Everybody loves an underdog success story, and local Jewish hotelier Efrem Harkham reveals his in his memoir, “Living the Luxe Life: The Secrets of Building a Successful Hotel Empire” (Skyhorse).
The 61-year-old is the founder and chairman of Luxe Hotels, a Los Angeles company that owns two local hotels and Luxe Worldwide Hotels, a management firm that oversees the operation of over 100 independently owned hotels. Born in Israel, Harkham and his family moved to Sydney when he was 12. There, he began his career in the fashion business at 17, working as a traveling salesman for Lulu, his older brother’s clothing manufacturing company, which eventually became a multimillion-dollar apparel brand.
With the money he made by selling his share of the clothing business, Harkham settled in Los Angeles in 1978, where he worked in the fashion industry as CEO of Jonathan Martin clothing before moving into the hotel business.
The Journal spoke with Harkham about his work, his ongoing connection to Israel and how talmudic teachings have impacted his life.
Jewish Journal: What was the motivation behind your transition from the fashion industry to the hospitality industry?
Efrem Harkham: After 14 years, I was tired and I felt I needed to transition into another industry. We were very successful with the Jonathan Martin brand and had billboard campaigns and TV commercials all over the country. I owned a hotel (bought in 1983) at the time called The Bel Air Sands on Sunset, now known as the Luxe Hotel Bel Air, and I was frustrated by the management company running the hotel, so I jumped into the task of managing it myself in 1999. I stood there at the front desk for almost an entire year and learned so much. I decided to make this my passion and full-time job. It was my calling.
JJ: How did you come up with the Luxe brand name?
EH: My friend Neil Muller, who had helped me with the Jonathan Martin clothing line, came up with the name. I told him that I needed a four-letter word that is both memorable and guarantees a promise of quality and that I can put in front of an existing name. Lo and behold, the word Luxe was not known back then and it was the first one on his list of 20 names. I totally loved it.
JJ: Are you still very connected to Israel?
EH: It is a commandment that we stay connected to Israel. I host a trip there every year in November. I prefer to bring non-Jews ranging from Catholics [and] Hindus to Hispanic people. I try to expose Israel in the best light possible. They have the most incredible time. One of my favorite stories in the book is when I visited (then Israeli Prime Minister) Menachem Begin in 1982 and I offered to do a PR campaign for Israel at the expense of a few members of the community in north Beverly Hills. He very kindly refused and said, “If you really care about Israel, like it sounds you do, please give this money to AIPAC and to make sure that the Jewish community outside Israel must not lose their connection with Israel.” This is what started my interest and commitment to honor Jewish education in my community.
JJ: Has success changed you over the last 30 years?
EH: I realized that outwardly nothing has changed. The change is inward and learning to be the best human being possible. I am constantly striving to do good and not to waste opportunities [to help] people. Kids and family are so important. I use my hotels to deliver that message, I suppose, and that’s why I love hotels.
JJ: What was the motivation behind writing the book?
EH: I thought it was time for me to come out and talk about my story. I am so interested in other people’s stories and their success. I think mine is a little bit complicated. When I turned 60, I felt it was time to do it and share my experiences for my children, for the next generation of young business people, in order to make this place better.
JJ: What is your philosophy on business and life?
EH: Not to wait for success to happen. Make it happen as soon as possible. You have to be resilient and whatever the issue, just take the obstacles as a learning opportunity and overcome. All my life, I hired people smarter than myself. I maintain my relationships and hold on to people. Most of my employees at the Luxe Hotel Sunset have been working there for 30 years. When you light a candle with the light of another candle, the result is more light. It doesn’t take away from the original source, and that’s what I want to do. I want to inspire others in my work and also my community.
JJ: You write in the book about how you bring talmudic teaching into your business strategy. Can you expand on that?
EH: We have a training program that is based on a talmudic teaching that I love. I started learning the Talmud with a number of rabbis when my kids were born. This is how I came across this concept that everyone is a world, everyone is a life. We can’t destroy the world. We’ve got to preserve and take care of the world, make it better. So that is the program I give my employees. We tell them about quality control.
JJ: Do you have plans to slow down a little, perhaps retire?
EH: This is the first chapter of my life. The Talmud says you must keep on working as long as you are productive and we must move forward. So I am following that rule.
JJ: What advice do you have for those wanting to break into the hotel industry today?
EH: To be ready for a 24/7, 365-days-a-year job. It’s hosting endlessly. It does not stop. It is impossible to be there for your guests all the time, so the idea is to replace yourself impeccably. So when I am not there, my employees are the ambassadors. They are the ones with the empathy for the millennials, for the older guests and the children. You need to have patience and not expect a return right away. It’s about taking care of people, and that’s how you get repeat customers. n