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Can Charles Lanphere win five stars for the Registry?
By Eric Miller |

He was the precocious kid on the block-the one who sold Sno Cones at the Fourth of July picnic while the other kids played baseball. He was in his late 20s when his drive, ambition and tough-mindedness landed him a top management position at Ramada Inn Corp. At 32, he was the man ordained by Dallas real estate stalwarts Trammell Crow and Mack Pogue to oversee a financial venture that later ended in one of Dallas’ bloodiest business divorces. Today, at age 44, Charles William Lanphere remains an extraordinary figure in the hospitality business-a controversial man who has been described in terms ranging from “the next Conrad Hilton” to “a man with a motel mentality.”

But these days, it really doesn’t matter what Lanphere’s business associates and competitors think of him, because as managing partner of the opulent Dallas Registry Hotel, he is running his own show. Although his Registry Hotel Corp. owns five hotels and its sister company, Hospitality Management Corp., manages another 18, Lanphere is consumed these days with only one project: his $75 million alter ego on Dallas Parkway.

The Registry is his dream hotel. Since its inception, Lanphere has talked privately of the inevitability of the Registry winning the Mobil Travel Guide Five-Star award, a rating bestowed only on the finest hotels in the United States. In 1983, the award went to only eight hotels, 12 resorts and one motel. The Fairmont was the only Dallas hotel given five stars by Mobil.

But Lanphere’s vision has yet to be realized. The Registry has operated at a loss since Day One (former employees claim the hotel lost $2 million during its first two months of operation) and has experienced troublesome personnel turnover. In only a few months, for example, the hotel lost its general manager, food and beverage director, assistant food and beverage director, controller and director of purchasing. By last August, nearly $13 million worth of mechanic’s liens for unpaid construction bills had been filed in the Dallas County Courthouse against the Registry. The same month, Lanphere filed a $77 million federal lawsuit against the hotel’s construction contractor after he was presented a $10 million bill for cost overruns which the contractor claims Lanphere authorized himself and approved. And even though the hotel’s restaurants have been touted as the best in Dallas, reviews have been mixed since it opened last April.

Yet Lanphere predicts good things for the Registry, claiming that luxury hotel start-up problems are no different from those encountered when beginning a professional football franchise. “I’ve never operated a hotel that made money in the first year of operation,” he says. “People who can’t stand close supervision just don’t work for me. We have a different bible we work from here. And, like the personnel a football team might draft, some of them just don’t make the cut. Every hotel that we own makes money, and a lot of money. Our company makes money, and a lot of money.”

Lanphere says that his hotel will likely begin to show a profit in early 1984.”This hotel was designed to be a leading luxury hotel in the United States,” says Jerry Thoele, Lanphere’s partner. “Dallas is a very sophisticated market, and because of that, people are going to make mistakes. We may be losing money, but budget-wise we’re right on target. Anybody who knows luxury hotels, knows they don’t make money for a year or two. Starting up a new hotel requires a different kind of employee than an established hotel. Some people fit in and some people don’t. We’re just not concerned about the long-range success of our hotel. We know we can do it.”

THE REGISTRY’S exterior is a carefully sculpted 15-story mass of concrete and glass that commands as much attention aesthetically as any of the opulent vertical lines gracing the Far North Dallas horizon. Lan-phere boasts that the hotel is “creating a new vocabulary for luxury accommodations”: Its restaurants, he says, are “rewriting the classic French traditions of haute cuisine”; its recreational facilities are “recapturing the excellence of professionally maintained re-sorts”; and its room furnishings are “recreating the elegant salons of European royalty.”

As a facility, few would disagree that Lan-phere and his financial backers-an East Coast insurance company and an Arab sheik-have put together a potential “world-class” hotel. The Registry’s lobby is graced with sculpted ebony pillars, polished inlaid marble floors and glittering crystal chandeliers. Entering the building at its southernmost entrance, guests pass through the hotel’s majestic garden court, a five-story glass-and-marble atrium. The hotel’s Crystal Ballroom, a spacious 25,000 square-foot room with seating for 3,000 people, is reputed to be the largest in the Southwest. Sixteen handmade Italian chandeliers illuminate the ballroom-installed at a total cost of $2.5 million.

There are 570 rooms in the hotel, ranging in price from singles at $85 to two-bedroom luxury suites for $2,500. The rooms feature either 18th-century English, French Provincial or Oriental contemporary furnishings, and guests are routinely provided with such amenities as nightly turn-downs, morning Wall Street Journals left outside the door, remote-control TVs and bathrooms with a second telephone.

From the beginning, Lanphere set out to supply his guests with the world’s finest cuisine and ambiance. To achieve this, his hotel houses three impressive-looking restaurants: La Champagne, featuring French cuisine; Stetson’s, with a steak and seafood menu; and Café Chablis, offering 24-hour service. He also included a Las Vegas-style showroom, The Malachite Showroom, which previews such top-name entertainers as Lou Rawls, Lola Falana, Joel Grey and Ben Vereen. In the hotel basement is Ravel’s, a trendy, futuristic-looking nightclub that has become one of North Dallas’ hottest nightspots as well as a financial gold mine for the hotel.

To make it all work, Lanphere hired Head Hunters Inc., an executive search firm, to conduct a worldwide search for a first-class management team. Early in 1983, the firm put together what several hotel executives say was one of the best management teams ever assembled for a luxury hotel. Lanphere offered top dollar to hire away such hospitality notables as Maurice Briquet, general manager of the Loews Monte Carlo; Armel Santens, beverage director of The Ritz-Carlton Four Seasons in Chicago; and Henri Boubee, chef at New York’s Windows of The World. And in 1982, Lanphere engineered the ultimate hospitality coup by hiring the Fairmont’s director of catering, Pedro Prado, a man who spent 13 years helping to mold the downtown hotel into a five-star luxury hotel.

But, ironically, many of those who have worked for Lanphere claim that his quest for perfection has driven some of the best people in the hospitality business to other hotels. Briquet and the Registry parted company last June when Briquet took over the general manager post at the Loews Paradise Valley Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona. San-tens, who left The Registry in September, had hospitality offers in London and Boston, but he told friends he wanted to remain in Dallas. He is now the food and beverage director for the new Hilton Hotel near D/FW airport. Santens’ former assistant, Jim Carmady, is currently food and beverage director for the Omni Hotel in Atlanta. Former purchasing director Matt Gabriel is now director of purchasing for the Lincoln Radisson Hotel near Dallas Parkway and LBJ Freeway. Rolf Gilberg, former manager of Stetson’s, is now director of restaurants for the Lincoln. Former Registry controller Rick France (a man who worked eight years for Lanphere) currently is controller for the Dallas Fairmont Hotel.

Lanphere unquestionably has his share of detractors-people who claim that although the hotel is physically impressive, Lan-phere’s management style could prevent it from becoming a five-star hotel.

“The man has no respect for human beings,” Briquet says. “In the hotel business, people make the difference. You can have a beautiful lobby and the most beautiful rooms, and it may not work. It’s the people you have working that make the difference. A man who doesn’t care for people can’t be in the hospitality business.”

“Lanphere is brilliant as far as all the operations he’s got going, if he could just leave them alone,” says another former employee. “This hotel is too important to him. It is his monument to Dallas.”

“When the hotel opened, [Lanphere] had hired one of the best-if not the best-management teams ever assembled for a luxury hotel,” says one former high-ranking Registry employee. “But it turned out to be a joke-a bad joke-and for me, the worst experience of my life.”

Still, there are those who say that it is still early in the game and that Lanphere’s hotel will someday be one of the best luxury hotels in the country.

“I’ve been in this business for a long time,” says another former employee. “He’s doing something really very different around here. You’ve got to give him a lot of credit. In any new venture, you’ve got to get the bugs out. When the dust settles in North Dallas, that place is going to stand out.”

“We have a commitment to quality, regardless of what it takes,” says Pedro Prado. “We may have to change things two or three times before we find the right way to do it. We are our own worst critics. Running a luxury hotel is an art; you have to work at it, mold it. The Registry is like any fine hotel: It’s a jewel-maybe in the rough stages-that you have to work to polish.”

Lanphere would be the first to admit that he may not be an easy man to work for. He describes his management style as “very professional, highly motivated and extremely caring. I set very high standards for excellence, and I am decisive and determined to have people who work for me committed to the same standards. A lazy person could not work for me successfully. When I go to bed at night, in addition to being tired, I am without the feeling that I’ve done anything less than my best.”

LANPHERE WAS born and raised in Ardmore, Oklahoma, and went to Oklahoma State University’s hotel school. He has both mingled with and done battle with the biggest and the best. Somehow, when times have seemed perilous, he has survived.

The Registry is owned by a general part-nership that includes Lanphere as managing general partner and Jerry R. Thoele (formerly a CPA with Arthur Andersen) as general partner, plus 19 investors from Dallas; California; Washington, D.C.; Virginia; and Idaho. In addition, Arab sheik abdul-Aziz al-Abdullah al-Sulaiman participates as a partner through a wholly owned Curacao, Netherlands, corporation.

Lanphere was introduced to al-Sulaiman by William B. Tabler, a New York City architect who designed two hotels in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for the wealthy Arab sheik and his brothers. According to Lanphere, al-Sulaiman invested roughly $20 million in the Registry, which makes him one of the major financial backers. Connecticut General Life Insurance Co. loaned the partnership $45 million for the project. Interim financing was handled by Lanphere’s corporate banker, Crocker National Bank of San Francisco.

At 45, the sheik is chairman of the Bank Al-Jazira, Jidda, and the son of the first Saudi finance minister. Last June, Institutional Investor pegged his net worth at $1.5 to $2 billion, spread over interests in construction, real estate, electronics, dairies, cement plants and shipping as well as hotels. He is also a shareholder in the first Arab-owned investment bank in the United States: Petra Capital Corp.

About once a month, al-Sulaiman dispatches a man to Dallas from New York City to evaluate how well things are going at the Registry, which is only one of the hotels in Lanphere’s hospitality empire. Lanphere’s Registry Hotel Corp. also owns hotels in Minnesota, Arizona, North Carolina and California. The company recently signed an agreement to provide development services and management for construction of a 470-room Registry Resort at Pelican Bay, Naples, Florida, which is scheduled to open in late 1985.

Hospitality Management Corp., a subsidiary of Registry Hotel Corp., operates or manages 18 properties, including the highly acclaimed Don CeSar Beach Resort Hotel in St. Petersburg, Florida. Thoele, Lanphere’s right-hand man, says that the assets of the two private corporations total about $500 million.

LANPHERE SAYS he began working part time in the sixth grade, when his father sold him a Sno Cone stand “for a few hundred dollars. I sold Sno Cones for three summers for 5 cents apiece, but by the end of the first summer, I had generated enough profit to pay my father back,” he says. He became interested in the hotel business in seventh or eighth grade when he became friends with a boy whose father owned a lodge at Lake Murray in Oklahoma. He says he knew by the time he had reached the 10th grade that he wanted to work in the hotel industry: “It didn’t take me long to realize that the industry was devoid of talent and that it would be my way out of Ardmore.”

Before 1971, Lanphere’s experience in the hospitality business had been primarily with Ramada Inn. After graduating from Oklahoma State University in 1961, he completed a short training program with Marriott Corp. and worked as an assistant manager at the Key Bridge Marriott in Washington, D.C. After spending nearly two years with Marriott, he then went to work for Ramada as the manager of a motel in Oklahoma City.

Lanphere moved quickly up Ramada’s corporate ladder. By the time he and Ra-mada parted ways in late 1970, he was group vice president of operations, responsible for overseeing each of Ramada’s 400-plus hotels and motels. His former associates say that he told them that he decided to leave the hotel-motel chain partly because he felt he could never be the number one man in a corporation whose major stockholder had a son with an interest in the business.

“I had the pleasure and frustration of worrying about several hundred hotels every day,” Lanphere says. “But I wanted to be my own person. I went into the hotel business intending to develop my own chain of hotels at some time.”

“One of the first assignments he got as a manager was at our Dallas Love Field motel, probably our most volatile hotel at the time,” says M. Jack Ferrell, one of Ramada’s original incorporators and its senior vice president until he retired in 1978. “He came through beautifully. He was absolutely one of the most aggressive and hardest-working guys I’d ever seen.”

But, Ferrell admits that Lanphere rubbed some people at Ramada the wrong way. Lanphere, the constant hard-charger, had irritated some of the more-conservative executives because of his push to move away from smaller roadside hotels toward larger hotels. “He was having a little bit of a problem getting people to go along with him,” Ferrell says.

Nonetheless, Lanphere prospered, and his financial progress is nowhere better charted than in his two divorce settlements. When his 12-year marriage to Barbara Dee Wellborn ended in 1972, his primary asset was nearly 24,000 shares of Ramada Inn stock, valued at about $275,000. At the time of the divorce, he was forced to give nearly 7,000 shares of the stock to his wife and sell another chunk of it to pay her a lump sum of $50,000.

By the time he divorced his second wife, Judy LeMarr, six years later, Lanphere was worth $2.3 million. LeMarr testified at the proceeding that the two had separated because they were “not good for each other,” but that it was Lanphere who actually wanted the divorce. Lanphere and LeMarr, who was only 24 when they married, had drawn a prenuptial agreement when they married in 1976. LeMarr says that Lanphere requested it because his first marriage had ended in a “difficult and traumatic divorce” and because he wanted to protect his business partners.

Lanphere married again five years ago; he, his third wife and their five children currently live in Preston Trails. Sue Lanphere, a one-time Realtor, says she decided that perhaps the only way to spend time with her husband was to assist in the business. “His heart, soul and love are in this hotel,” she says. As president of the Registry Hotel Corp.’s supply company, she has standardized the corporation’s housekeeping departments systemwide. She also works with the company’s design consultant, Joyce K. Wynn Inc.

It was Lanphere’s association with Tram-mell Crow and Mack Pogue (of Lincoln Properties) that set his fortunes soaring. In 1971, Crow, Pogue and William Cooper, all well-established in the real estate world, decided to venture into the hotel development and management field in a big way. Lanphere, the three agreed, was the man to spearhead their new effort.

So in May 1971, the three put up the money to form Hospitality Management Corp. (HMC). Crow, Pogue and Cooper were the “moving and motivating forces behind the organization of HMC, and they possessed the financial strength, the relationships with lenders, the development skills and general business acumen required,” according to legal papers filed at the courthouse. Lanphere, because of his skill in hotel and motel management, was hired to manage and operate the corporation. Although he was a shareholder in HMC, Pogue, Crow and Cooper had the controlling interest.

But by 1977, it all fell apart. Pogue and Cooper charged in a costly and drawn-out lawsuit that Lanphere and a number of other HMC officers had “formulated a plan and scheme by which he [Lanphere] intended to gain control and/or ownership of HMC to exclude the three original investors.” Pogue and Cooper alleged that Lanphere approached Crow on two occasions and “made certain demands,” apparently threatening to force Crow to give up his investment in HMC unless the demands were adhered to. Although those demands were not detailed in the court documents, a source said that Lanphere requested that Crow loan him money for the construction of a new hotel. The suit also charged that Lanphere, who was responsible for developing and operating a new hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona, had exceeded his construction budget by several million dollars-placing the entire project in “severe jeopardy.” But Pogue and Crow also claimed that Lanphere had approached them and refused to execute the documents required to complete the hotel unless all three investors relinquished their ownership and management positions in HMC.

Documents filed later in the lawsuit alleged that in October 1977, Lanphere and some of his associates came to HMC’s corporate offices at 1800 Two Turtle Creek and during the “dark hours of the night, under armed guards” removed the books and records of the two corporations and took them to the Registry Hotel Corp.’s current national corporate offices at the The Fairways building near Keller Springs Road and Dallas Parkway, which overlooks the fifth hole of the Bent Tree Golf Course. After moving the records, Lanphere refused to give Pogue and Cooper access to the firm’s books, the lawsuit charged, and even transferred the corporate bank accounts to a San Francisco bank.

The suit also contended that Lanphere called a secret board meeting on October, 10, 1977, and filled a vacancy on the board left by the resignation of Crow, who, by this time, had become disenchanted with Lan-phere and decided to bow out of the venture. Minutes of the meeting-not attended by Pogue, Crow or Cooper-also show that the board affirmed Lanphere’s decision to move the corporate offices of HMC and transfer corporate bank accounts.

Lanphere filed a counterclaim against Pogue and Crow, accusing the investor group of conducting a “calculated effort” to destroy his business reputation and financial livelihood. In subsequent court documents, Lanphere charged that Pogue had made phone calls to prospective financial backers, claiming that Lanphere had defrauded him and that Lanphere could not be trusted. Pogue’s phone calls, Lanphere alleged, subsequently had “deprived” him of adequate lines of credit.

On July 1, 1978, Lanphere, Pogue and Cooper reached a settlement that called for Pogue and Cooper to relinquish their ownership interests in HMC and in several hotels the group had jointly invested in, but the two assumed the ownership of the original Dallas Registry (now the Regent Hotel, located at Stemmons Freeway and Mockingbird Lane), with an agreement that Lanphere and a number of other associates would manage it for at least a year. (Lincoln Hotel Corp. took over the hotel in September 1979, and renamed it the Regent.) The settlement also called for Lanphere to pay Pogue $775,000 and Cooper $700,000.

Then in June 1980, Pogue and Lanphere had yet another legal dispute. Pogue filed a lawsuit alleging that Lanphere and one of his partners had committed “acts of embezzlement.” The suit specifically accused Lan-phere of personally using the Regent’s penthouse suite on several occasions without paying. However, the two once again settled out of court, and, this time, completely severed business ties.

Lanphere won’t discuss the problems with Pogue, Crow and Cooper. “There is nothing to talk about-period,” he says. “We had a business divorce, and I’m very pleased with the outcome. Once you’re divorced, you’re divorced.”

Thoele says the breakup was simply the result of “philosophical differences. They [Crow and Pogue] were real estate developers, and Charles is a hotelier. A hotelier has a different opinion on how to operate a business.”

“I don’t have anything to say about him [Lanphere],” says Cooper. “If I had a lot of good things to say about him, I’d say them. Otherwise, I guess it’s better not to say anything.” Crow and Pogue will not comment on their past associations with Lanphere.

Now another lengthy legal battle is looming over Lanphere, this time with the contractor who built the Registry. In 1981, Lanphere signed a $28 million construction agreement with Kraus-Anderson, a Minneapolis contractor who previously had built three Registry hotels for Lanphere.

Construction on the Dallas Registry began in August 1981 and was completed in April 1983, but cost overruns exceeded $10 million, according to Kraus-Anderson officials. But Lanphere is now disputing the claim and has yet to pay Kraus-Anderson for the additional work.

In August, when Kraus-Anderson attorneys informed Lanphere they were going to file a mechanic’s lien against the hotel, sources say Lanphere requested that they wait 10 days so he would have additional time to come up with the money. Instead, Lanphere proceeded on a course that has been interpreted by Kraus-Anderson executives as a method of delaying payment. Lanphere beat the contractor to the courthouse by filing a $77 million federal lawsuit against Kraus-Anderson that included allegations of breach of contract, negligence, constructive fraud and bad faith.

But both Lanphere and Thoele deny that they are in any way trying to avoid paying legitimate bills and say that such legal disputes are common in large construction projects. They also say that Kraus-Anderson officials have yet to present any accurate accounting of the additional expenses.

In his lawsuit, Lanphere alleged that the contractor’s superintendents and project managers were “incompetent, unfit, unqualified for and inexperienced in complex construction” and that its workers were “unfit and unskilled.” He also charged that the contractor had foiled to pay subcontractors to finish work or to repair defective work.

But Kraus-Anderson, in a countersuit, charged the cost overruns were a result of more than 400 changes made to the original contract drawings and that every one of the changes had been approved by Lanphere.

In all, mechanic’s liens totaling nearly $13 million have been filed in the Dallas County Courthouse against The Registry Hotel, filed by Kraus-Anderson and eight subcontractors, including Hutton Electric and National Mechanical Corp. of Dallas, who were involved in the hotel construction.

Lanphere claims that he is not liable for the extra work performed by Kraus-Anderson, but says he will pay every penny that is rightfully owed. Kraus-Anderson officials will not comment on the construction project because of the pending litigation.

Architect William Tabler also will not comment on the lawsuit, but he says he believes that the Dallas Registry was no different from any of the hundreds of other projects he has been involved with over the years.

“This was a fast-track job, meaning it had to be built quickly-about 18 months,” Tabler says. “Four hundred changes is not unusual. For instance, there were 1,500-plus change orders to the Beverly Hills Hilton and 900-plus changes made to the Washington Sheraton Park Hotel.”

Tabler said he designed the Registry as a luxury hotel that could be built for a reasonable price and that he enjoyed the fact that Lanphere was so closely involved in the construction of the hotel. “We built that hotel for between $40 and $50 a square foot,” he says. “Many of the hotels being built today are going for about $100 a square foot. I’m not interested in building monuments. I want to build economical hotels that make money.

“Charles is like a Rockefeller or a Hilton. In fact, he was first introduced to me as the next Conrad Hilton. He’s one of the old-time hotel people. He wants to see everything, and today you rarely get that personal contact.”

DESPITE THE problems, Lanphere is tenacious in his prediction that the Registry will be a moneymaking proposition in 1984 and could well capture the Mobil Five-Star award by the end of this year. (The Fairmont operated nearly four years before it was given the award.)

For example, he says that his food and beverage departments-which include all the restaurant, bars and social events- produced a $700,000-plus net profit in October. The catering department did about $750,000 in business in October, a record for any Dallas hotel, according to Prado, who set the previous record while he was at the Fairmont. Food and beverage sales are very important to The Registry’s success, since the hotel features more food and beverage outlets than the typical luxury hotel, which on a good month can offset poor occupancy rates.

Lanphere further claims that despite persistent reports earlier this year that the Registry was sporting a 40 to 45 percent occupancy rate, that figure rose to more than 70 percent during October. Lanphere says he can break even with a 65 percent occupancy rate when his food and beverage outlets have a good month.

“We’re unique in that we put far more emphasis on food and beverage than most hotels,” Lanphere says.

CAN LANPHERE’S demonic energy and insistence on perfection pull off this five-star success? Much of his future could depend on whether the Registry continues its heavy dominance in the area of major social events with the opening of such new expanded facilities as Trammell Crow’s Loews Anatole on Stemmons Freeway. Traditionally, the big social galas have been held at the downtown hotels, but in recent months, Lanphere’s large ballroom accommodations have brought Dallas’ social elite to Far North Dallas.

“I happen to feel this is the best hotel location in America,” Lanphere says. “We’ve virtually controlled all of the major society events since we’ve opened. For example, this year we hosted the Crystal Charity Ball-the largest charity ball in the state of Texas. It’s the first time the ball has ever moved out of the downtown area.

“We recently had quite a compliment paid us when the mayor’s daughter wanted to have her wedding reception here. She asked for two separate dates, but we were booked on both those dates, so she changed her wedding date so she could have it here at the Registry. I knew this would be a great hotel, but I had no idea it would come this soon.”

What Makes a Five-Star Hotel?

EACH YEAR, many hoteliers seek the prestigious Mobil Five-Star award, but most fail. Scratched chairs, leaky faucets, low-budget paintings or unfriendly bellmen may be commonplace at a Holiday Inn or a Ramada, but in the world of the first-class hotel, they are unforgivable.

Like every other luxury-hotel operator with stars in his eyes, Charles Lanphere is well aware that being good isn’t good enough. At least once a year, Mobil inspectors-well-traveled and highly educated individuals-rate potential recipients of its highest hospitality award according to their performance in five general categories: physical plant (design and character), furnishings (both rooms and public areas), maintenance, housekeeping and quality of staff.

In the area of furnishings, for example, inspectors look for elegance, according to Arnold Fury, manager of travel programs for Mobil. Inspectors don’t like to see mass-produced furniture; they are, however, impressed with antiques. Reproductions of paintings are scoffed at, while original art is a plus. And inspectors don’t like to see walls or floors covered by nothing except paint or well-worn carpets.

Likewise, when it comes to the hotel staff, doing the job just isn’t enough. Mobil inspectors rate a staff’s professionalism from the quality of its uniforms down to the attitude of every employee who has contact with a guest. “There’s nothing that says the only thing a bellman does is carry bags,” says Fury. “He can also be friendly, courteous and helpful. We also check to see if guests are greeted cordially by the doorman and at the check-in desk.”

Also inserted in a hotel’s rating file are comments about occasional stays byMobil executives as well as letters received from travelers who use the MobilTravel Guide. A hotel must be in operation for at least a year before Mobil willconduct a formal inspection. “We feel it needs a period to work out the kinks,”Fury says. -E.M.