John Hardy has made it big in an industry he had no intention of ever being a part of. Hardy is the president and CEO of the Atlanta-headquartered John Hardy Group, a hospitality specialist, so to speak, which works in tandem with brands or developers to take a project from its nascent stages all the way through to delivery. It’s the in-between phases that have made John Hardy and his group such a sought-out commodity, one that may never have come to be had it not been for a few fortuitous bounces along the way.
Hardy, you see, never went to school with the expectation to work within the hotel space. In architecture, yes, after all, that was his concentration at the University of Illinois, where he graduated. But one day building and advising on Marriott hotels was not the initial plan.
“It was a complete accident,” Hardy said. After college, like many aspiring architects with visions of leaving an indelible imprint on cityscapes, Hardy moved to New York City to land a job. But it was the late 1970s and the economy was not helping him in his job pursuit. Of the more than 20 interviews he had with architecture firms, only two made offers. One of those came from a firm that exclusively dealt in building hotels: William Tabler.
Tabler’s hotel designs came to define 1960s architecture, characterized by rigid, austere façades that blended in seamlessly with the office buildings they shared the block with. He was responsible for many Hilton hotels of the era, including the Hilton New York, which then-architecture critic of The New York Times Ada Louise Huxtable described thusly: “If the building has a look that suggests that one might put change in at the top and get something out of the bottom, this is only because today’s slickly designed commercial structures more and more frequently resemble a product, a machine or a package.’’
The hotel’s exquisite banality runs in stark contrast to the hotels of today. It was Hardy’s entrée, and he took it. “I learned a lot about business ethics, functionality, how to work in different cultures, the politics and technicality of it all,” he said. Hardy also worked internationally, in such locales as South America and Europe. “It was a good basis in how hotels work,” he said.
After a short stint with Tabler, Hardy, at 28, moved on to Houston, where the oil boom was spurring record-pace growth. There, he became the youngest partner ever at Golemon & Rolfe Associates, in part because of his already vast knowledge of hotels. “Texas was on fire at the time,” Hardy said, “and I became interested in development along with architecture. I thought the two were a great combination.
As the 1980s unfolded, Hardy was recruited by the original version of Interstate Hotels & Resorts. At the time, 1985, Interstate had only three hotels and the hotel industry itself was not heavily supplied by today’s megabrands. There, Hardy worked on a lot of Marriotts, and he enjoys sharing one amusing anecdote from the time involving Bill Marriott. “We were sitting in a meeting room having just opened the 17th Marriott ever, and Bill slams his fist on the table and exclaims, ‘One day there are going to be 25 Marriotts!’”
Eventually, Hardy became VP of architecture and construction at Interstate, responsible for managing all phases of the development and build-out process. “I had freehand design-wise and I learned development with them,” he said.
A New Vision
Hardy was with Interstate for seven years, but in the early part of the 1990s, the economy soured and things were changing at Interstate, not necessarily for the worst, but changing, nonetheless. It all gave Hardy an idea. “People always called me for advice,” he said. Maybe there was a market in this, Hardy pondered. That’s when the light bulb went off: Why not sell these services, “technical services,” as Hardy called them.
In 1992, Interstate eliminated Hardy’s position, giving him even more impetus to launch his own company. Then and there, the John Hardy Group was born. And just at the right time.
The latter part of the 1980s into the early part of the 1990s was marked by the overbuilding of commercial real estate; financing grew to meet demand and developers found themselves in trouble due to overleveraging. All of this came to a head when asset values began to plummet and some investors, like the Japanese, decided to cut their losses, in the process losing millions.
It was not a good time in real estate; massive problems, as Hardy told it. “You had all these institutional owners, like Aetna and Mass Mutual, going through workouts and they didn’t know how to deal with hotels; they weren’t equipped,” he said. Bad for them, but good for Hardy. “They knew me from Interstate, so they hired us right away. The concept took off from day one.”
That concept was to provide a professional service from people who were qualified and understood the hotel industry and hotel development.
Hardy’s work with institutional clients led to more business; to wit, the budding entrepreneurs of the mid-1990s, such as Barry Sternlicht, whom Hardy worked with on an inchoate W hotels concept. He has worked with Starwood Capital ever since then, as well as other large real estate companies, including Northwood Investors, which in 2013 debuted a $140-million renovation of The New York Palace. The makeover was anything but orthodox and enlisted the work of five designers, all with big egos and big ideas, and some 20 contractors. “But at the end it looked like one continuous design thought,” Hardy said.
Other clients include Chartres Lodging Group, which, along with Apollo Global Management, acquired the Novotel New York Times Square in 2012 (it was since sold at a reported $180-million profit). Hardy helped steer a renovation of the hotel at the time of acquisition. “We helped restore that brand and put it on the map in the U.S.,” Hardy said.
While these are high-profile examples of The John Hardy Group’s work, it’s a lesser-known project that Hardy said he is most proud of. The Marshall House in Savannah, Ga., was a 150-year-old dilapidated hotel that had been shut down for 40 years when a group led by Hardy acquired it in 1998. (Hardy has taken equity positions since, in such hotels as Aloft Washington National Harbor, having recently sold the stake. The John Hardy Group was also instrumental in the development of the Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide-owned brand.) The refurbishment of the hotel may have been a business decision, but it became much more than that, as it gave brightness to an otherwise blighted area of the city. “It was the hardest project I’ve ever done in my life,” Hardy said. “We became part of the community and helped make the city better.”
Today, the capital sources The John Hardy Group works with are a broad set, from high-net-worth individuals to REITs, C-Corps and sovereign wealth funds. “We are owner developers as well as development service providers, which makes us unique,” Hardy said. “We know the risk, the changing and understand the development process—dealing with design, FF&E, contractors, technology, etc. It’s a nice combo.”
Beyond being busy working on a number of projects, such as the repositioning of the Sawgrass Marriott, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., alongside owner Carey Watermark Investors (the two are also combining on the Renaissance Chicago renovation), one of Hardy’s proudest endeavors is the Radical Innovation in Hospitality Award, an annual competition, co-founded by The John Hardy Group, which gives a platform to budding developers, designers, even students, from around the world to present their approach to innovation in the hospitality field.
John Hardy has, indeed, come a long way, especially for someone who at one time never gave hotels a thought. Today, his group has become a go-to for those in need of that extra bit of expertise to get a project done. Not just any project, but the tough ones. “People come to us when it’s a super difficult project,” Hardy said. “That’s our sweet spot.”
AT A GLANCE
THE JOHN HARDY GROUP
Structure: Hospitality development service provider
Work: Marriott Marquis, D.C.; Novotel New York Times Square; The New York Palace, among others