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William (Bill) Fatt, CEO of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts Inc. (ANTHONY JENKINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
William (Bill) Fatt, CEO of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts Inc. (ANTHONY JENKINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

The Lunch

Luxury hotelier’s search for growth, from Quebec to Qatar Add to ...

William (Bill) Fatt raises his glass of water in a toast to our meeting as we settle down to lunch.

The chief executive officer of Fairmont Hotels’ parent company has just politely explained to the staff that he does not consume alcohol or meat during the first three months of the year.

We are the sole diners in the Jacques Cartier room of Quebec City’s fabled Fairmont Le Château Frontenac. The hotel is undergoing a $70-million renovation, and this room has been serving as its temporary breakfast restaurant. A special lunch menu of lobster, chicken and veal dishes had been devised.

The 62-year-old Mr. Fatt adopted his unusual health regime amid a travel schedule that takes him away from his base in Toronto for at least half of each month. “I go around the world probably three or four times a year,” he says, as the waiter brings me a starter of lobster tail from Nova Scotia with coconut, salted pecans and crispy prosciutto, while Mr. Fatt is offered a plate of yellow beets, onions, salted pecans and spinach.

Much of his travel is further afield than this brief trek to Quebec City to survey the renovations. FRHI Hotels & Resorts operates more than 100 hotels in dozens of countries under the Fairmont, Raffles and Swissôtel brands. Canadians are most familiar with its iconic domestic properties, including Toronto’s Royal York and Alberta’s Banff Springs, but its footprint stretches from Maui to Manila, Acapulco to Abu Dhabi, and Zurich to Zimbali. There are a smattering of hotels in China, a frequent stop for Mr. Fatt.

There are also some that he’s never been to: “We have three hotels in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, owned by the bin Laden family. They are massive hotels. I haven’t been there because you have to be Muslim,” he says.

A lot of his time is spent in the Middle East. Sixty-three per cent of Toronto-based FRHI is owned by Qatar Investment Authority, the Doha-based sovereign wealth fund, which has bought up stakes in companies ranging from Credit Suisse to Volkswagen and BlackBerry.

FRHI has about 48,000 employees and annual profit in the $100-million-plus range. But Mr. Fatt sometimes feels like an afterthought for QIA. “Some reports say that they have $10-billion a month of free cash flow,” he says of Qatar’s government. “That’s a problem that I’d love to have right now.”

FRHI certainly does not appear to be an afterthought for its second-largest investor, Saudi Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, whose company Kingdom Holding Co. now holds 35 per cent.

Prince al-Waleed, who Forbes magazine calls “one of the world’s most high-profile investors” with a net worth of more than $20-billion (the Prince has argued it’s higher), has owned pieces of various iconic companies, from Apple to Citibank to News Corp. He also owns a stake in Four Seasons Hotels Inc. Following a trip to Toronto in November to meet with Mr. Fatt as well as leadership of Four Seasons, the Prince went ahead and told a Bloomberg TV interviewer in Chicago that he was looking at options for the two companies, including an IPO or merger. “Clearly, we’ll defer to management but they have my views very clear,” he said.

Mr. Fatt has known Prince al-Waleed since the late 1990s, and is among those who have set foot in his personal Boeing 747, which sports a throne in the area that would normally be the first-class cabin. He says the problem with an IPO is that, for now, his largest shareholder does not see a strong rationale for it. “Right now, that just isn’t a priority for us,” he says.

The Prince was Mr. Fatt’s white knight in 2006. At the time, Fairmont, which was then publicly traded, had been put in play by legendary corporate raider Carl Icahn, who had made a partial takeover offer for the hotel firm. The Prince teamed up with Colony Capital LLC and made a $3.3-billion cash bid for Fairmont, which was then combined with Raffles Hotels & Resorts, which also owned the Swissôtel brand.

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