|Perhaps it’s true; the third time really is a charm. At least it seems so for Steve Van, now the well known president and CEO of Dallas-based Prism Hotels & Resorts. A staple of the hotel industry, Van has found plenty of success at Prism, his third career in a life that includes a number of notable achievements. Through it all, however, he’s proved nothing short of ambitious.
“I was an undergraduate in philosophy, and I wanted to go into politics,” he says, pointing out that he was once president of his student union in college. As a means to that end he entered law school at the University of Texas, which soon brought him in the middle of politics in the state. He ran a gubernatorial candidate’s campaign and served as financial adviser to former Texas Governor Ann Richards. But he eventually came to the conclusion that he might be better off in another career.
“I finally figured out that politics wasn’t for me,” he says. “I want everyone to be happy, and that’s difficult in politics.”
So he entered his second career as a trial lawyer. “That didn’t work out either,” he admits. “My personality didn’t fit. Again, I wanted everyone to be happy and for everything to be a win-win situation.”
Luckily, he came across a career that is simply about making everyone happy—the hotel business. “I’ve been in it ever since and I couldn’t be happier,” he says.
Van didn’t simply wake up one day and decide to be a hotelier. He spent five years as an apprentice hotel developer. During that time he built three Hyatt Regency hotels as well as others. In 1983, he became his own boss starting Prism Hotels & Resorts with the help of a business partner made available to a high-profile business deal in another industry.
“I started my company when Ross Perot sold EDS [Electronic Data Systems] to General Motors. His CEO at the time was my financial partner,” Van says.
And after developing hotels he realized his personality was ideally suited for running hotels not just building them. “I was around it enough to realize it’s really not a business about hotel buildings it’s a business about hotel employees. That’s when I started my operating company.”
Once having established Prism he wasted little time making his mark on the hotel industry. The first hotel deal Prism did was to buy The Melrose Hotel in Dallas, Texas, which Van promptly turned into an Omni franchise. “I was the first Omni franchisee,” he says.
Along the way he’s established a unique business model for his company. “The part of my personality that drives me is that I want people to be happy and that’s why this is a great business for me,” he says. “I think the key to success is happy, productive employees. Most money in hotels goes not to the building but to salaries, and that’s your biggest cost and biggest opportunity for making money.”
He’s also been able to remain successful through what he estimates to be five deep recessions. But, he says, the business model for Prism has allowed it to continue to grow due to a counter-cyclical strategy.
“Early on I realized that the way to grow during a recession is to work for the growth industry, which is banks and lenders foreclosing on hotels,” he says. “We have a very well defined practice in that area that supplements our core business, which is operating third-party hotels.”
Prism Hotels & Resorts operates properties ranging from large hotels such as the Hilton San Francisco Financial District to a number of midscale and economy brands in tertiary markets.
Due to its counter-cyclical business model, Prism is still growing and Van has the opportunity to do what he does best—produce happy, productive employees to run his hotels. “It’s a great time for finding talent,” he says. “Good employees want to go where there’s growth, so it’s really our best time for growth.”