DIMINUTIVE powerhouse Sol Kerzner, 77, has been a colossus in the business world for as long as anyone can remember.
The hard-drinking, much-married, chain-smoking mogul with a blue collar background confounded sceptics at every turn to build a multi-billion rand global holiday resort empire. Midas-like, everything he touched turned to gold. Like him or loathe him, he was both envied and admired.
But, as he and his fourth wife Heather, 44, head for the divorce court, it seems personal happiness has again eluded him. This week it was announced that he had retired as the executive head of Kerzner International. His shoes will be filled by SA-born Alan Leibman. Leibman has been with the company for 17 years. Kerzner will remain as company chairman.
Those close to Kerzner say the blow dealt the hotelier by the death of his son and heir, Butch, in a helicopter crash in 2006, was one he never fully recovered from. Kerzner lost his second wife, Shirley Bestbier, to suicide.
His next trip down the aisle, with one-time Miss World Anneline Kriel, led to divorce after five years.
His marriage to Heather tottered on for 12 years, culminating in divorce papers being filed in the UK in November.
The soon-to-be-ex Mrs Kerzner is reportedly “in no hurry” to find out how large a slice of the pie she will receive in settlement, but even though Kerzner was hard hit by the recession, she is not likely to have to do her own housework any time soon.
Born in Durban to Russian Jewish immigrants, Kerzner learned the work ethos early. His family ran a small kosher hotel in the city, which was so successful that they branched into a chain.
After graduating as an accountant, Kerzner took over the reins of the business from his father, and began his ascendancy in 1962 when he bought the Astra Hotel in Durban, and then built the perennially popular Beverly Hills Hotel in Umhlanga.
Next up was the construction of the Elangeni Hotel on Durban’s Golden Mile, as part of his newly-minted Sun International group, which became the greatest success in the history of the SA hospitality industry.
In 1975 he moved into the realm of international tourism with the creation of Le Saint Géran in Mauritius. Each fresh achievement sharpened his appetite for more. No dream was too ambitious for the man dubbed “The Sun King”.
In 1979 he developed Sun City, the most ambitious resort project ever seen on the African continent. For the first time since sanctions were imposed on the country, starry-eyed fans were able to attend concerts by music legends including Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli and Shirley Bassey.
When Nelson Mandela took his first steps as a free man, it was Kerzner who was summoned to organise the VIP function at the Presidential Inauguration, attended by world leaders and heads of state. But Kerzner was getting hungry again.
In 1996 he opened the rampantly successful Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Connecticut in the US, and in 2008 he topped that achievement when he launched the Atlantis Hotel in Dubai with a party that cost R163 million and lasted several days.
For dessert, Kerzner decided the industry needed a chain of six-star boutique hotels, and the One & Only group was established, with its R1 billion flagship hotel on Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront.
On the surface Kerzner led a charmed life, but in reality his empire was crumbling and Heather wanted out of a marriage that had become increasingly lonely as her husband jetted from one part of the world to the next, shoring up deals and trying to stave off creditors.
In December, television show Carte Blanche revealed that Kerzner had parted with resorts worth billions in transactions with giant Canadian property company Brookfield.
He exchanged these assets for a mere $175m (R1.4bn), with the proviso that the buyer took over $2.3bn of debt.
The erosion of Kerzner’s portfolio started in 2005, when he and Butch decided to buy out minority shareholders and delist the company from the New York Stock Exchange. Their timing could not have been worse. They incurred $3.6bn in debt just before the Great Crash of 2007.
As he spent Christmas on his sprawling Hout Bay estate, Leeuwkoppie, the Sun King must have reflected on triumphs past, and present trials. Incredibly, though, he has no plans to relinquish his crown. Instead of owning resorts, he plans to continue designing, developing and managing them.