October 21, 2021
Paul Leone, CEO of the Breakers

Photo: Scott Wiseman

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Paul Leone, CEO of the Breakers

Art Levy | 9/28/2021

My Italian-family upbringing was the essence of hospitality. Everyone was welcomed in our home. It meant impeccable housekeeping, like after every meal in my grandmother’s house, we swept the floor, we took the stove apart and cleaned every component. And the food was great.

When I was 12, my parents got divorced, which in 1970 was still a real stigma. That had a big impact on me. It created a lot of insecurity, but it drove me. A big part of it was not wanting to feel poor and insecure. It didn’t feel good. At one point, we had no telephone. We had no washing machine. We had a beat-up car that looked like it should have been in a junkyard. My world was sort of rocked.

The Breakers has been around for 125 years and is the only large historic luxury resort in America still in the hands of its original owners. That is a staggering achievement because this is a really hard business.

March 18, 2020, comes and we decided to shut the hotel down. The government hadn’t yet told us to do that, but we needed to get out in front of it. We’re the biggest business in town, certainly in Palm Beach and one of the biggest in Palm Beach County. I think a lot of businesses and local officials were looking to us. During the eight weeks we were closed, we paid our entire team full pay and benefits, not knowing if we’d get any help. Not to boast about that, but we needed to walk the talk.

We’ve been successful at preserving the historical part of the hotel, but you just can’t hold on to the past and say you’ve got this priceless antique. It has to perform. On the other hand, if you modernize it too much, you destroy the history. I think a big part of our success has been the balance between preservation and modernization. We have this Picasso in perfect condition, but it also has all the modern amenities.

I’ve probably had this moustache since I was 18 or 19. I shaved it off once — and I quickly grew it back.

We have to do better with sustainability, with water in particular, and maybe most importantly with our workforce. Minimum wage needs to be way higher. Benefits need to be better. The cost of living needs to be more manageable for the workforce in general. I think Florida has an opportunity to be an even better example in terms of taking care of its workforce and environment. While I think Florida is doing a good job, it needs to do a great job.

When my parents divorced, my mom needed a full-time job, and she became a New York City policewoman in 1970. She and two of her sisters, they really made history back then. The three of them were policewomen, and I don’t mean they sat behind a desk typing reports. They were out in the field. They were really tough, brave, smart women. Then my mother remarried, and that’s the next chapter. She and my stepdad decided that to start anew they really needed to start anew. And that’s when we moved to Paris, Ky.

Olive oil is like fine wine. There are definitely ranges of quality, but I’ve never had a bad olive oil.

Leisure travel and activity demand is going to be greater post-COVID-19. I think corporate and group will probably not be as great, where people realize in some cases that they don’t need to travel for every meeting. In terms of trends, the leisure demand is sort of off the charts now, and I think to a great degree that will sustain. I don’t think people are going back in their caves.

I was 15 years old. That’s a really tough time for anyone to move, but especially for a city kid to move to Paris, Ky. We arrive at this 19-acre farm. We drive up to this old wooden, Civil War-era home, and it’s dilapidated. Cattle are grazing literally right up to the front porch. Broken windows. And that’s our new home. The whole family worked together. With our blood, sweat and tears, we restored that house and turned it into something to be unbelievably proud of. Then, they sold the house and bought the 17-room Starlight Motel in town, right across from the high school. And that’s where my business experience starts at 16 years old. I honestly remember the moment getting behind the front desk for the first time and working the cash register, the guest register, the switchboard. The first night, I think we collected $300 in revenue, full house, and I thought we’d hit the lottery.

We arguably have 500 more people on our team than a similar resort in our weight class would employ. I mean, how can do you do that? That’s an extra $30 million in payroll. How can you make that work? The essence is that the extra commitment is an investment, not an expense, an investment in a much higher employee and guest experience.

Why is turnover so rampant in so many businesses? It’s partly because of hiring the wrong people who don’t align with the job. A lot of it has to do with looking at resumes only and not at personalities or characteristics. You cannot be hired in our company without taking a predictive index survey, which tells us a lot in a short period of time.

We created a wellness program in 2005 and our top leaders are expected to lead by example, so as hard as I work, I take all the time I should and need to take care of my faith, my family and my fitness.

Before a new employee goes to work at The Breakers, we send them out to do community service. That’s the first thing they do after orientation. We pay them for it. We can make plenty of profit while also sharing even more with our community and our team. We’re trying to do the right thing.

 

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