1917: Hotelier E.M. Statler

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From a 1917 issue of The American Magazine:

A Great Salesman of Service

The romantic story of a wonderful hotel man — together with some of the wisdom he has picked up in his study of human nature

by Merle Crowell

Detroit was celebrating the formal opening of its new four-million-dollar hotel. At the east end of the grand ballroom a group of guests had gathered about one man. Clad in a plain business suit, he looked strangely out of place in that crowd of gayly gowned women and white-fronted men.

Suddenly he broke off in the middle of a sentence, dodged past a squad of dancers chatting on the side lines and knelt before a splash of candle grease on the floor. When he had scraped the spot clean he stepped quietly back.

“Some lady might have slipped on it,” he said, as he resumed the interrupted conversation.

A half-dozen couples had stopped to stare. “Who was that?” a flushed debutante asked her partner.

“Who?” he echoed. “That was Statler himself.”

“How odd! Why didn’t he send for a boy?’

“Wait for a boy?” the man returned. “My dear, you don’t know Statler.”

Although half a million Americans have been sheltered beneath the roofs of his hotels and restaurants, I suppose that all those who really know Ellsworth Milton Statler could find standing room in the cashier’s cage of his Buffalo hotel.

Many of the half million may remember him as proprietor of Statler’s Pan-American Hotel at the Buffalo Exposition, or the mammoth “Inside Inn” at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Nearly all are aware that today he controls great hotels in Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit. And now it is announced that he is going to put into operation the largest hotel in the world — a gigantic structure of 2,200 rooms, to be built opposite the Pennsylvania Terminal in New York City. This house will have two hundred more rooms than any hotel now existing or under construction.

But these are physical facts, pages from hotel history, and they contain no revelation of the man himself. One may take a little journey in this direction by reading the thin white booklet that stands on the dresser in every one of his guest rooms — the booklet that bristles from cover to cover with such texts as this:

No employee of this hotel is allowed the privilege of arguing any point with a guest. He must adjust the matter at once to the guest’s satisfaction or call his superior to adjust it.

One hot afternoon last July — an afternoon made bearable only by a fresh breeze that was drifting in across Lake St. Clair — I boarded a New York express at Detroit. I had made my first stop at a Statler hotel the night before and had carried away one of those little booklets. As I was glancing through it I noticed opposite me a man whom I had seen in the hotel lobby.

“These are interesting theories of service,” I remarked to him. “Wonder how far Statler has worked them out.”

“They’re more than theories,” he returned, a little belligerently. “I’ve been stopping at his hotels for ten years, and I ought to know.”

He crossed his long legs and tossed away a half-burned match.

“You remember the newspaper slipped under your door to-day before you woke up, stamped ‘Good Morning! This is your paper — with the compliments of Hotel Statler!’ You saw the trousers buttons, and needles threaded with white and black thread in the pincushion on the dresser. And probably you noticed the wooden panel in the transom over your door, to keep the hall light from shining in at night. Well; all. those ideas are Statler’s. He started ’em; other folks copied ’em.

“Statler’s the real gimlet-eyed gazaboo. He’s always watching folks like a hawk to see what pleases ’em and what doesn’t. A few years ago he noticed that folks like to sit with their arms hooked across the backs of their chairs while they’re chatting between courses, so he ordered the backs of every dining-room chair in his establishment made low and without knobs. Then people kicked at paying the extra cent for newspapers that they charge in most big hotel lobbies, and he gave orders for every paper to be sold at street prices. Cost him a wad of money in concessions, too. He was coming down a corridor one day and noticed a woman fumbling at a keyhole in the shadow below a door knob, and immediately he ordered that the keyhole be set above the knobs in every door in his hotels. Circulating ice water in hotel rooms was his idea, too. Found that people didn’t like to tip boys for bringing up water. Then he started the idea of putting a rate card in every room — got the idea from standard price tags on goods at department stores.”

Even as my companion rambled on I was thinking of another Statler conception of service I had noticed that morning. Washing my hands in the white-tiled lavatory, I had missed the familiar frenzied brush of a tip-seeking servitor and had looked wonderingly around until my eyes fell on this notice:

The attendants in this room are instructed to give no service unless it is asked for. This is because we have found that voluntary service in washrooms is distasteful to many of our guests.

Yet all these things, as I found out later, are only symbols of the real Statler, the man with a boy’s enthusiasms, who is directing from his Buffalo office the operation of three hotels, the construction of a fourth and fifth, and, at fifty-three, is dreaming of the day when houses bearing his name will stand in every large city in the United States.

In the hills of Somerset County, Pennsylvania, Statler was born in October, 1863, — three months after the guns of Gettysburg had ceased their thunder. Six years later the family moved to Bridgeport, Ohio. The small store which the elder Statler set up in Bridgeport paid scant returns; so the children had to go to work. Soon after his ninth birthday he got a job “firing the glory hole” in the La Belle glass works, where he worked twelve hours in alternate day and night shifts.

In Wheeling, West Virginia, just across the river from Bridgeport, the big McLure House was something of a show place. Young Statler had labored in the glass house for three years, working up to a wage of ninety cents a day, when a friend told him that another bell boy was wanted at the hotel. “Six dollars a month with board, lots of tips, and a chance to work up in the business,” was the prospect painted. The last consideration meant much to the boy: his plans for the future had long outgrown the glass house. He landed the hotel job.

By the time his leg muscles had hardened to the task of racing up and down five flights of stairs several dozen times a day — the hotel elevator was reserved strictly for guests — Statler was enthusiastic about his new job. He developed a passion for service, for doing a little more than the guest expected. His tips were plentiful. In a year and a half he had saved one hundred and fifty dollars, which he turned over proudly to his mother. Then he was promoted to take charge of the check-room, look after the proprietor’s office, and carry money to and from the bank.

The boy’s eyes were set on a night clerkship, and already he was beginning to harbor visions of a hotel of his own. But in 1879 the McLure House was shut down for remodeling.

“Green as grass” is Statler’s characterization of himself at sixteen. An incident that happened at this time seems to confirm the recollection.

A pioneer phrenologist paid a visit to Wheeling and gave a public exhibition of character reading with townsfolk as his subjects. “Find out what you’re fitted for,” he invited; and early the next morning young Statler took himself and his nascent ambitions to the professor’s rooms. The phrenologist asked him many questions, charted the hills and valleys of his head, and then wrote out a document which deserves to be perpetuated.

“You are wanting in perceptives,” he declared in part. “Not at all brilliant. Show off to poor advantage. You will pass along through life without being specially noted for anything … You rather lack enterprise. You undertake too little … You lack trust in your own powers. Are well adapted to farming. Can do passably well in store keeping, only that you would be too loath to venture, and should get your living by something sure, for you could not endure to run any risks.”

And this to the future projector of the “Inside Inn,” one of the greatest and most profitable gambles of hotel history!

Despite the analysis, Ellsworth Statler refused to become either a farmer or a store keeper. When the McLure House reopened in 1880 he got back his former job as check-room boy. A night clerkship proved just around the corner, and two years later he was made day clerk. A flattering offer from the Buchtel Hotel in Akron drew him thence the following winter.

By this time Statler’s savings had assumed a size that invited investment. His opportunity came when he learned that the billiard-room at the McLure House had been closed up. As night clerk in the Wheeling hostlery he had kept books, and the memory remained that the billiard-room had turned in a revenue of more than four thousand dollars a year. He obtained a lease, refurnished the room with tables, set up a bowling alley, and in a few months had passed the old high-water mark of receipts. To let his returns remain idle was not Statler’s idea of business. He leased the quarters of a semi-defunct bowling club half a block up the street, and repeated the McLure House success.

But these ventures were only stepping stones. One Sunday, while eating dinner at home with his mother and his sister, Statler felt the impact of an idea.

“How much did this dinner cost?” he inquired. His sister figured it up.

“There’s more money in serving food than I thought,” mused Statler.

The next day he decided to use a 16 by 18 foot vacant space at the bowling club to set up a Lilliputian lunch-room, which should serve coffee, sandwiches and his sister’s home-baked pies. Thus was launched the famous Wheeling “Pie House,” Statler’s first original venture in catering to the needs of man.

Many a resident of Wheeling chuckles to-day as he tells how he used to see Ellsworth Statler, a long pie rack in each hand, hot-footing it at daybreak from his home in North Front Street to the “Pie House,” three-quarters of a mile away. Soon the lunch-room was clearing fifty dollars a week. Within four years Statler had added ten thousand dollars to his bank account, and spent half as much more in fitting up a home for his mother and sister.

But again the ambitions of the young lunch-room keeper were beginning to rebel at close confinement. One day a newspaper informed him that from the heart of Ellicott Square, Buffalo, there was rising a giant twelve-story structure, a thousand offices within its walls, to lay claim to the title of the largest office building in the world. “I’ll get the restaurant privileges,” Statler decided.

The staggering demand of $8,500 for a one-year lease to ample floor space was not able to dampen Statler’s ardor. Furnishing and equipping the place according to his plans cost $26,000 more. By the time he was ready to open the restaurant, on July 4th, 1896, he was $17,000 in debt, and held the lease only through the guarantee of a friend. Moreover, his success or failure was now more than a personal matter, for just before leaving Wheeling he had married.

In the early autumn the restaurant seemed about to find itself when an event happened that pulled the pillars of his gastronomical Gaza down on Statler’s hapless head.

Angered at a fancied slight, the collector for a local grocery house turned in a report that caused his firm to sue Statler forthwith for a bill of one hundred and eighty dollars, despite the fact that double that amount was placidly reposing in the restaurant safe at the time of the collector’s visit. This was the signal for other creditors to swoop down in an importunate flock.

Before he could raise his hand to ward off the blow, Statler was driven to the wall. He turned his new restaurant over to the friend who had gone security, discharged the expensive chef and steward, and took personal charge of the business in a resolute attempt to make good the losses of the men who had trusted him. He kept all the books himself, and opened and closed the restaurant every day.

Soon the business began to pay handsomely. “I can clear off all your bills for two thousand or three thousand dollars,” said Statler’s attorney a few months later. “Your creditors will settle for that percentage. Shall I do it?”

“No!” announced Statler firmly. “I’ll pay every dollar in full.”

Within two years he had made good his promise.

The advent of the St. Louis World’s Fair found him in possession of a contract for exclusive rights to a hotel within the grounds. To a personal capital of $200,000 — thanks to continued prosperity in Ellicott Square — he added $300,000 of borrowed money, and built the “Inside Inn,” a stupendous structure with 2,257 rooms.

On April 30th, 1904, opening day, Statler was charging the chef with final instructions when the bottom suddenly dropped out of a tank close by, and twenty gallons of boiling water splashed over the two men and the coffee boy.

For four months Statler lay in St. Anthony’s Hospital, sleepless from suffering, often delirious. Every morning Mrs. Statler brought him the reports of the previous day’s business and took back his instructions. Longer than four months the surgeons could not keep him; he went back in a wheel chair, his only means of locomotion until long after the fair had closed. The coffee boy, less badly burned than he, had died in the hospital.

After selling the furniture and wrecking the building the hotel man took back to Buffalo two hundred thousand dollars as his profits for a single summer.

With the rewards of his latest venture Statler was at last prepared to build the permanent commercial hotel of which he had been dreaming for twenty-five years. On a plot of land diagonally opposite the Ellicott Square restaurant he began the construction of a three-hundred-room inn with the innovation of a bath for every room.

Buffalo friends shook their heads. “Bad location,” they said to one another. “Sorry for Statler! Nice fellow!”

That his projected house lay outside the accepted hotel zone seemed to bother Statler not a bit. “It’s near the station,” he explained. “Folks coming from the trains will have to pass here, or rather” — and his blunt jaw set — “they will not have to pass here after my hotel is completed.”

In its first year the new house cleared more than thirty thousand dollars; the second year doubled these profits; the third showed a further fifty per cent increase. Whereupon Statler smashed all local construction records by opening on the last of June a one-hundred-and-fifty-room annex the excavations for which he had begun in February.

For a while Statler was satisfied with the success of his new hotel. But soon his ambition was again chafing at restraint.

In the autumn of 1912, he opened a seven-hundred-room house in Cleveland, which he had been able to finance by means of a $450,000 insurance policy on his life. His backers felt that if he lived to open the house it would have to be a success. Three hundred rooms were added later.

On February 5th, 1915, he launched an eight-hundred-room hotel in Detroit, since enlarged to one thousand rooms. Next fall he will open a fourth hotel, in St. Louis. Excavations for the New York house are already completed and construction work under way.

In my first talk with Ellsworth Milton Statler I suddenly discovered that he was studying me quite as closely as I was studying him. Now, this was not a compliment — it was a mark of the man. In his bell-boyhood Statler was wont to watch the people whom he served, in learning what things made them satisfied or dissatisfied. Bit by bit, through the years, he was formulating that dynamic decalogue of service which was to be given its first practical application in the Buffalo hotel.

“A hotel has just one thing to sell,” Statler declared to me, as we discussed his decalogue one gray November evening. “That thing is service. The hotel that sells poor service is a poor hotel, though its rooms may be fit for sheltering princes and its food faultless. And the hotel that sells good service is a good hotel. You may gamble on that. I can build a two-million-dollar house, but I can’t make it pay without courtesy.”

“The guest is always right” runs the Statler code, just as it was the code of the late George C. Boldt, the man who made the great Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. Now, Ellsworth Statler knows that the guest is not always right. He knows that the guest is very likely to be unreasonable. He knows that a forty-seven-seconds wait for an elevator is likely to be three minutes by the time the guest steps into the car, and five minutes by the time he pours out his woes to a clerk. He knows that shirts injured in the laundry seldom seem to cost less than five dollars, and that they are almost invariably new.

But Statler knows still more. He knows that the success of his houses has been built on the assumption that the guest is always right, and he is determined that no employee shall lose sight of that assumption. He believes that even the crank — the chronic trouble maker — should be humored to the limit.

Several years ago the Buffalo house was occasionally visited by an auditor for a big Eastern firm who prided himself on being the “biggest grouch in the world.” No hotel could poach his eggs as they should be poached; no clerk could spell his name properly; arranging furniture in hotels was a lost art.

On one visit to the Buffalo hotel he looked at two adjacent rooms which were exact duplicates in every detail, save that one had a double bed and the other had twin beds.

“Here, shift this bed to the other room,” he ordered. “That room’s got this one beat seven ways for Sunday. Get those twin beds out of my sight.”

Manager Frank W. Hinkley, at the end of a busy day, felt heat waves disturbing his usually placid atmosphere. So he sought out Statler with the tale of imposition.

“What shall I do?” he asked, in conclusion.

“Do!” exploded Statler. “Suffering Jehoshaphat! Give him what he wants, Hinkley! I’m hiring you to cater to unreasonable guests. The woods are full of men who can handle ’em when they’re reasonable.”

A few weeks later the same guest came stamping in.

“I ve got nineteen counts in my indictment against the shack I stopped at last night,” he announced savagely. “I hope you folks don’t pick up where they left off.”

An hour after he had gone to his room the auditor bobbed up at the desk.

“Atrocious!” he shrieked. “You put me next to a maid’s closet, and the slamming of the door is driving me crazy!”

“Now that’s too bad, said Hinkley suavely. “The architects agreed to equip every one of those doors with checks. This must be the only one they overlooked. We’ll have it remedied at once.”

Three minutes later the auditor telephoned down-stairs. “A million pardons, Mr. Hinkley,” he said. “There is a check on that door. I just tried it. John L. Sullivan couldn’t make it slam.”

This was the last complaint that the auditor ever registered in the hotel. “The world’s greatest grouch” had been cured by courtesy.

Coupled with the innate kindness of Ellsworth Statler, one finds a genius for publicity. I believe he realizes that the more unexpected, the more unwarranted, a service may be, the more talk it will create — and the more custom will flow through the doors.

They tell in Buffalo how he came into his lobby late one evening and discovered a woman, much disturbed, trying to get a telephone connection with a local-theater.

“I tore my dress on a seat there at tonight’s performance,” she explained. “I’m leaving in the morning, and I wanted to find out what adjustment they will make.”

“Go to your room, madam,” said Statler, “and send your dress down to our tailor. If he cannot fix it up as good as new, I will settle the loss and take a chance on getting my money back from the theater.”

The dress was too badly torn to be restored. So Statler promptly settled the loss.

When the Buffalo house was new, Mme. Tetrazzini, the prima donna, on concert tour, asked for a suite of three connecting rooms. Instead of explaining that there were no suites with more than two connecting rooms, Statler merely asked when the singer’s quarters would have to be ready. “Five o’clock this afternoon,” said her manager. It was then ten in the morning.

“All right,” returned the hotel man. “They’ll be ready.”

Statler sent for a houseman and two extra carpenters, knocked through a partition separating a two-room suite from a third room, cut out a door, cased it, painted the casing with quick-drying paint, draped a portière over it, spread a rug across the mangled floor space, and had the suite ready at the appointed hour.

For another illustration of the application of Statler’s gospel of service, one may turn to the time when he accepted the suggestion that a newspaper be slipped each morning under the door of every occupied guest-room in his hotels.

“Saw off the bottoms of the doors, so that even a Sunday paper can be shoved under without making the least noise. Lots of people sleep mighty light,” Statler ordered.

“But that will mean taking at least fifteen hundred doors off their hinges and cutting them down,” expostulated a subordinate.

“I don’t care if the bottoms have to be sawed off fifteen thousand doors,” was Statler’s only comment.

Statler was the first hotel man in America to establish a death benefit plan for all employees — without cost to them. Every person on his pay roll, from dishwasher to house manager, is given a benefit certificate which provides that a sum equal to one year’s salary shall be paid, at the employee’s death, to any person designated. This is an outright gift. The employee of a month has the same standing as the oldest official.

“Charity? Not at all!” Statler will tell you. “A man is bound to worry if he feels his death might leave his family unprovided for. And worry does not make for efficient service.”

A stock subscription plan is also promoted for the benefit of employees. They have already subscribed for more than one hundred thousand dollars’ worth. All employees are given seven per cent interest on savings deposited with the company — the money subject to withdrawal at any time.

The aphorist who described genius as the power to take a hint might prove his case by Ellsworth Statler. Statler has an insatiate curiosity for the other fellow’s viewpoint. The suggestion cards one finds in every room in his hotels, and the complaint box posted conspicuously in the lobbies, are only material expressions of his state of mind.

Frequently, on train trips, he will drop into a smoking compartment, open a discussion about hotels in general, and then start criticizing his own houses. “Who in blazes is this fellow Statler, anyway?” he once asked a commercial traveler. “Oh, he doesn’t amount to much,” said the drummer, looking important. “He’s only a figurehead for a big railroad corporation that’s backing his hotels.”

With painstaking thoroughness Statler reads all the hotel periodicals in the search for tips. He studies all branches of business with which he comes in contact, always on the watch for suggestions that can be fitted to his own enterprises.

By reading he has overcome to a large extent his lack of early education. Always in his pocket, or near at hand, is a book, usually Emerson, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, or some other essayist who has treated of the art of life and human relations. He does not use reading as an opiate — to deaden care, to kill time, to depart to an unreal world. He reads slowly and carefully, with a keen knack for translating the principles of philosophy into terms of business conduct. The whole Statler service code is nothing but a practical application, of the golden rule.

To Statler, a child is the marvel of all marvels. He is infinitely curious about the operation and growth of children’s minds, and he will play with groups of them for hours. An hour or two at twilight is usually given to his own group — “Fanner,” “Chummie,” “Sister,” and “Brother” — with whom he discusses gravely the events of his day and theirs. “I wish I had a dozen more of ’em,” he exclaimed to me one evening, spreading his nervous hands in a strange fanlike gesture.

Then, after we had discussed the grade card that had come in the day’s mail from “Partner’s” teacher, and I had explained that geography was my worst study, too, I managed to bring the talk back to himself, to his success and the forces that had brought it about.

“My success, as you please to call it, is simple enough to explain,” he said. “Get started in the right direction and you just have to keep going. You can’t stand still.

“The main thing,” he continued, “is to select a point — a point not too far away — and set out to reach it as fast as you can. Give yourself a stiff job, an impossible job, if you please. If you say you hope to do a thing in a year, you’ll never get it done. Decide positively that you will do it in a month, and you are sure to manage it.”

“So this is your plan of life?”

“It is the plan by which I have lived,” he returned simply. “When I was a bell boy I determined to become a check-room boy; then I was bound to be a night clerk; then a day clerk; then nothing but a hotel of my own would satisfy me. When I had a hotel of my own I wanted another, then a second, then a third –”

“And to-day?” I ventured.

“And to-day?” Ellsworth Statler laid down his fork. “Good heavens, man, today I want a hundred!”

* * *

Original page images (final one is a composite of three partial pages), click any to enlarge:

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1 Comment

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One response to “1917: Hotelier E.M. Statler

  1. Bonnie Rexroat

    I admire him and everything he has done!

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