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Bill Kimpton; Built Chain of Distinctive Small Hotels


Bill Kimpton, head of the innovative San Francisco-based boutique hotel and restaurant chain known as the Kimpton Group, has died of leukemia at 65.

Kimpton, who lived on a houseboat in Sausalito, Calif., and maintained a weekend home in Napa, died Friday at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, company officials announced.

His 20-year-old chain owns or manages 35 hotels and 29 restaurants and employs about 5,000 people, mainly in San Francisco, Portland, Ore., Seattle, Denver, Salt Lake City and Chicago.

Starting with San Francisco's Bedford Hotel in 1981, Kimpton bought and renovated several small hotels with the aim of turning them into cozy, European-style refuges with fireplaces in the lobby and top-quality restaurants.

He preferred hotels of 150 rooms or fewer, but also resurrected San Francisco's venerable 450-room Sir Francis Drake Hotel and its Starlight Room.

Kimpton ventured into Los Angeles in 1992, redeveloping and managing the former Beverly Hillcrest Hotel, since renamed the Beverly Prescott, in West Los Angeles. The property was later sold to the Renaissance Hotel chain.

Widely emulated by other hotel developers, Kimpton's highly profitable, distinctive hotels and restaurants attracted Marriott International as a suitor last year. But Kimpton refused to sell.

"Bill transformed an industry," said Thomas W. LaTour, chief executive officer of the Kimpton Group. "He was the ultimate optimist and seer of good in others. We are all very saddened by his death."

Kimpton, who said his interest in hotels began when he was a child playing Monopoly, attributed his success to hiring top employees, including LaTour, who became his right-hand man.

"Bricks and mortar can be shifted around, but people make the difference," Kimpton said. "Sure, we found a niche, but it was getting people together so we could execute the idea."

Born in Kansas City, Mo., William Drennon Kimpton grew up in Chicago and, overcoming dyslexia, earned a degree in economics at Northwestern University. He did graduate work at the University of Chicago before serving in the Army.

He started his career as an IBM typewriter salesman, moonlighting as a male model on Hugh Hefner's Playboy television show. Next, Kimpton developed and sold his own products, including successes such as a single-lever faucet and flops such as a solar stove made of cardboard and aluminum foil.

Meanwhile, he studied accounting at night at the YMCA, directing his Monopoly fervor toward mergers and acquisitions. Advertising his availability to both buyers and sellers, he then became an independent business broker. By 1964 he had parlayed that job into an investment banking position with Lehman Brothers (now Shearson-Lehman Brothers American Express Inc.) in New York and San Francisco.

Kimpton made Wall Street history by persuading his staid bosses to take public the nation's first fast-food franchise, Kentucky Fried Chicken (now KFC), and then by raising $275 million to expand the company nationwide.

Working for a San Francisco investment firm, Shurman/Agnew, he also raised funds to build the first luxury hotel on Maui, the Kapalua Bay Resort Hotel, in the process meeting and learning from hotel magnate Harry Helmsley.

Brashly, Kimpton offered to single-handedly raise the $23 million for what would become New York City's Helmsley Palace Hotel. Within 18 months, he had obtained the money from European, Saudi Arabian and American investors, but later conceded: "I was shocked that I did it."

Joking that he was fired from investment banking for violating employer rules against flying first class, Kimpton decided to follow Helmsley's example and buy his own rundown hotel and turn it into someplace he would want to stay.

Convincing others of his concept, he enlisted celebrity investors including actors Paul Newman, Warren Beatty and Harrison Ford.

"From the start," he told Hospitality Design magazine in 1999, "I wanted to create something unique, offering a European flavor, good value and a sense of fun. Whether you are traveling for work or pleasure, you often arrive tired or worried, and a hotel should lift your spirits, not put you to sleep as you step through the door."

Troubled as a young adult with depression, Kimpton in 1996 founded the Mental Insight Foundation and funded several research projects involving mental illness. He also served on the boards of the Hoffman Institute and the Spirit Rock Meditation Center.

An avid golfer, he had played for the last four years in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am Golf Tournament.

He is survived by his wife, Isabelle; four children, Jennifer Egan and Marcia, Laura and Graham Kimpton; and three grandchildren.

The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the Mental Insight Foundation, in care of Kimpton Group, 222 Kearny St. Suite 200, San Francisco, CA 94122.

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