In honour of Canada’s 150th birthday, The CJN presents 40 profiles of some of the most prominent Jewish Canadians throughout our history.
When Isadore (Issy) Sharp graduated with a diploma in architectural technology from Toronto’s Ryerson Institute of Technology in 1952, he had no intention of starting his own business. But he would go on to become a captain of industry, building a hotel empire that now operates 105 hotels and resorts in 43 countries, with an annual revenue of US$4 billion ($5.38 billion).
Sharp’s parents moved from their native Poland to Israel in the 1920s, before settling in Canada. His father made a living building houses in downtown Toronto, largely for Jewish clientele. Thinking he would go into the family business, Sharp studied architecture and worked for his father during the summer months. After graduating, he started working with his dad full time and, in 1955, was hired to build a motel outside the city.
“I thought, if a motel on a limited-access highway was successful, why wouldn’t it work downtown?” Sharp wrote in Fortune magazine. “So I decided to build a motel in the inner part of the city.”
It took him five years to raise the money, but in 1961, he was able to open his first motel on a seedy section of Jarvis Street. “I needed a lot of land, and that seedy area where prostitutes plied their trade was the only part of town where I could buy a lot of land that was quite cheap,” he told the BBC. It was a far cry from the luxury accommodations his hotel chain, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, is known for today.
Despite not knowing much about operating a hotel, he ran the business under the philosophy that they should “welcome customers and treat them like guests coming to our home.” It was such a success that he soon opened his second location, a 200-room resort on the outskirts of the city, called the Inn on the Park. In 1970, he expanded overseas, opening the Inn on the Park London in the United Kingdom.
His luxury hotel chain expanded fast, thanks to a customer-focused business philosophy and constant innovation: Four Seasons was one of the first chains to offer such modern-day staples as complementary shampoo and 24-hour room service.
The company was taken public in 1986 and remained that way until 2007, when Bill Gates and Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal purchased 95 per cent of it for US$3.8 billion. Sharp retained a five per cent stake and continued as CEO until 2010, when he moved to the role of chairman.
With Talal’s help, the company, led by a Jewish CEO, expanded rapidly in the Middle East. “Businesses are all relationships based on common values – values such as staying true to your word,” Sharp told the Globe and Mail. “Every religion also enshrines those values, so you can have different religious beliefs, but underlying those beliefs, you’ve got people who must have similar values and can work together.”
Sharp is not only known for being a business tycoon – he’s also been recognized for his great philanthropic work over the years. In 1978, he and his wife, Rosalie, lost their teenage son to melanoma. Inspired by Terry Fox’s attempt to run across Canada to raise money for cancer research, Sharp reached out to Fox.
“No one seemed to be taking him seriously. I mean, a kid with one leg, running all the way across Canada? It seemed so far-fetched. People were cutting him off with their cars on the highway,” said Sharp, who supported Fox throughout his run, including providing him with complimentary lodging.
Eventually, Sharp would become instrumental in ensuring that a Terry Fox run would be held each year to raise money for cancer research. He even organized runs in other countries, including China.
Aside from his support for cancer research, Sharp has provided financial backing to numerous other institutions, including OCAD University and Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He also donated $20 million to help build the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.