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26 Most Fascinating Entrepreneurs: Tom LaTour
 

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Tom LaTour Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants

for staying at fleabag hotels so that we don't have to

Tom LaTour's motto might as well be In vino veritas. Once a year, the chairman and CEO of Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, which owns 38 properties in 16 cities, personally conducts one of the daily wine tastings in each of his hotels. While he plies guests with Chardonnay, he asks them where else they travel regularly. "It's a great way to find out where we might want to open up a new property," he says.

Kimpton is opening a lot of new properties these days. "It is an exceptional company," says Thomas Callahan, co-CEO of PKF Consulting, a lodging industry research firm. "They are extremely creative and have now gone from a regional boutique hotel chain to a national presence. Tom deserves all the credit for that."

LaTour's reconnaissance goes beyond pouring wine for weary business travelers. The 61-year-old hotelier often leaves behind Kimpton's creature comforts (where rooms feature luxuries like Missoni bed throws and 42-inch flat screen TVs) to stay at fleabag joints. It's all in an effort to identify properties for acquisition. That's because Kimpton doesn't build hotels from the ground up but instead renovates old hotels that have fallen on hard times or reimagines historically significant buildings, such as the circa 1795 Tariff Building in Washington, D.C., which Kimpton transformed into the Hotel Monaco.

To make sure an acquisition won't prove to be a money pit, LaTour spends the night to experience firsthand the plumbing, heating, and electrical systems. Sometimes the due diligence can be daunting. In what is now the Chicago Monaco, for example, LaTour spent the night battling pests. "You couldn't take your shoes off," he recalls.

Before each new hotel opens to the public, LaTour returns to spend a week in the rooms, troubleshooting details down to how well the stopper in the bathroom sink works. "My pet peeve," he admits, adding: "The culture of an enterprise is a reflection of the people at the top."

Though his values are clearly reflected throughout the Kimpton empire, LaTour did not start the company. It was founded in 1981 by Bill Kimpton, a San Francisco investment banker. LaTour, a veteran of big travel companies, joined two years later, to add operational expertise. When Kimpton died in 2001, LaTour assumed the titles of chairman and CEO.

It was a trying time. Travel industry receipts plummeted in the wake of the dot-com bust and 9/11. Revenue at Kimpton's hotels in San Francisco, which accounted for a third of the chain's overall business, tumbled by 30%, leaving the company painfully exposed. LaTour sold four properties and has since made geographic diversification a priority, expanding from Miami to San Diego, with more to come. "There are 30-odd cities on USA Today's weather map for a reason," says LaTour. "Those are where the business travelers are. I want a Kimpton hotel in each one."

As the business grows, some admirers worry that Kimpton will lose sight of the details. But LaTour vows to hold the line on quality. One gets the sense that he has stayed in too many rooms where the sink stoppers didn't work well to let the matter drop entirely.

Amy Gunderson

26 Most Fascinating Entrepreneurs

  1. Martha Stewart, Martha Stewart Omnimedia
    because she took one for the team
  2. Richard Branson, Virgin Group
    because he's game for anything. In fact, everything.
  3. Michael Dell, Dell Computer
    for being brilliantly straightforward
  4. Jim Sinegal, Costco
    because who knew a big-box chain could have a generous soul?
  5. Diane von Furstenberg, Diane von Furstenberg Studio
    for staging an elegant comeback
  6. Julie Azuma, Different Roads to Learning
    for offering hope and help to the parents of autistic children
  7. Fritz Maytag, Anchor Brewing
    for setting limits
  8. Ray Kurzweil, Kurzweil Technologies and other companies
    because he is Edison's rightful heir
  9. Craig Newmark, Craigslist
    for putting the free in free markets
  10. Jack Mitchell, Mitchells/Richards
    because his family business makes an art of customer service
  11. Frank Robinson, Robinson Helicopter
    for whipping an entire industry into shape
  12. Mark Melton, Melton Franchise Systems
    for giving immigrants their shot at the American Dream
  13. Michelle Cardinal & Tim O'Leary, Cmedia and Respond2
    for rewriting the rules for husband-and-wife teams
  14. Mike Lazaridis, Research in Motion
    because someone had to stand up for all those frustrated engineers
  15. Trip Hawkins, Electronics Arts and Digital Chocolate
    for still scrapping
  16. Warren Brown, Cake Love and Love Cafe
    because only in America will someone quit a secure job as a lawyer to start a bakery
  17. Muriel Siebert, Muriel Siebert & Co.
    for being a notable first with a worthy second act
  18. Chuck Porter, Crispin, Porter + Bogusky
    for verging on reckless
  19. Katrina Markoff, Vosges Haut
    for setting a completely unreasonable goal for her business
  20. Barry Steinberg & Craig Sumerel, Direct Tire and Auto Service
    for showing the power of the peer group
  21. Victoria Parham, Virtual Support Services
    for serving as a mentor to military spouses
  22. Tom LaTour, Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants
    for staying at fleabag hotels so that we don't have to
  23. Mitchell Gold & Bob Williams, Mitchell Gold
    for creating a true comfort zone
  24. Izzy & Coco Tihanyi, Surf Diva
    for kicking sand in the face of conventional wisdom
  25. Tony Lee, Ring Masters
    for saving 16 jobs, including his own
  26. Rueben Martinez, Libreria Martinez Books and Art Galleries
    for simultaneously building a business and nurturing Latino culture
Last updated: Apr 1, 2005




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