It’s not too often that you come across an actual living legend. Many luminaries are long gone before they reach legend status. But for the audience at November’s North America Hotel Investment Conference in Chicago, well, they were treated to a real-life, still-breathing icon: Jack DeBoer, who would probably tell you that his greatest achievement is being married to his wife, Marilyn, for the past 61 years, when, in fact, his celebrated status comes from creating an entire hotel concept.
DeBoer’s career started in Kalamazoo, Mich., where he sold real estate during the summers while in high school. After graduating from Michigan State University with a degree in business in 1952, and following two years as a military police officer during the Korean War, he teamed up with his father to build homes in southern Michigan. By 1966, he was building apartments, and by 1973, his company had built more than 16,000 apartments in 30 cities across 25 states.
All of this was a precursor to what ultimately came to define DeBoer: that as the father of the extended-stay hotel concept. For any time you checked into a Residence Inn, a Hyatt House (né Summerfield Suites) or a Candlewood Suite, you have DeBoer to thank. Because those were all his brainchilds: extended-stay, all-suite hotel concepts.
“With Residence Inn, I got lucky,” he said. As he told it, at the time, the apartment industry was upside down. Interest rates were high, margins small, and DeBoer, in his own words, was on an ego trip—interested in building big no matter what the cost or outcome. That thinking finally caught up with him and landed him in deep financial trouble, hounded by a profusion of creditors. In one case, DeBoer’s life was endangered in the same way a man’s life is threatened when he owes some unsavory type a large sum of money. “If you don’t pay me by Friday, I’ll kill you,” the voice on the other end of the line told DeBoer, who at the time laid in darkness, covers over his head, not knowing what to do next.
But if there was one thing DeBoer knew, it was how to build a building. “If I could get lodging royalties and structure the cost, it could work,” he thought.
And it did—he’s never been sued, never gone bankrupt, never been foreclosed upon. As for that menacing creditor, DeBoer dodged a bullet and paid him what he was owed.
DeBoer often points to a sign on his office wall, which he glances at often for inspiration. It reads: “Success is seldom permanent, neither is failure.”
THE HOTEL GAME
The first Residence Inn was built in Wichita, Kan., in 1975 (the rate was $17 per day), and DeBoer went on to build or franchise 103 more properties. In 1988, he co-founded the Summerfield Hotel Corporation, a second-generation upscale all-suite hotel chain and, in 1995, DeBoer founded the Candlewood Hotel Company, ultimately developing 130 hotels.
Besides all being extended-stay concepts, they also had one other thing in common: they were all sold. Residence Inn to Marriott in 1987; Candlewood to InterContinental Hotels Group in 2003; and Summerfield in 2012 to Hyatt, which converted those properties into what today is known as the Hyatt House brand.
Of the deals, DeBoer had this to say: “The buyers thought the businesses were worth more than I did—and they were right.”
Besides living legend and father of extended stay, there is another word to append on DeBoer: entrepreneur. It’s what defines him at his core.
“I think I’m a true entrepreneur,” DeBoer said. “They are born not made.”
DeBoer believes that in business there are the aforementioned entrepreneurs and managers. “The challenge is to find out who you are, then proceed to do the things you do,” he said.
Likewise, both are very different. “An entrepreneur always underestimates the risk,” DeBoer said. “The manager will never miscalculate risk, but will always not get what the future might be.”
However, for a venture to succeed, both are needed and must work together—even if they may not get along, and, as DeBoer said, entrepreneurs and managers rarely do. “But I wouldn’t be here without managers,” he said.
Only one combination is worse: “Two entrepreneurs,” DeBoer said. “That is a disaster.”
In 2011, DeBoer’s book, “Risk Only Money,” was released. And while the title might put a gambler’s spin on money, make no mistake: everything DeBoer does has an expectation to produce revenue. Consider his three outcomes for a successful franchise or franchisee: 1) it makes money; 2) it makes money; and 3) it makes money.
It’s that kind of thinking that got the constant entrepreneur into his latest ventures. In June 2002, DeBoer used his extended-stay hotel model to create Value Place, an economy extended-stay brand that continues to expand with nearly 200 locations. His latest plunge is WaterWalk, an all-inclusive hotel-apartment concept that recently opened in Wichita, with plans to expand around the U.S.
Unsurprisingly, he calls Value Place “the best brand out there,” only because it doesn’t try to be anything more than it is. “It makes money,” he said, giving the reasons why. “If you look at the industry today, the problem is they try and be everything to everybody. What do people need? A toilet, bed, security, a clean room—a pool, no, meeting rooms, no, housekeeping every single day, no. We said: let’s eliminate everything that everyone doesn’t use.”
What you have in a Value Place property is an operating model with four to five full-time employees and a system-wide occupancy that runs around 85 percent. “You don’t have to be that smart to make that work,” DeBoer said. “We only deliver things that everyone uses.”
Beyond business, DeBoer is a traveler and a giver. His list of awards for his philanthropic efforts is numerous. The proceeds from his book benefit World Vision-Myanmar, which is committed to partnering with the people of Myanmar to enhance their lives and help enact sustainable solutions for the future of their communities. DeBoer also loves to fly, and is an active pilot.
An octogenarian, DeBoer’s life story continues as a guidepost. “Money is the only thing I tell young people that is fungible,” he said. “You can lose it, get it back and lose it again and still maintain who you are. Health, your reputation—those are things you can’t.”
For DeBoer, success in business is something he’s achieved many times over. The biggest joy of success, he said, is making the transition to significance. “What’s the definition of success in business?” he said. “The ability to stay in it long enough to get lucky.”
At a glance
Headquarters: Wichita, Kan.
Portfolio: Nearly 200 hotels in 32 U.S. states