on Park Avenue. We started building that hotel here on 30th and Park, and we ended up switching over to Mondrian after we bought that company. But it was still slow. It wasn’t like just sitting back and taking orders as a brand. We are still opening up one every two years and things like that. The accelerator, I think, and obviously Hyde had just started and things like that. But the accelerator for us was when I bought Morgan’s Hotel Group in 2016. So we bought that company, took it private. It was public company, these brands that we all grew up going to, which was-

SSR: What did that mean for you, to buy such an iconic group of hotels?

SN: It was definitely, I didn’t know if I was buying something to kind of drag me back. In many ways there was other brands that had started gaining momentum. There’s brands like Nomad and Standard and great brands that were also at the same stage we were at. But when we bought Morgan’s, to me, I knew that scale was going to win the day. I knew that getting into Europe was not easy for us. I didn’t have a big business development team. Getting into the Middle East was important. So Morgan’s brought that with, for me. It had 13 hotels. We had seven. They had a pipeline. Not a big one that I think one main hotel in Qatar, the Mondrian in Qatar that was under construction. It was a mess. And it was owned by the Emir’s brother. They had a lot of owners that were not happy just because Morgan’s had really disintegrated from an infrastructure standpoint.

One of their owners was the former Qatari Prime Minister, Hamad bin Jassim. He owned the Sanderson and St. Martins Lane in London. So it really kind of accelerated the network. It gave us footprint, it gave us scale, and it really kind of put us on the global map as the biggest hotel lifestyle company. We’re bigger than pretty much anyone else. I think maybe W had more properties, but they were kind of irrelevant at that point. And then the residential piece obviously was another big differentiator for us. So it wasn’t easy because we weren’t really buying infrastructure. We weren’t buying a team. The company was about to go to bankruptcy. So we bought it very, very, very, it was one of those things like everybody looked at Morgan’s, but nobody could take it down because it was either too small for the big hotel companies, too much hair on it.

SN: Mondrian was dying. They just lost Soho. It wasn’t a company that really had brands that were relevant, or the relevancy had diminished. So we had brands that were, but it was a meaningful milestone for us. And for me personally. Again, I was the majority owner. And then we brought in some Opco partners, but that was a big moment.

SSR: Yeah, that’s very cool. And then so what is it? Two years later or three years later that you sold 50% to Accor?

SN: So I closed that deal December 7th, 2016, the Morgan’s deal. And immediately Hilton and my good friend said, “Okay, now you’re big enough as a platform.” And we started talking to him and his team about them investing into SBE. And while I was doing that, a guy named Sebastian Bazin, who was the CEO of Accor, sorry.

I had known him because he worked with a guy named Tom Barrack at Colony Capital, that’s where Sebastian used to work as a lead of Europe. He was a partner. He didn’t work there. He was a partner in Europe. And I’d met him then, and I was having lunch with Tom Barrack one day, and I’m like, “What do you think about this and that?” And Tom was one of my former partners and just a great mentor. And he goes, “You got to talk to Sebastian. These guys need lifestyle. They want lifestyle. They want more stuff in the US, Accor, blah, blah, blah.” So we got him on the phone and within a week, Sebastian happened to be coming to the US. We met at the Delano in South Beach, and we penciled the deal right there to buy 50%. It was January, February. And then they closed that transaction about two and a half months later.

SSR: Wow, that’s fast.

SN: So they really wanted it. For me, it was interesting of partnering with a strategic rather than equity partner. It was like the first time I could appreciate a strategic partner. He wanted Accor not to be involved at all into SBE. They bought 50%. He wanted us to grow. And then ultimately, by signing that deal, I knew I was going to sell the hotel company, because that’s what public companies want to do. That’s really when I sold the company. It was 2017 knowing that I had a buyer that was going to be a good buyer. So it was a five-year plan. We were going to get to 40 hotels in five years, and I was going to leverage as much of the Accor ecosystem as I could.

And from Sebastian’s perspective, this was a top priority, right? Because lifestyle had become such an important category for everybody. And so that’s what we did. And by 2019, so two years later, we had 41 hotels and a pipeline, a staggering pipeline. We had opened up the Mondrian in Doha, by the way, that became a huge success. That kind of opened us up to the Middle East. That opened us up to SLS Dubai, Hyde Dubai. We picked up more hotels in Europe. We picked up another hotel in London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Buenos Aires. And so it really became a global brand. All of our pipeline, in addition to the 41 hotels, we had 40 signed HMAs. So I was opening up eight or nine hotels a year, 11,000 employees, nine countries. We had another six countries signed,

SSR: What was that like going from your company, then with Morgan’s, and then with Accor? That was tremendous growth over short term.

SN: Personally for me, in 2019 I was 44, and I thought I enjoyed the ride a lot more. I really did not enjoy the last two years, only because I became somebody who was disconnected from the process, in the sense that I would land in a city, I would meet the owners, I’d meet my business development folks, I would meet new owners, get on a plane, get out. And then we had offices in Singapore, we had offices in London, we had offices in Doha, we had offices, Vegas, LA. We still had the whole full service business. We had all the clubs and restaurants. So I wasn’t enjoying the ride just because I wasn’t building anything new.

I was building new properties, but I wasn’t building new creative brands. And that’s really kind of where I was stuck. Half of it should have been like I should have been pounding my chest and saying it worked and we’re now the biggest in the world. But I wasn’t enjoying the process as much as I thought at that time. I had two young kids. I was on the road 250 days a year. Amazing wife who would travel with me, would take the kids with me. We lived between LA, New York and Miami. We’re living in the penthouse at the Delano when we were in town. And in theory, that’s cool. But the Delano needed massive renovations.

SSR: So all you saw was the needed renovation.

SN: Exactly, exactly. Which we designed and now they’re actually doing it, what we designed. But I think that half the battle for me was when you find somebody, in this case Accor, who appreciated what you did. Not looking at it as a pure financial play, not looking at IRRs and returns and trailing EBITDA, but really understanding what then they could do with the business. And that really opened my eyes, which is what we’re doing now around that. I think luxury lifestyle also became super crowded. You have a real risk of becoming a dormitory if you don’t do your job right. And more importantly, you have a risk of owners not making money if you don’t do your job right, which to us is really the definition of success. It was customer experience, product and EBITDA.

And not just how much fees are we taking, which is what most hotel companies focus on. But also I think when you know you’re going to sell the company, I was getting deals. I was signing them not knowing if I was ever going to be around if they opened, which was part of the plan. So a lot of it was disconnect. I was disconnected from that piece of it. But Accor was great. They couldn’t have been better partners. I think it was a win-win for them as well. I think this is probably, looking at it now, it’s probably the most important part of their portfolio are the hotels they bought from us. And then who knows that Covid happened four months after I sold the company.

SSR: Kind of serendipitous when you sold it.

SN: It was pretty crazy. For the industry. They were still my employees because they ended up closing during Covid. So it was an obligation. It was crazy. Look, everybody else, whether you have a coffee shop or 11,000 employees, it’s no different, your obligation to the human beings that you’re responsible for.

SSR: How did you, as a leader, change during that time?

SN: I think empathy was something I thought I had until I realized Covid, and then you really realized empathy is something that you just… Because everybody was in the same boat and everybody was scared, no matter who you were. For whether you’re going to get sick or die, whether you’re going to not have money to… Then we had the riots. It was just like a whirlwind of horrible things happening at the same time, and everyone looking to you as what are we going to do?

I think because of some of the foundational things that I’d been through, we didn’t unravel and we had a strategy. We did drives, we fed all of our employees. We had, I don’t know, thousands of Vegas, LA, Miami, London. So we were there, we were vocal, we were present, and we really did everything we could do to be within that, within the things that our ecosystem needed. I’m sure we could have done more, but I think we were one of the leaders in that, as a lot of great leaders were. A lot of great operators and owners and CEOs. But you think about it four years ago, I think it’s crazy.

SSR: It’s crazy how much things have changed and stayed the same all at the same time. Okay, so let’s talk about what you’re doing now, your new brand that you announced in January?

SN: Well, I think to talk about the brand, it’s probably more relevant to talk about kind of the thinking. In 2019 I really was focused on two categories. I was focused personally for me, I wasn’t the SLS customer anymore, the Mondrian or the Delano customer. So I was really going back to being disconnected with the stuff I was building. The thing we ended up, was getting me more excited, was some of the hotels that I had signed. SLS Dubai was more of a luxury product than it was a lifestyle product. And Doha and some of these other hotels that we signed in Saudi. So I really wanted to focus around luxury as a brand. And also the other parts that I think we talked about was really understand food for the masses. Obviously building 200 bars and restaurants in the full service component is exciting. It’s high profile, it’s cool, it’s all this other stuff. Working with the best chefs in the world and delivering these beautiful experiences.

But I said, well, how can we start doing that to the masses? So we started a company in 2019 called C3, which was focused really around building premium QSR and fast casual brands, with the chefs and celebrities, and really trying to disrupt food at the more macro level. The part that also we focused around there was the next generation. So the two parts I really was curious about was luxury. What was important to the luxury consumer and building a luxury hotel brand, which we have done. We haven’t announced it yet. It will be announced in less than two months. And it’s going to be as disruptive as what we’re doing with SLS or even HQ. That world is around longevity, it’s around not wellness. It’s really the connectivity of that luxury consumer globally.

So we’ve spent five years on that, and that’s going to be pretty exciting announcement in September. The other part was Millennial Gen Z, and I was seeing that it was tidal wave, as I call it, of consumers coming into the market and no one really understanding how the hell to communicate to this consumer. How do you even speak to them in relevancy. And C3, which is now, it’s called Everybody Eats. It’s a bigger platform that we bought some competitors. It was really focused around communicating and locking up, in partnership, these people that are the leaders of this movement, of this new demographic, which is what we’ve done. And so we decided to, I had a non-compete. My non-compete was up in November of last year. And when I started thinking about this brand and if I was going to come back into lifestyle, where would I come back?

Luxury lifestyle, I’d already done. It was very crowded. It’s scary how the brands would call themselves now luxury lifestyle, which they shouldn’t. And then luxury brands would come down. So it’s really, if you look at the landscape of brands, it’s very, very crowded and very expensive to build in today’s environment. So I said, if I’m going to come and make another disruption, where would I go? And I really looked at kind of, we called it the four star, we call it smart lifestyle. Designed for a new consumer, designed for this tidal wave of consumers coming into the marketplace who don’t want the glossy stuff. They want the bespoke stuff. They want Airbnb. 65% of Millennials and Gen Z identifies Airbnb as their hotel brand.

SSR: It’s crazy.

SN: So we kind of had to build the whole ecosystem differentiation, med spa business, food and beverage, premium QSR, and then locking up in 25 of the biggest YouTube and celebrity talent that these people identify and follow through food, which is what we’ve done. So HQ was really designed, and is designed, to be the answer to that. No one is really doing it. No one is really focused around this type of category. I don’t think they even know they should. I think Millennials and Gen Z are big components of hospitality and all the big CEOs talk about it, but their CMOs really don’t have a plan on how to really authentically speak to them and how to get that to scale. So we started speaking to the big hotel platforms in late 2013, sorry, late 2023.

Hyde Sunset in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of SBE.

SSR: I was like, whoa, 11 years.

SN: You’re taking me back. And the focus was finding a strategic partner, not an equity partner, but a platform that wanted to bet on this category with us. And we found it with Wyndham and Geoff Ballotti and his team, which are exceptional. And we launched the brand January 23rd. In that process also, we identified another great category, which is unbelievably underserved, which is the Hispanic and Latino category. Which if you ask people what does that mean, Latinx? But it’s the fastest growing 19% of the US population, 3.2 trillion in buying power in the US. And I was lucky enough to be able to, in the last year, partner with one of my dear, dear friends, Marc Anthony, who’s the kind of Frank Sinatra of our generation globally, not just with Hispanic and Latino, but specifically around that. And we decided to partner together in our various businesses.

And he’s really become an unbelievable… Kind of like when I did the deal with Philippe Starck, he opened up a whole new world for me and for our team. So the confines of HQ wasn’t, we announced it in January 23rd. The ambition is to really get to 50 hotels very quickly, which we have very, very… We’ve been very pleasantly overwhelmed with people now that they understand what the idea is. But it’s really designed for owners who don’t want to have these extensive brand standards and issues that a big brand gives you. They want the entrepreneurialism of working with a company like ours. They want the distribution of a global business and distribution platform like Wyndham, but they also want content. And we provide all of it, right? It’s a turnkey solution. Even more, I think, smarter than what we did with SLS, because it also identifies the new consumer through the various joint ventures that we have with a billion subscribers on YouTube.

That’s been fun. You wake up every morning and you’re excited about your various businesses, you’re excited about disruption, scale, and I think we’ll have maybe a hundred hotels by 2029. We announced a couple yesterday. We announced the 10 hotel deal yesterday with an owner who wants to build 10 HQs. We announced the big fund to help owners renovate their hotels. It’s a very weird time for the hospitality, from a real estate perspective, because you have owners who want to sell, they can’t get their price. You have lenders who don’t know if they should foreclose. They don’t know what the option. I think the next 12 to 24 months will be a very challenging time. People are building ground up and if they are… So this product was designed for that solution.

SSR: For renovations?

SN: For renovations, for operations, for lenders, for owners, ultimately for a new consumer.

SSR: Do you see it in bigger cities, smaller cities? I shouldn’t say smaller, but tertiary cities.

SN: The way we modeled it was, again, building the brand first. We did 50-50 domestic, international, average key count about 150 rooms. Some of our hotels have more, some have less. Detroit was an important one. It was a city that’s about to revitalize as is Montreux, Switzerland. Montreux, Switzerland is a market that’s exceptional. Montreux Jazz Festival. It’s a city that’s probably the coolest town in all the Switzerland. Switzerland is a country that’s really making a huge push now post-Covid. It’s a good European flagship as an example. But we have sites in Chicago, we have sites in three sites in Miami, we have sites in LA, we have sites in the Caribbean, four sites, we have sites in…

So it could live anywhere. It’s designed to live anywhere. And I think we have our full service restaurant company, which I’ve continued to build. I’ve never sold. So that’s really our full service. And then we have our premium QSR and digital side, and then we have all the other fun stuff. So it’s a very versatile brand, and it should be. I think owners today in hotels are feeling like they are, that the brand, the management company, whatever, is providing no other new unique value. And they sign the contract and it’s their property and all they care about is fees and not the health of the business, the health of the property. So it was really designed from an owner’s lens and it was designed for a new consumer. So those are really the two fundamental differentiations. Everything else is the expressions of those.

SSR: All right, so two questions. Is this the part of the process that you love the most? Coming up with a new brand, being a disruptor again? You said you weren’t loving the process before. You said you get up every morning, you’re excited. Is this what drives you, you think? Is that challenge of figuring out what’s next?

SN: It does. Also it goes back to that chip on your shoulder. To me, since you’ve done it once, people will give you credit that you could do it again or not. My energy’s a lot different. I don’t have the ability of being on the road just have three kids. That’s not what I want to do. So we’ve basically looked at this model of HQ as bringing in great entrepreneurs that are from the hospitality ecosystem. And we announced 15 yesterday of great people that were working for big institutions and now this is their company. I think the part that I think we can have fun doing is that the fingerprints of everybody. Great ideas won’t get dragged down in bureaucracy. They’ll get executed, they’ll get risen to the top, whether you’re a manager all the way up to VP, or whatever the case may be.

So that’s kind of the environment. That’s very fun. When I lost, not lost, but lost a big chunk of my infrastructure in 2019, when I sold the company. Rebuilding it was not fun. It was different. You go from 11,000 people in every city, every country, anything feasibility. And literally I was there. I remember I wrote the business plan for HQ myself, 35, 40 pages. I literally wrote it out by hand. I remember I have a picture of it on our conference room in our office in Miami. That was fun. So also listen, I’m still a little self-conscious, like can we build something that a 23-year old will find cool? That’s not easy.

No one’s done it. I mean, to scale, I’m saying. At least institutional company, no one’s done it, right? I’m sure there’s great places 23-year olds want to go that’s cool. But to really now make that an identifiable brand in the category. And working with guys like Mark, he’s like a Philippe. He sees things that you don’t see. He’s got 40 years of unbelievable reputation. He’s the mentor to this new young generation of Latino superstars. And Sofia Vergara is a part. It’s just you’re working. I have a product now that all my friends now can partner with me. I don’t have any debt. I don’t have any institutional, we can do whatever we want. And I think that’s the flexibility. If you want to really disrupt, you have to have that ability of not having to report to a board or your lenders or whatever. You just have to really be accountable to yourself and the idea. That’s the beauty of this product, that it’s really designed to be as flexible, but still with the intent of a strong story.

SSR: Yeah. Well, I guess that was my second question. You didn’t have to do this again, right? You didn’t very well. You sold out. So what was that passion that made you try this again?

SN: Well, when you think about our food business, C3, now it’s called Everybody Eats. Food had never been disrupted to the level that we’re trying to disrupt it. Not that it’s never been disrupted, but this is a big turning point of digitizing an analog industry, and creating product and working with great people like Nestle and Kraft Heinz and massive amounts of scale, casual dining chains. We’re helping them rethink. So that is very difficult. And also you’re learning another language, another culture. So that is interesting. That’s very interesting. Do I have to do? I don’t have to do anything, but I do have to do something. And I think we’re focused around luxury, we’re focused around longevity, and the people that we have at the table there are monumental lifestyle or this type of product.

There are other companies that have done it, five or 10 hotels, but I think this one is a new language that we’re starting to embark on. And our restaurant company and our food tech company, they’re the differentiators of all of them. So we constantly go back to as the experience. So it’s fun. It’s a lot, but every day we’re bringing on more great partners, team members, things like that. And it’s good to sit across a person who has been with the company for 15 years and you ask them, “Hey, you want to join us?” And she or he’s like, “Let’s go.” It’s like…

I’m ready to take that risk and bet on myself. And that’s really what I think the culture of what we’ve built is people who say, listen, if you’re going to join, you’re going to run. This is your shop. And they’re like, okay. I was talking to a guy we just brought on board not too long ago, and he said, “We can do this, we can do this, or we can do this.” I said, “What do you want to do?” And he’s like, “Well, no one’s ever-”

SSR: No one’s ever asked me that.

SN: And I’m like, “Well, that’s what we’re asking. That’s your company. What would you do if this was yours?” And that’s what people are bringing, and that’s a great environment to be around.

SSR: That’s amazing. And how are you hiring? Are you hiring all hospitality veterans? Are you thinking outside the box, bringing in other industries for this new kind of idea?

SN: Well, yeah, with Disruptive Restaurant Group, which is our full service restaurant company. It’s a couple hundred million revenue business. So we’re constantly bringing on entrepreneurs for that and growing that in more traditional, non-traditional. The parts that I’m interested in is really bringing non-traditional people. In theory, Marc Anthony was non-traditional in hospitality, in food and beverage. But when you think about it, it’s so obvious.

SSR: How did that conversation even come up? Did you just ask him, have you ever wanted to do a hotel?

SN: No, we’ve been friends for 20 years, and the last five years really much closer. I was the best man at his wedding that he just had recently. And we spent a lot of time together. And he’s always wanted to do these types of things, as a lot of people have. But he was at a moment in time where he was ready to elevate into more of this, we call it the chairman of his industry. Even though he’s on tour now and killing it, he is got 107 number ones. It’s phenomenal what he’s done.

And also just for both of us, I had the right product for him. I had the right platform for him, and that worked. But the people like Angela Lester, she’s another person that just joined our team recently, and she was the head of global business development for Hakkasan Group for 10 years. Just a rock star. Decided to retire when Tao group bought Hakkasan, and moved to Greece. And called her and say, “Hey.” It’s like, “I’m in.” And people like that, that haven’t been in the hotel business, but they’re huge relationships and leaders. So it’s people like that that we’ve brought in. People that I’ve known, I’ve always wanted to work with. Some of our legacy guys have joined the team. So things like that. And I think the more we explain what these four verticals are, the more we get kind of people who want to be a part of it.

SSR: Yeah. All right. So one fun question before your last question. What is one thing that people might not know about you? Very public so I feel like people have a perception.

SN: I don’t know. These days, the last let’s say four or five years, I’m very focused around not being in the public eye, hence I’m doing a huge podcast with you. So I’ve been very, I wouldn’t say anti-social, but very guarded with my time. I was very drained. And it wasn’t like we sold the company and we rode off to the sunset. We had Covid. We’ve all been drained. I think right now I think the emotional about whatever it is, it’s just everywhere you turn. It’s not easy. It’s complicated. And so for me, it’s really been about the foundation, family, my health, my journey of legacy, philanthropy, what we’re focused. So the denominator of success has definitely changed, which is very natural at this being almost 50 now.

So people always say, oh, you live in Miami. You’re always out. No, that is not what we do. My wife, luckily she’s the same. She’s very focused on her philanthropy and her work. And so sometimes I do wake up in the morning as I’m driving in to work early, and I say, why am I doing this again? And there is a lot of those moments, but then that quickly changes when you realize what it is you’re doing. Also, my daughters are eight and six, and they’ve never been to one of my hotels. And a lot of the stuff I am building hopefully will excite them. And my 3-year-old, he’s a mama’s boy. So whatever his mom tells him, he’ll do. But also, I think it is an obligation for parents to at least provide a path. It doesn’t mean that your kids are going to pick it, but at least enough of versatility that they could be excited about. And I think we’ve done that now. So there is a little bit of the legacy piece of it.

SSR: A hundred percent. And what’s the philanthropy? Talk a little bit about your philanthropy. We didn’t really dive into that, but you do do a lot.

SN: Yeah, it was ingrained to us when my parents, when they became successful here in the US. And I think 90%, 95% of my parents’ work was when Qualcomm went public, was around pivoted back to philanthropy. And it wasn’t specifically about things that were important to our community, it was about education, arts. My mom’s a big artist and sculptor. It was around people that a lot of things that we focused on were people that are having big catastrophic moments, and being there and education, and things in the world of giving people the opportunity to be successful in their own way. And so that was really kind of the foundation of what we grew up at the dinner table talking about. And then ultimately, individually for us, it’s really been around the SBE Foundation. It’s been around we work a lot in the communities. We open properties.

So what’s important to that community, we open up. Obviously we have a board that is run by employees that are at every level, and they decide what’s important to them that year and things like that. Our personal foundation, which my wife leads, is really focused around women’s rights in the Balkans. She spends a lot of time in Albania and Montenegro and Kosovo, and she’s the honorary chair. She’s the honorary council for the Albanian government here in Florida. She’s there right now on a big, we’re building a school in Albania right now for underprivileged kids. One of the things she’s leading. So we do a lot of stuff in South Florida and LA still with our Global Family Foundation. It’s a big part of what we think we are obligated to do.

SSR: Do you think you learned some creativity from your mom? I forgot she was a sculptor.

SN: It must have come from her. She didn’t start sculpting until she was in her fifties. She went to a class and found a passion for it, and now she’s, I think, just exceptional. Yeah, I don’t know. It must have come from her because my dad wasn’t a very artistic guy. He was a charming guy, and he was just a smart guy, and his instincts were unmatched. But it must have come from her. My sister’s also, she’s very artistic. My older sister, she manages, she has a lot of huge amounts of galleries and things like that. But she was an architect by trade. Yeah, it must have been.

I still can’t draw worth anything, but I am not artistic at all. But I understand brand and I understand. I always say looking around the corner. I like to think I understand that. I don’t know if I always do, but those are the things that, when the light goes on, it’s almost like I always say it’s that scene in Matrix, where do you want to know or not know? The two pills that he gives him. And sometimes when you see something, you can’t unsee it. And it gnaws at you and you’re like, let’s just, here we go. I wish I didn’t see that.

Casa Dani and Katsuya Century City, a culinary destination in Los Angeles designed by Rockwell Group. Photo courtesy of SBE.

SSR: So we always end the podcast with the question that is the podcast. So what has been your greatest lesson or lessons learned along the way?

SN: I think along the way, the thing that resonated the most through time was reputation. I think we’ve, at least from my perspective, you always try to please a lot of people. And sometimes that goes to a point where it’s unseen and then conflicts arise, and then that affects your reputation. That affects, I’ve had good partners, I’ve had not good partners. I’ve had good employees, I’ve had bad employees. I’ve been a good boss, I’ve been a bad boss. All those things but at the end of the day, the name that you’re known for in circles are probably the most important. So to keep that good name, you have to constantly protect it.

Meaning you have to be aggressive to make sure that you fight for your rights before they get taken advantage of. And I got taken advantage of a lot because I didn’t want to cause trouble. Which, in the long term, wasn’t the right thing to do. So I think that that was a very big learning for me, is being as proactive, not just with your interest payments or things that people want to always never be on the bad side, but also with your reputation. And when you see things happen, document it, communicate, and don’t think that other people are going to appreciate it. So I think that’s probably the biggest learning. It’s hard to do. It’s so much easier just to not deal with it. But if I look at any kind of cycles in my career, that was the one thing I wish I would’ve done more up front.

SSR: Yeah. Amazing. Well, thank you for spending this last hour with us. It was such a pleasure. And can’t wait to see HQ and whatever that announcement is in September, that hopefully we’ll get exclusive on. I’m just kidding.

SN: I’ll be back here. We’ll talk about it.

SSR: Yes. We’ll be right back here in two months. So thank you so much.