Sam Nazarian, A Leader of the Pack

There are some men who just exude power. The minute they walk into a room their presence is felt. They’re the ‘leader of the pack;’ men that other men gravitate towards and women are in awe of. Sam Nazarian is one such man…

At six foot three inches, with a well-built frame, Sam Nazarian simply looks like a powerful man. Yet his contagious smile and affable persona let you know immediately that his strength lies in his power to persuade. The kind of power that makes those around him want to deliver to the best of their abilities and make him proud. Those who work for him consider it a privilege and their admiration for him is obvious. Yet Nazarian inspires both those inside and outside his growing businesses. He is a young business mogul who has proven that with enough hard work, humility and determination, anything is possible. And as he continues to turn his dreams into reality, Nazarian’s influence and reputation continue to flourish.

As the Founder and Chief Executive officer of SBE, Nazarian oversees an empire which includes hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, real estate, his production company Elements Films as well as Bolthouse/VOX Productions, which for the past 18 years has corenered the market on LA nightlife. With their unparalleled reputation for entertaining the world’s celebs, tastemakers and industry power players, Bolthouse clubs in Los Angeles, which include XIV by Michael Mina, The Bazaar by Jose Andres, 4 Katsuya Restaurants, Area, S Bar, Hyde, Foxtail, The Abbey Food & Bar, have been routinely compared with New York’s Studio 54 whose velvet ropes are widely known as the toughest line to cross!

So Sam Nazarian is a man who wears many hats, film producer, real estate financier and hotelier. He owns several nightclubs and restaurants outright in Los Angeles as well as SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills, The Sahara Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and the Ritz Plaza in Miami. In 2006 he was the youngest executive to be named one of the top 100 most powerful people in Southern California by The Los Angeles Times magazine and was named one of ‘The Influentials’ in Los Angeles Magazine. He has also been featured and quoted in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, People, Fortune, W, Variety and The New Yorker. This is a man whose actions and achievements always create a buzz.

Born in Iran, his parents emigrated to the US soon after the Iranian Revolution. His father, Younes Nazarian was the co-founder of Qualcomm (the biggest provider of fabless digital chips in the world). Nazarian’s first entrepreneurial venture came in 1998, when at age 20 he founded Platinum Wireless, a telecommunication business specialising in the distribution of Nextel software. Within a year, it became the No. 1 Nextel distributor in Southern California. Nazarian then entered the world of real estate by diversifying his family’s assets into real estate holdings, quickly becoming one of Southern California’s largest owners of multifamily housing.

Nazarian takes his phenomenal success at such a young age all in stride. As he explains “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial vision. Every summer when my friends went camping, I worked in my dad’s factories, cleaning and sweeping. I even worked in restaurants, cleaning floors and doing dishes. I liked the thrill of it and always argued with my dad because he didn’t like me doing such jobs.” Nazarian smiles then goes on: “He wanted me to go to camp and stick to my brothers and sisters, as I was the youngest of four children. But I just wanted to work; I loved the responsibility and the challenge. Then when I was 15, I managed one of his projects in Hollywood. Literally riding the bus to work at dawn, I was very independent even at that age.”

His was a unique independence, not common for children from affluent families. With his determination and work ethic, one would think Nazarian had no choice but to strive to achieve. The truth however was quite the opposite. Nazarian’s entrepreneurial spirit was definitely of his own making. “I was the youngest of four children by many years. And when we moved to the US I felt the age gap. My two sisters are eight and 12 years older and my brother is 13 years older. So I was kind of on my own anyway, culturally and psychologically. I just had this self-sufficient personality”.

Even the youngest entrepreneurs with boundless ambition don’t succeed so young and so fast. But achieving so much came at a price, as Nazarian explains, “I sacrificed a lot and took a lot of risks. I didn’t have a big master plan, but it was intuition that led me to work with good people. When you think about it, if the business decisions I made early on didn’t go well, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to take more risks.” And Nazarian’s first risk came in the form of the company, Platinum Wireless. “I didn’t ask my father for any capital, so I had a little office and entered into a 50/50 partnership with my best friend. Through good fortune we met with a representative from Nextel and after six months of negotiations I got the first license to sell their products. A-year-and-a-half later, we had 200 employees; I think the receptionist was the only one younger than me! We eventually sold the company to Nextel for a great profit,” he recalls.

This early success gave Nazarian the confidence to take more risks and prove to his father he was capable of making it on his own. Yet the pressure to join the family business remained, so Nazarian compromised and decided to help his father’s holding company get into real estate ventures. “My father wanted to have some real estate exposure, so I got into real estate through some of the Wall Street banks he worked with. At first, I had no idea what the fundamentals of real estate investments were. Then after studying the market, I decided to start funding a lot of apartment projects in 1998,” he says.

This experience led Nazarian to his passion: “Through that process I really understood real estate and I worked with a lot of really smart people who had been in the business for years. One day, one of our partners decided he wanted to buy a boutique hotel, so we funded him.” This project became The Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica, a magnet for young and trendy visitors and locals alike. Then September 11 shook the world and put a halt on business for eight months. Yet Nazarian managed to take advantage of the economic climate. “We started buying and reselling hotels with our partners, not just boutique hotels but all types of hotels. And we continued to buy and sell apartment buildings as well”.

Soon Nazarian realized he no longer needed to fund other people’s projects and could create projects of his own. “It became clear you have to be the sole proprietor to control your own destiny, so in 2002 I started my company SBE, which had four divisions: real estate, nightclubs, restaurants and hotels.”

The nightclub business proved to be Nazarian’s first high-profile success, partly because he found a great operator in Bolthouse to run his place and partly because rather than seek investors for each nightclub (which is normal practise for high-end nightclubs), Nazarian decided to own each club himself. With each successful opening, Nazarian got the courage and clout to open his next venture. His restaurant, nightclub and hotel empire began to flourish…

All along, Nazarian’s risk-taking attitude persisted. As he explains, “When we created the SLS hotel brand, we were taking a big risk. This was a lifestyle platform we wanted to create with guys like Philippe Starck. It was an ambitious concept but I had such a passion for it. It was very difficult and challenging but I just kept at it. In a business that is so high-profile and public, you don’t want to fail; if people know your place is great or always busy, it’s the ultimate success. Still, if you are not on your game all the time and challenging the status quo, you can fail anytime.”

The result of his biggest risk is the striking SLS Beverly Hills, which is now one of the world’s most luxurious, innovative, modern and stylish hotels. Within months of its opening last year, it became a favourite for LA’s glitterati and  visiting trendsetters. Soon the SLS brand will be launched in Las Vegas as well. And for Nazarian, this will probably be his most ambitous venture yet. “Two years ago we bought the Sahara Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. The process took four years and was a huge deal for us as a company. It was the first project I raised money for, and it ended up being a very big transaction” he says.

Yet the SLS concept in Vegas is set to fill a slightly different niche. The idea is to create  a young, vibrant stylish hotel for trendy visitors who, as Nazarian explains, “want to go to Vegas to forget, have fun and dream the big dream and not be overly pampered. At the end of the day, the young, stylish crowd want to gamble, sleep at ease and party at an affordable price. Right now, only The Palms and the Hard Rock Hotel cater to this crowd and we are sure we can cater to them better”.

Nazarian also bought the former Ritz Hotel in Miami, which will be his next SLS project. “Miami is a very high-energy place, but the food and beverage and the service is not up to standard. The Delano, The Raleigh, The National are all beautiful and fun hotels, but the service and design is not exceptional. So that’s where we think we can stand out.”

With all these exciting projects under his belt and his offing, has Nazarian become complacent about his success? Seemingly not. “Before you launch a concept, you never know how it is going to be received. But getting all the awards we are getting now and doing as well as we are doing (even in the current economic climate), makes us very confident at this point.”

And how does Nazarian deal with pressure to keep outdoing himself with every new opening? “I had a tougher time with this earlier on. There are always rumours and blogs circulating about my work. Obviously, a lot of people are envious of other people’s success. But I am my own biggest critic so no one can really get to me. You are only as good as your latest project. A year ago when the economy crashed, we made sound decisions and weren’t seduced by selling or borrowing too much money; we kept our fundamentals very conservative. My brands were diversified and this helped us survive. People thought I was crazy spending so much money on so many locations and brands, but these decisions proved wise. You always have to trust your own instincts.”

And Nazarian has been doing that from early on. “Because I came from a very successful family, people often said, ‘if I had his money, I could do what he has done.’ But I think the biggest concern was when I was starting to do bigger deals. People were concerned that I may wake up one day and decide I didn’t want to do this anymore (because I didn’t have to). Yet once people started really seeing our infrastructure, the philosophy behind what we are doing, the details and how much time and effort we put into our nightclub brands, our hotel brands, our construction projects and our employees, their confidence in us grew. My biggest challenge at first was getting top people to work for me.”

Nazarian feels his Persian family background has helped him significantly. He smiles as he explains, “When you are in a business where everyone wants to be your friend, you cannot let yourself get seduced by that. Many nightclub and hotel owners start to believe their own hype. But I think the grounding my family gave me helped tremendously; I was taught to always be very humble and know that at any moment things could go left or right.”

Keeping grounded is one thing, but really enjoying the fruits of your success is another. And in Nazarian’s case, it could seem that his success has come at the price of his youth. But then again, his business is full of glitz, glamour, premieres and mingling with celebrities, so it can’t be that bad, right? “Sometimes I get mad at myself for never living the moment and enjoying it. I remember when the second film we produced was accepted in the Cannes Film Festival, which was not an easy thing to do. I attended the screening then immediately flew on to my next project.  In 2007, 2008 and 2009 we had almost 12 openings, and five film releases, but I never looked back and reflected on what I have accomplished. I was always looking for what’s next, which kind of sucks. Ideally you want to appreciate and enjoy every accomplishment, but I never did that. I was always off doing the next thing. For me the excitement is in the build up; the creation of a new concept or project.”

And when you work hard and play hard, while moving from project to project, things can become extremely hectic, especially when you are as high profile as Nazarian. Due to his appearances (as himself) in hit US shows such as HBO’s Entourage and MTV’s The Hills, his own film premieres and high profile nightclubs and hotels, Nazarian has become a recognisable name and face across the US.  There seems to be a real fusion between his business life and his personal life. As he explains: “Everything I look at is through a work perspective. Most of my friends are people who either work for me or with me, but I am lucky because I love the people I work with. The problem with this business is that you lose your privacy, which is a sacrifice.”

Of course, there are tremendous benefits as well. Nazarian is in many ways ‘living the dream.’ He is extremely successful at doing what he loves; he is financially comfortable enough to keep challenging himself by starting new projects; he works with people he loves; he is constantly surrounded by good friends and he gets to work and mingle with a lot of his childhood idols. As he reflects with a smile, “ I’ve become good friends with people like Steven Spielberg, whom I’ve always admired, but sometimes I walk out of meetings and I still can’t believe where I am!”

As for the future, what exciting projects does Nazarian have his sights set on? “For the most part, all the major brands I wanted to create are done. SLS is going to be our main concept in every city that we are going into. The nightlife side is constantly changing. There are a lot of people in our business who are not doing well unfortunately, which leaves a lot of opportunities for a company like ours. That’s why I am most proud of our staying power and ability to stay relevant in the nightlife world. We have the only four-star restaurant in LA  (The Bazaar), which was up for three James Beard awards; the hardest platform to get acknowledged at. Regarding the SLS brand, the performance of our hotel speaks for itself; we have a unique brand, great properties and have proven we can raise institutional money, deal with bankers, do construction financing, master plan huge scripts for projects etc. Not many companies like ours exist. So now is the time to expand at a pace we are comfortable with, because we have the liquidity to take advantage of the current market climate and to buy the assets we couldn’t have in the past.”

When asked if he will ever bring his Hollywood glitz to the Middle East, where it is desperately needed, Nazarian pauses with an almost nostalgic look in his eyes. “There is a side of me that always wanted to go back to the Middle East, yet there is a side of me that is reluctant to invest there because it is such a volatile area; especially in the kind of business that we are in. There are a lot of opportunities though and an appeal and a draw for our type of concepts. Obviously European brands are much more known in the Middle East, but once people are exposed to our brands, they get it. We are looking at countries like Turkey, where similar concepts have been accepted for many years. We have also looked at Dubai but decided not to invest there yet. I still think our brand speaks to that new generation of Arab youth growing up with a solid education and an international mindset.”

So who knows, maybe the young Middle Eastern boy who has taken LA’s jet set by storm may come full circle and work his magic in the Arab world. Or maybe Arab movers and shakers will continue to jet set to his glamourous destinations. Whatever the future holds, one thing is certain, this Persian ‘Emperor of Cool’ has proved that our region continues to produce some of the sharpest and savviest entrepreneurs in the world. And that is something we should all be proud of…