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Barron Hilton: Business magnate who expanded his father’s hotel empire and moved into casinos

The Independent logo The Independent 17/10/2019 Stephen Miller
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Barron Hilton expanded his father Conrad’s hotel empire and made the brand a force in Las Vegas gambling.

Hilton, who has died aged 91, spent five decades at Hilton Hotels Corp, serving as chief executive for 30 years from 1966. During his tenure, the company was the fifth-largest US hotel chain. He was co-chair in 2007 when Blackstone Group acquired the company – by then the nation’s second-largest hotel operator – for $26bn (£20bn), including debt. He amassed a net worth of $1.25bn.

Hilton oversaw the development of the Carte Blanche credit card, which the company sold in 1966 for $12m to First National City Bank, the predecessor to today’s Citigroup Inc. He pioneered the profitable practice of real estate sale-leasebacks, selling the equity in hotels while continuing to manage them.

In the early 1970s, he oversaw the acquisition of the Flamingo Hotel and Las Vegas International, later renamed Las Vegas Hilton. The move made Hilton Hotels the first company listed on the New York Stock Exchange to enter the US gaming industry.

As chair, Hilton worked with CEO Stephen Bollenbach to expand the company’s casino operations into Mississippi and Atlantic City, New Jersey, and acquire Bally Entertainment Corp for about $3bn in 1996. Two years later, the executives spun off their gambling unit.

Though successful as the steward of the family business, he also made his mark as an entrepreneur. With Texas oilman Lamar Hunt and others, Hilton helped to found the American Football League, and he was the original owner of the league’s Los Angeles Chargers. The AFL and rival National Football League announced their merger in 1966, the same year Hilton sold his majority stake in the team, by then called the San Diego Chargers. (The team has since relocated to Los Angeles.) He described his association with the Chargers as “the happiest days of my life”.

William Barron Hilton was born in 1927, in Dallas, Texas. He was eight when his parents divorced, and away at school when his father married the actor Zsa Zsa Gábor in 1942.

He had two brothers, Eric, who became an executive at Hilton Hotels, and Conrad Nicholson (Nicky) Jr, a socialite and manager of Hilton’s international division. Barron was best man at Nicky’s 1950 marriage to the movie star Elizabeth Taylor; the couple divorced within a year. Other well-known family members include Paris Hilton and Nicky Hilton, his granddaughters and high-living heiresses. Eric died in 2016.

Barron Hilton said he had “a misspent youth” and was “kicked out of four or five schools”. He said he wasn’t close to his father, who was building a hotel empire that began with a site in Cisco, Texas, in 1919. He skipped college and served in the US navy as a photographer’s mate. In 1954, he became vice president at Hilton Hotels.

When Conrad Hilton died in 1979, he gave much of his fortune to his private foundation, which benefited Catholic nuns and other charities. Barron Hilton challenged his father’s will and after several years of legal wrangling reached a settlement giving him effective control over 34 per cent of Hilton’s shares.

In 2007, Hilton announced that he would follow his father’s example and leave 97 per cent of his estate to the Conrad N Hilton Foundation. The planned gift is projected to increase the endowment to $6.3bn from $2.9bn, according to the foundation.

One of his passions was flying aeroplanes. “Hotels may have been my vocation, but aviation has definitely been my avocation,” Hilton said. He owned a fleet of aeroplanes, helicopters, gliders and ultralight aircraft. Hilton sponsored attempts to circumnavigate the globe in a manned balloon, which he called “the ultimate room with a view – a view of the world”.

He is survived by eight children.

Barron Hilton, business magnate, born 23 October 1927, died 19 September 2019

Additional reporting by Patrick Clark

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