Industry Insiders: Brad Wilson, King James

Back in September, the James New York opened in Soho. It’s hard to make a serious racket in New York’s over-saturated hospitality market, but with their rooftop bar Jimmy attracting a young, professional crowd, and the recently-opened David Burke Kitchen fast become a hub for foodies, the James is staking its claim as one of the city’s premiere hotels.

Brad Wilson is the man largely responsible for the James’ emergence, having spearheaded their first major opening in Chicago. As VP of Operations for W Hotels Worldwide, Wilson was a member of the founding team of what’s now one of the world’s largest and most popular hotel chains. He jumped ship in 2005 to join The James Hotel Group as its CEO, and is now the COO of parent company Denihan Hospitality Group. Here’s Wilson on his start in the hotel business, why he left W, and the future of the James.

What was the first job you had in hotels? I was an elevator operator in Chicago at the Drake Hotel.

Was working in the hotel industry aspirational? It was, actually. That was the year before I went to college. My mother owned a catering firm and bakery, so I kind of grew up in the kitchen, working catering jobs, leaving school and chopping carrots, then eventually serving. So I always wanted to progress, originally thinking I would go into the restaurant business. The whole events process kind of defined my life, and so my mom taught me to throw really good parties, and that’s kind of been the direction of my life since then. When I was young, I was first thinking about going into restaurants.

Where did you develop the business acumen that you obviously need in your position? I went to Cornell hotel school, so I have a Bachelors in hotel management, but I have a MBA from my mother. After I left Cornell, I actually did work at the Plaza in NYC, and was the manager of the Oak Room. After being there for a while, my mother had started a commissary bakery, baking desserts for a lot of the big restaurants in Chicago, so she asked me if I would come back and take the wholesale bakery she was working on and develop a retail line of bakeries for that. So after a couple years at the Plaza, I left and went to Chicago to open this new business, which was a chain of retail bakeries. We did everything from really great brownies to cookies, and the world’s most amazing cinnamon rolls and coffee cake. It was my job to go out and find a location, hire an architect to design and build it, staff it, open it, develop the delivery systems, the accounting systems, and all this stuff to just build the business. So I jokingly say I got my MBA from my mom, because she gave me this truly entrepreneurial opportunity. It’s a very small microbe of what I do today. Today we find locations, we build hotels, we design them, create them, and open them. A lot of what I do is not that far off from what I did before, but just on a much larger scale.

What mark did you leave on the W that we can still see today? I’m the guy that actually coined the phrase, “Whatever, whenever.” So I guess that’s a big one, because they overuse that today. Back then, I was proud of it.

During what stage of W’s evolution did you get on board? I was one of the first people hired for W. I think there was one woman, Diane Briskin, that did the marketing, that was hired before me. I came in right after her to develop the operations side of the branch for our first opening, which was the W New York on Lexington. I was there before it was called W, when it was called Urban Eclectic Group. image The lobby at the James.

Were you involved in the birth of the James or did you come in when it already existed? I guess I was pre-birth. I came in shortly after the first James opened in Scottsdale. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the James Scottsdale, but it was kind of this fun-in-the-sun little resort, not so much the James you think of today. The guys that had partnered to do that hotel — which was Danny Errico, the founder of Equinox gym, and Steve Hansen, the owner of Be Our Guest restaurant — opened that hotel, and then turned to me. I had worked with Steve when he had done some restaurants for us at W, so we were all friends, and they really wanted to get into the hotel business and create a company, so I came in to build a hotel company out of this initial hotel project.

The staff at your New York location is stunningly nice. We believe that nice starts at the top, and in turn we try and really build a nice culture. We use a term around our office, “Classic hospitality,” which at a boutique hotel seems kind of odd to say. We really try and come back to the ideas of a guest-centric focus. It’s nice to be well-designed and all that, but in the end it’s nice to be well-designed for the guest. We really try and focus on that and we really feel that if you’re in the hospitality business and you start with nice, hire nice, be nice, nice will come out to the customer. Every comment I get is like, “Your people are so nice!” We get it all the time from Chicago, and everyone was saying it’s because you’re in Chicago and it’s the Midwest, and that you won’t be able to do it in New York, but we do.

Were you worried about opening another hotel in an already crowded New York Market? How will you distinguish yourself? We’re going to define ourselves by quality. A lot of hotels go through whatever their trick is of the moment, whether it’s the shark in the lobby or whatever. But if you build it on quality design, not just trendy design, but quality design — our top designers are really rooted in classic modernism, and you’ll find we’re going all the way back into mid-century hand-craft that you’ve seen in Frank Lloyd Wright — not on things that are flashy and unique, a true sense of elegance that’s a little more sophisticated will emerge. It’s more subtle than a lot of our boutique competitors. Hanging out in our lobby is not quite so showy.

The lobby in New York is incredibly welcoming and homey. It’s kind of interesting, because when I was at W, we did a lot of the “wows,” and we had this flaming bar and all that kind of stuff. One of the things I saw a lot of earlier in my career, as far as boutique hotels go, is that people don’t actually want to come to their hotel and have people in their face with martinis and that kind of stuff. Sometimes you just want to be a little intimate and have a quite moment. We have those opportunities, where you can retreat.

Can you talk about the future of the James? One of the reasons I left W was because I thought it was becoming too big to be kept into a consistent model. So big is not necessarily our goal. I do think we can be in several cities, and we certainly want to be in LA and Miami, and then after that, San Fran or Seattle, Boston, Washington…

Do you view W as competition? Not really. I can see us competing with Morgans to a certain extent. We do independent luxury and it’s a slightly different niche than the W — the customer is a little bit different, and they might even reject the idea of W being too much of a chain.