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How I Made It: This hotel owner once hawked flowers on street corners

Robert Cohen and his wife, Beverly, are photographed at the Four Seasons Los Angeles. Robert Cohen, 87, is one of two brothers who started off selling flowers on the streets of Los Angeles and wound up owning hotels and other real estate, including the Four Seasons.
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

Robert Cohen, 87, is co-founder and co-owner of Burton Way Hotels Ltd., a Los Angeles firm that owns apartment complexes, motels and hotels, including the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills.


Flower power

Cohen’s parents, Ezra and Ester, ran the Central Avenue Flower Shop in Los Angeles, and their 10 children pitched in. “As soon as you're almost old enough to walk, you're in business,” he said. “I used to sell on Slauson Avenue, Slauson and Crenshaw. When the racetrack would break, I used to run down to cars, yell the same thing. ‘Nickel a bunch! Sweet Peas! Nickel a bunch! Six for a quarter!’ We only knew hard work. The only way to make it in this world is to work hard.”

Know your flaws

Cohen’s flaw was the “tough crowd” that he grew up with. By his late teen years, Cohen said, “I could see the writing on the wall. Some of those kids were doing really bad things. So, I joined the Coast Guard, just to get away from them. I was 17.”

From posies to property

Out of the Coast Guard, Cohen was already married and “didn’t have a dime to my name,” he said. The bloom was off the flower business for Cohen, who found the hours too long. Then came the break that would lead him into real estate. One friend needed cash and had a vacant lot to sell. Another would lend construction money and recoup it once units were making money.

“Right off the bat, buyers lined up,” he said. “We sold it, and we bought another site, just a block away, and built a little bit bigger unit. Then, we're into buildings.”

The social network

To finance his move into real estate, Cohen said, “I raised money through our friends, through the dentist that we went to, the doctor we went to, the pharmacist, the people that had businesses around our stores, our friends.”

We only knew hard work. The only way to make it in this world is to work hard.

Robert Cohen

Paid by the night

Cohen wanted to move into hotels, which he thought had more potential. “I rented a one-bedroom apartment for around $500 a month at that time,” he said. “I know that for a hotel, for a suite in a hotel, you pay $500 a night. Not a week, not a month, but a night.”

It depended on convincing his partner and brother, Joseph Cohen, who was three years older. “I was always hot on building a hotel. I said, ‘Joe, let’s give it a shot. Let’s get a set of plans.’”

Know the battlefield

Getting homeowner permission for a hotel required a certain level of finesse to reassure them and a thorough knowledge of local ordinances.

“There's always one in the crowd that would say, ‘We don't want a hotel. We want a park for our dogs.’ My favorite thing to say was that I would build a hotel that will nestle into your community in a European style that will increase the value of all the property around.”

In 1978, the Cohen brothers acquired land adjacent to Beverly Hills and spent the next nine years developing and completing the Four Seasons hotel. “We got into the corner of 3rd and Doheny. We excavated. We poured concrete. Once you pour concrete, you have a vested right, and nobody could stop you.”

Four Seasons
A view of the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills in 2014. FG/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images

Tough business

The hospitality industry suffers hugely from natural disasters, economic downturns and man-made events such as riots or terrorist strikes, Cohen said.

“When there's a problem or recession, a fire, a flood, earthquake, occupancy goes down the toilet,” he said. “It takes normally around six to 10 months to come out. Then, you have 30% occupancy. You're running in the hole. It can take a year to get our occupancy back up to a break even. Not to make money, just to get it up to breaking even.”

Magic brand

The Cohens had talked to Marriott International and Meridian before deciding to go with the luxury Four Seasons brand, which had tried for years to open a hotel in Beverly Hills but was blocked by anti-growth advocates and other hotel operators.

“The name is magic,” Cohen said. “It’s the best operator hotel company in the world. When we started as a Four Seasons, we were maybe number 12, 13 or 14 hotel in the chain. Today, there’s 107.”

Stand your ground

As much as Cohen praises the brand, the two have a long legal dispute, bouncing back and forth in the courts amid a series of appeals, over the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, which is part of the Four Seasons stable. Cohen’s company claims the Four Seasons breached an agreement not to operate another hotel near the Four Seasons Los Angeles.

People seeking out his hotel are sometimes sent to the Regent Beverly by mistake, Cohen said. “It really is a problem.”

The good partner

Cohen credits his brother, Joe, who was 90 when he died in September. Joe was always the one with his feet firmly planted on the ground, Cohen said, who described himself as more of a dreamer and risk taker.

“My brother Joe wasn’t a speculator, he won’t put a dollar in a slot machine. He didn’t gamble. It made us a good team,” Cohen said.

Leadership style

Cohen said he relies on trusting those around him. “I do delegate,” he said, later adding, “If you tell me you're going to do something, we shake hands on it. I trust you. It's served me well.”

Personal

Cohen and his wife, Beverly, have been married for 65 years. They have three children and six grandchildren. Cohen still loves flowers; he and his wife have two greenhouses at their Newport Beach home.

Beverly Cohen is active in philanthropy, and the couple regularly use their home to host fundraising and charitable events. “We’re just party animals,” Cohen said with a laugh.

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ronald.white@latimes.com

Twitter: @RonWLATimes


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