The Charles Hotel
Most business people are transaction driven and not relationship driven. I am all about the relationships.
Interview by Heidi Legg
When I arrived in the courtyard of the Charles Hotel, I was not there for a drink at Rialto or to struggle on the elliptical where you are as likely to work out next to Bill Clinton as you are to a Harvard professor or media pundit. It was not for the Friday or Sunday farmer’s market in the hotel’s public square that turns into a local ice rink in the winter. No, I was there to meet Dick Friedman, President and CEO of Carpenter & Company, Inc., the gregarious, magnanimous owner of the world-renowned Charles Hotel who that week alone had held hands with the Dalai Lama for no less than an hour. When we met he was racing for a flight to LA for David Mamet’s son’s Bar Mitzvah where he would then fly onto Haiti to meet President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for work on urban planning and social leadership. I was intrigued.
When I moved to Cambridge almost a decade ago, I remember thinking the Charles Hotel was the epitome of understated glamour and so much of what Cambridge represents – where brains meet elegance, where modernity meets a time capsule. Even though the hotel’s Wellbridge gym, a flashback to the 80s, is a far cry from the neighboring Sports Club LA across the river, through it’s hallowed halls float gods and goddesses of social philanthropy, political statehood, film, and education.
Dick Friedman is one of those locals who grew up in Cambridge, his mother a social worker and his father “a very poor and cautious man” whom Friedman credits as one of his great mentors and inspirations.
The former Harvard Ski Team coach and Dartmouth alum sat down with me to recount how back in 1970s he had won a state-run competition to develop the land next to the Kennedy estate. “Born in Cambridge, I was pretty familiar with Harvard Square and recognized its uniqueness so I entered it. I like competition and I fought for this one and won.”
Friedman brought together talented architects who sketched for free and a very wealthy friend as the backer. After he won the bid, it took him five years of being sued by locals before he finally realized the hotel known as the Charles with its 294-guest rooms, 45-suites and one presidential suite. He never quit.
“My mother tried to get me to quit. She said I’d never beat these Yankees. But as a kid I struggled. I was always the last pick on the team, so I came to like the struggle and I liked the challenge of this. I thrive on that.”
How did you convince yourself to take this big a leap at that time in your life?
I’ve always been a big risk taker and I’d been doing real estate since the mid-60s running the Hyatt hotel in Cambridge. From that came a very deep and longstanding relationship with the Pritzker family who own the Hyatt Hotel chain. For me this opportunity offered all the things I enjoy: show business, real estate, and finance.
We are in good times now but it hasn’t always been that way. We have refinanced this place thirteen times and in 1990 we came within $100,000 of losing the hotel. It was a new hotel, not a great brand at first, but now we are a destination.
Tell me about your recent purchase of the famed Harvard movie theaters?
The Harvard movie theatre is one of those things that come to you at my age and with my track record. People know you can afford to do something and we are a small organization with little bureaucracy. AMC’s lease ran out for their bathrooms that were bizarrely owned by another building next door. They did not reach an agreement and can’t operate without bathrooms. They are also opening a big complex in Somerville. They called me and asked me to buy the property within two weeks of the closing. We immediately went about thinking of what can we do with the space. Lots of people are thinking over options that range from theatre to retail. Theatre companies have been coming at me but it’s whether we can afford it. We have to find a use that is both urban and economical.
As a change agent what are you trying to change, solve?
I work for money but I’m interested in transforming things. I’m interested in helping people grow their careers and I love the people who work for us and with us. My mother was a social worker and I have this same sense of wanting to help people grow and transform. The Dalai Lama held my hand for an hour yesterday and told me I held compassion and caring. I care about that stuff.
You served as President Clinton’s Chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission and currently serve on President Obama’s Export Council as the Vice Chairman of the Subcommittee on Manufacturing and Services. How important are these positions to you?
Even though I understand business, I care more about aesthetics and people being developed. I’m going to Haiti Monday with President Clinton for some work on urban planning. We will look at developing hotels and that is the hardest thing to do there, but I am good at it. Another area we are exploring is shipping and packaging services. Shipping solutions could have a great impact on Haiti and its economy. I am at the point in my life when I can get anybody on the phone and I called the head of UPS, who is a great guy I know because we are both on the President’s Export Council. He is a super guy and has given money to Haitian relief. I called him up and said, “Scott can you consider this?”
We have 50 Haitian employees at our hotel and I ask them, “How do you ship things to Haiti and back?” It’s literally about carrying goods onto the plane. Simple changes like this are important to grow an economy. We are going to try and open a dozen spots to ensure people can pack and ship products from Haiti. We are also looking at a bakery. I am also on the foundation for the Dalai Lama on micro-financing. These things are very important to me.
What do you wake up thinking about?
Logistics…That I need to get to the airport. I am insane with ideas, super ADD, very busy, and laser focussed when I need it but generally I’m interested in thoughts and ideas. I am extraordinarily creative and thinking 24/7. I will wake up in the night and write down an idea. The Charles Hotel, it would be bankrupt in a week if I ran it. There is no way I could run this place without my team of exceptional people, virtually all the genesis starts here. I’m the idea.
Some idea people can’t follow through on ideas. How do you do that?
The key is to pick good people. Yesterday I called together our general manager and director of PR and I said, “Look I’m just back from Clinton Global Initiative, what are we doing that is innovative?”
We went through the list of things like recycling, environmental practices, feeding the hungry but I said to my team, we don’t know all the things that are the most innovative. Let’s go hire some MIT grad student to give us state of the art research that people are doing in social research and let’s get them to do it as a project and let’s figure out how to communicate that. Given where we are located and who we serve, we ought to be a leader. We were the first hotel with Internet and we are about to install a very innovative key system. We need to remain a cutting edge property that is thirty-years-old. We can execute an idea, Bingo, because we have no red tape.
Is there someone who changed your life? Or who stepped up and made a path for you? Who most influenced you?
My ski coach at Dartmouth, George Ostler, taught me to be competitive. My dad was a great influence and his best friend was Max Wasserman and Max had a great influence as well. Max was a tough businessman and he taught me the hard side of business. My dad was a very frightened man who was dirt poor and was a paperboy, coast guard in the war, a guy so poor that he taught me a great deal about caution and risk. He taught me about doing things right and mitigating risk. The size of deals we do, you screw them up, and it is big. Some people gave me the risk and some gave me the caution.
Also A.N. Pritzker founder of Hyatt. I hung out with him for a year and learned a great deal. I have two-dozen people in my life who have had a great impact. Most business people are transaction driven and not relationship driven. I am all about the relationships. Penny Pritzker just called me. I also have great admiration for her.
Tell me about a day in the of life of Dick Friedman, or even a week.
Most mornings I have coffee with my thirteen-year-old son and three days a week I have a trainer. I train for 45 minutes and then start my day.
Today I had breakfast with the prime minister of Tibet who has replaced the Dalai Lama. Then I went to Somerville and looked at a site for a hotel that I didn’t like. I told the truth and left and I think the guy appreciated that. I had a couple of conference calls with bankers and a call with an architect in New York, named Harry Cobb, who is working with a local Cambridge architect on a new project for us.
I had lunch here with Lodi Gyari who works directly on behalf of His Holiness the Dalai Lama who invited me to a wedding later this year. Today I have had every meal here but that’s not always the case.
I went and looked at a piece of property we have under agreement to try and figure out if we want another hotel there. We are very active right now.
I did a prep meeting for my trip to Haiti and tonight I fly to LA and Saturday I will go to David Mamet’s son’s Bar Mitzvah followed by a red eye to Port au Prince.
Sunday and Monday I will look at things in Haiti with President Bill and Madam Secretary Hillary Clinton in a helicopter. I then fly back to LA for a new hotel in bid next Thursday in Pasadena and then to NYC for a meeting with a hotel operator followed by lunch on East 16th at the Italian Wine Merchants for a good friend who runs Fortress.
Do you always know every celebrity who stays in the hotel and do you get to meet him or her?
No, but I get a list of who comes everyday. Last week was unbelievable.
My older son, 40, is a commercial fisherman and school teacher and this summer was on the dock on Martha’s Vineyard being interviewed for a National Geographic series and the narrator was Kenneth Cole. I looked at Kenneth Cole and said to him, “I love those shoes.” And he said, “I’ll send you a pair.” A month later, I’m wearing my new leather sneakers and having breakfast with Penny Pritzker when Cole walks in. I said to him, “I love these sneakers.” We both had a laugh. It’s that kind of hotel.
Your favorite spot for a cocktail?
Home, Noir, or anywhere in Rome near Campo di fiori.
What website do you frequent the most each day?
Bloomberg, Huff Post, Costco website, Globalpost.com
See this shirt? Costco. Shoes? Italian hand-made but boy, I love Costco.