John Fitzpatrick: Irish American of the Year
John Fitzpatrick is remembering back to the crystallizing day in his life as a hotelier – the day his hotel in Manhattan became more than just a place where the Taoiseach stayed and Liam Neeson and Gabriel Byrne could be spotted at the bar, and Irish shoppers fell over themselves and their suitcases taking the Fitzpatrick limousine to the airport, bags stuffed with Christmas presents. It wasn’t about a fundraiser for Hillary and secret service men descending on the place because former President Clinton had decided he wanted to be in on the act. It was 9/11 and it was about people.
“People were calling from all over Ireland saying, ‘Listen, my daughter lives in New York or my son lives in New York, we can’t contact them but I know they’ll go to your bar.’ And people were stopping into the bar and saying, ‘Listen, will you take my name down because I know my mom will check here.’”
John became an unofficial ambassador that day, working with the Irish Consulate, swapping lists of names and other information, and finding places for those unable to leave the city – many slept in the lobby of the hotel that night.
Those who know John will not be surprised that this day stands out in his long career as a hotelier. He’s very much involved with the Irish, both in New York which he has called home since he opened the doors of the Fitzpatrick Manhattan in December 1991, and in Ireland where he was born and raised. He has received numerous accolades both for his business acumen and his philanthropic work, but at the end of the day he is proud to call himself an innkeeper.
John honed his craft at his father’s side – the famous Paddy Fitzpatrick, who worked his way up from hotel manager at the Old Ground Hotel in Ennis, to owner of Killiney Castle Hotel, County Dublin, and Fitzpatrick’s Shamrock Hotel in Bunratty, County Clare.
His mother Eithne, a former Miss Ireland, he credits with giving him his sense of style. She worked with his father on building up the family business and on every aspect of the interior design – even arranging the flowers in the luxurious Killiney Castle Hotel. (The striking renovation that the Fitzpatrick Manhattan has recently undergone attests to the fact that John has inherited his mother’s eye for detail.)
The second eldest of Paddy and Eithne’s five children, John was not content to spend his career in his father’s shadow, and struck out for the United States at an early age. He broadened his knowledge of the hotel business in Las Vegas and Chicago – working his way to manager of a hotel in Oaklawn, Illinois – before the call came from his father to come back to the family business in Ireland. He was happy enough for a while – he learned to fly a helicopter so as to stay on top of the ever-expanding Fitzpatrick hotel empire – but he always had a hankering to get back to the States. In 1990, with his father’s blessing he began looking at various U.S. cities, finally settling on New York, and the site at 57th Street and Lexington Avenue – a small residential hotel in a prime location that needed a complete renovation. John oversaw every detail. To save money he stayed in the empty hotel during construction, padlocking the door after the crews went home at night. The hotel opened its doors in December 1991. Soon it was the epicenter of the Irish community in New York – popular with heads of state and the Hollywood A-list alike. So successful was it, that a couple of years later John opened another New York hotel – The FitzPatrick’s Grand Central.
Such is John’s reputation in the hospitality industry that he is in his second term as chairman of the New York Hotel Association. Its membership includes 245 of the finest hotels in the city, representing more than 65,000 rooms and 32,000 employees. When he is not about the business of his hotels, John is a regular on the social scene in New York City and in the Hamptons where he has a weekend retreat. His name has been linked with a number of glamorous women, but he would be the first to admit that, for now at least, he is married to the job. On the morning of our interview, he is leaving for a skiing holiday in the French Alps with friends from boyhood. He’s looking forward to it, but one can sense that he will enjoy it all the more in reflection – when he’s back at work in New York. As he fends off calls and deals with last-minute business before he leaves for the airport, I’m struck by the fact that he is taking the time to call in a favor – a concert ticket for the daughter of a friend.
He is a warm, elegant man, with an easy manner and a knack for making people comfortable. These characteristics, the key to his success as a hotelier, were also useful when the peace process was moving warily towards the Good Friday Agreement, and he opened his hotel to the loyalists and unionists, for they are “Irish too.”
When his mother passed away, 16 years ago, John decided to commemorate her with an annual golf tournament. To date over $1 million has been raised for two specific causes: the Corrymeela Centre, County Antrim, which promotes peace and reconciliation between the Northern communities, and Barrettstown, County Wicklow, a place that provides leisure activities for children with serious illnesses. To hear John talk about these projects is to know that they deeply touch the heart.
In the words of HIllary Clinton, “John Fitzpatrick is the very best kind of Irishman, he is utterly committed [to peace in Northern Ireland] both as a businessman and as a great humanitarian. I am proud to know him.” We too are proud to know John and to name him our Irish American of the Year.
P.H: Tell me about your early mentors.
My father was a huge mentor. He was what I would call an old-fashioned hotelier, in the sense that it was all about service, it was all about the customer. He’d always say to me, “Remember, no matter how big you get or how many hotels you have, you’re still an innkeeper. And if you remember that, you won’t go wrong.”
Did you always want to work in the hotel business?
At one stage I wasn’t sure because in the old days, I never saw my father. We saw Dad when we were going off to school in the morning, we’d see him at 6 when we were having dinner, and then at 7:30 he’d head back to work. In those days hotel managers went to work in the morning, came home for a dinner break, and went back to work for the rest of the evening, usually not coming home until after midnight. That was tough for me as I grew up.
When did you start working in the family hotel?
Dad was always tough on us, in that you never got anything for nothing. If we wanted to have money we had to work. When I was only about 14 or 15, I was cutting the lawn at Killiney Castle – that was my summer job. I knew that the bar was the best place to make tips but I was too young to work there and I started off as a dishwasher. When I turned 17, I persuaded my father to let me work behind the bar washing the glasses. Eventually I started serving drinks. I did this every weekend while I was in school.
Looking back, I probably worked too many hours, but it was my own decision. I didn’t frequent the bars and clubs in my earlier years, like the rest of my friends, but I was a late bloomer and made up for it later.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
I love meeting customers. I’d rather be down meeting customers than doing anything else. That’s the way I am. People are always saying, “You work too hard, you work long hours.” My friends are always saying, “Why are you going back in?” Even if I’m at a reception or having drinks with friends, I always try to stop in at one of my hotels on the way home – even if it’s just to walk through the lobby. I can walk into my hotels and within five or six minutes I know if everything’s okay. I can just feel it.
Why did you pick New York City to open a hotel?
In the beginning, capital was very limited, but Dad was a great salesperson, and I remember the banker saying, “Paddy, you want to go to the States, but of all places to open a hotel you want to go to New York City, can you not pick somewhere else?” And I remember Dad saying, and it sounds corny now, but at the time it got [the message] across, “Why not New York?” He said, “It’s like the Frank Sinatra song, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.” And I swear, I’ll never forget that day because all the bankers looked up and they couldn’t argue with him.
How did you, in such a short time, put your stamp on the city?
I have to give credit to a great woman, Angela Phelan [Angela, who sadly passed away in 2009, wrote a popular social column for the Irish Independent newspaper]. Angela was the one who put us on the map. She said that since it was an Irish-owned hotel, the Irish heads of state should stay here when they visited New York. She called [Taoiseach] Albert and his wife Kathleen [Reynolds] who she was very friendly with, and they came to stay.Then Mary Robinson, who was president at the time, stayed here and that was the start of it. It wasn’t me putting my mark on New York, it was the Irish supporting me that really did it.
And you in turn support the Irish through your foundation –
I have to say, how that all started was a little bit selfish. When Mum died, it was a huge shock to us. Dad was very successful but he wouldn’t have been a success without Mum. She was a great mother but she also helped him with the business. Where did I learn about interior design? I used to follow Mum around the hotel. Everybody knew Dad, but I was afraid as the years went on it would be all about Paddy Fitzpatrick and Mum wouldn’t be remembered. So I said, we’re going to do a memorial fund in honor of Mum.
I started with Corporation Ireland and did something small in the north, and then the American Ireland Fund approached me and said, look, your golf tournament’s becoming successful, would you not come in with us? I said, listen, guys, you’re raising millions, and I fear that the limited dollars we raise will be lost in the shuffle. I want to be able to touch it, feel it, and especially when people donate money [to the memorial fund] I insist that they know where it’s going. And they said, we have created a donor advisory board where you can pick different projects and 100 percent of the money that you raise goes straight to [that project]. So I went to Barrettstown where they bring seriously ill kids to enjoy normal activities like horseback riding, canoeing and such. It gives them the confidence they need to stay positive and fight [the illness]. And I visited the Corrymeela Reconciliation Centre up in Ballycastle, whose mission is to promote reconciliation between groups that were formerly divided. The weekend I was there I saw Catholic and Protestant children playing to-gether for the first time and it was a great sight. It is a beautiful place.
I knew that the Corrymeela center and Barrettstown were projects that were making a difference and that I could support. The one thing I insist is that my mother or father’s name [Paddy passed away in 2001] – not mine – must appear on any commemoration. But it has to be discreet; I don’t want a big gold plaque. And they’ve done a fantastic thing at Corrymeela. We helped build the main house, and carved into the wooden mantle over the fireplace is “Eithne Fitzpatrick Memorial.” Unless you get up close to it you don’t see it.
In terms of Northern Ireland, you had groups from both communities staying at your hotel during the peace process.
This was long before the Good Friday Agreement, it was all done very quietly. I would get a call from Bill Flynn [then chairman of Mutual of America and a leading Irish-American peacemaker] and he would say, “John, we have a few of them coming in. We don’t have resources, will you do it for me?” and I would say, “of course.” They all stayed here. Quietly, no one knew. We’ve come a long way, and it doesn’t have to be kept quiet anymore.
A year and a half ago we had Dr. Ian Paisley, on his first official visit to New York. Ian Jr., who I had gotten to know, calls me and says, “I’m going to put Dad with you.” I said, “Oh, great, sure, will he be comfortable?” He said, “Absolutely, but there’s only one thing I need from you.” I said, “Don’t worry, it’ll be flying” [the Union Jack]. It would’ve been flying anyway, that’s what we do when any head of state stays here.
So I go out as the cars pull up. I open the door and Ian Paisley gets out and puts his hat on and I swear, he looks at me seriously and says, “My son says you’re okay, and he’s right.” He walks in the door and it’s Christmas week, everybody from Ireland’s in and there are six women from Derry coming out with shopping bags going to get in a car to the airport. And he stops and talks with them and they’re saying, “Dr. Paisley!” It was very funny. He sat down in the front room in the restaurant – that’s his table, the one with the windows. There was no hiding! Some smart person came up to him one day and said, “What are you doing in an Irish hotel?” and he said, “We are Irish!”
You also held fundraisers for Hillary Clinton at the hotel. Are you still in touch?
Absolutely. People asked me at the time, “Why are you supporting Hillary?” I said “Look, guys, it goes back to what they did for Ireland.” We wouldn’t have peace in Northern Ireland without the Clintons’ help. It was their love for Ireland that kind of got me going [for her campaign]. This was when she was running for senator. We had no idea she was going to run for president. Of course I wanted her to be president. But in hindsight, I think we’ve got the best of both worlds. We’ve got a great president and we’ve got the best Secretary of State – one who understands Ireland. She really knows what’s going on; it’s second nature to her.
Would you say that there is something in your Irish heritage that has helped your career?
I think there is something about being Irish…we are a very warm people, and we are genuine. In Ireland if they say something to you, they mean it. The other thing is, and I say this to our employees: we’re all part of a team. I want everyone to be relaxed here. Yes, you do have bosses, but it’s a family business with family values. My father made that clear from day one. He knew everybody who worked for him. And my mother knew everybody too and the employees were part of the family.
You received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, what did that mean to you and how do you see the current policy on immigration?
It was fantastic to receive the Ellis Island Medal because knowing the history of the “Irish need not apply” signs, I just think, “Look how far we’ve come.” I think it’s important for those of us who are here legally to be thankful for that, but we shouldn’t forget those others. Changing the immigration policy should be very high on our agenda. I don’t know if you can say this, but they’re not going home, they’re staying here and they’ve got families and kids here, so something has to be done. You just can’t say they’re illegal and the problem will go away. Ireland and the United States have been intertwined for a long time, and there are so many Irish here that are valuable contributors to American society.
What advice would you give to the Irish in terms of dealing with the current economic climate?
You go back to Ireland and they’re so depressed and so down, and I say, “Would you stop being so negative? Okay, you’ve come down, but look how far you’ve still come.” For example, my brothers at home are in the property business, which is unfortunately not going well at the moment, but at the height of the market, labor was so hard to find, my brothers were bringing in laborers from overseas. We just have to realize how far we’ve come and look at the positive side. Perfect example: when I opened this hotel I named the suites after the [Irish] presidents and half of them were dead, and when I opened Fitzpatrick’s Grand Central ten years later – look at what Ireland had done – I was able to name suites after the many Irish luminaries who had emerged in recent years. We had a Nobel Peace Prize winner, U2 had exploded, we had Riverdance. We had all these internationally recognized names in the arts and in the business world – we’d done it. So yes, we’ve gone down but we can go back up again. We may never get back to [where we were] but I think that [where we were] was a little bit unrealistic.
I think everybody has to wake up and be mature and say there’s a bit of blame for everyone to share. Nobody can say it’s his fault or it’s the bank’s fault or the government’s fault – it’s a bit of everybody’s fault. It’s about taking this negative energy and making it positive. If you keep yourself positive and look for new ideas, there are ways of getting through it – whatever the adversities that you face.
What did receiving the OBE mean to you?
The OBE [Order of the British Empire] was totally unexpected – they gave it to me mainly because of the philanthropic work I did in Northern Ireland and maybe because I helped make all parties welcome in New York during the early stages of the peace process. But really the charity work is made possible by my donors and my team. My fund is not my fund. All my employees give up their free time. The golf tournament is in May, we start [organizing] in November. My salespeople, my bartenders, my restaurant people, my housekeepers…they all get involved and they’re on the committee. And it’s a tough thing [to organize]. People think the golf tournament is just one day, but it takes six or seven months to raise sponsorship. So I have to give credit to the team and my donors, and my great operations director, Kate Simpson, she’s really taken this on.
Any qualms, as an Irishman, about accepting the OBE?
Absolutely none, I consider it an honor and a privilege, and I look forward to the bright future that all of Ireland has.
Thank you, John.