The Savannah native and distinguished hotelier has spent years crafting a reputation as a successful businessman, but the legacy he will leave with those he employs won’t be as fond.
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Richard C. Kessler, wearing a black Giorgio Armani velvet blazer and a deep purple collared shirt, struts in through the side door of his restaurant, the 700 Drayton, located inside the Mansion on Forsyth Park. David Ferreira, the host, notices him, adjusts his posture, and focuses his attention on Richard C. Kessler—or, Mr. Kessler, as Ferreira and Kessler’s hundreds of other employees have been instructed to call him.
“Good ev-en-ing, Mr. Kessler,” Ferreira says, his thick Peruvian accent dominating the scripted greeting. “How may I assist you today?”
Kessler looks Ferreira in his eyes, only briefly, looks away, and says, “Table for three.” It’s rare for Mr. Kessler to look someone like Ferreira in the eyes twice.
Ferreira takes Mr. Kessler to table 45, located right in the center of the Billiard’s Dining Room. The room has always been a sign of power and attention, even through its many owners and renovations. When the house was first built in 1888 for the Kayton family, it served as the billiard’s room where Lewis Kayton would invite esteemed businessmen to discuss business affairs. When the building became the Fox and Week’s Funeral Home in 1953, it served as one of the main viewing rooms for the deceased—the casket was always placed in the center of the room for all to see. It’s now the only room in the restaurant that always has the candles lit and tables set, especially table 45, just in case Mr. Kessler unexpectedly stops in and asks to be served. He’s a man with a vision, and if his employees don’t make sure it’s perfect, they very well may end up unemployed.
Ferreira returns to the host stand and moments later, two gentlemen, both in suits—one a Kingsman, the other a Reiss—and both carrying briefcases, enter through the front door and greet Ferreira with warm, “Hello”s.
“We’re here to see Richard Kessler,” the man in the Kingsman suit says.
The gentlemen are Keith Vanderbilt—managing principal architect at Reese Vanderbilt & Associates (a company that’s no stranger to dining with the elite, having designed and developed buildings for the likes of Donald J. Trump and Ray Hensler) and Clarence T. Vinson—president of PFVS Architecture (one of the largest architecture and interior design firms in Atlanta). They are development partners in Mr. Kessler’s latest hotel venture, the Plant Riverside District—a massive, four-and-a-half-acre complex that will include two hotels, a parking garage, an art gallery, a modern science museum, three rooftop bars, two restaurants, two ballrooms, and a concert venue.
Mr. Kessler is 71 now. He’s been in the hotel game for more than 45 years. He got his start in 1970 when he became the right-hand man for Cecil B. Day—founder of the “budget luxury” hotel chain Days Inn of America—but only after he married Day’s daughter. Mr. Kessler became the president of the company in 1975, right after Day was diagnosed with cancer. Day lost the battle in 1979. Mr. Kessler sold the company in 1984 and used the money to start his own hotel endeavor, the Kessler Enterprises, which now includes nine boutique hotels, most of which are included in Marriot’s signature Autograph Collection, a portfolio of hotels Mr. Kessler paid copious amounts to have included in the Marriott brand.
Although it seems like Mr. Kessler will never stop working and crafting his reputation as a successful and respectable entrepreneur who is beloved by many, it’s likely that the Plant Riverside District will be his last project. Senior officials of the Kessler Enterprise call it his swan song, his crowning jewel, his final adieu, but more commonly, his legacy project. It’s what he hopes he will be remembered for, but even the senior officials note that those he works with and employs may remember him differently.
After Vanderbilt and Vinson get settled in, Jessica Harris, a veteran server, greets them. When Mr. Kessler, still sitting, recognizes Harris—a boisterous, professional woman in her early thirties, wearing a choker and a dark purple lipstick—he pulls her in by her arm, demanding a hug. Vanderbilt and Vinson exchange glances.
“How are you, Jessica, baby?” Mr. Kessler says, finally letting her go. “How lucky am I to have you serve us?”
“Well, sir,” she says, trying to act unbothered from the unwelcomed hug. “You know that they only let the best of the best serve Mr. Kessler.”
Harris is an assertive woman with a mouth to match; if it were any other circumstance and he were any other man, she wouldn’t have allowed this sort of behavior. But this is the man who is supposedly worth more than $50 million, and also the man who signs her paychecks. Fighting back isn’t an option. He chuckles, and she tells them the catch and the soup of the day.
When employees are hired to work for the Kessler Enterprises, they must first attend an HR orientation that covers everything from mandatory Kessler verbiage to the history of the corporation and how Mr. Kessler built the company into the empire that it is today. But the one thing that Harris remembers from the orientation every time she serves Mr. Kessler is the “Green light/Yellow light/Red light” system; it’s used to denote levels of appropriateness of an employee’s actions. For example, saying hello to a coworker and shaking hands would be a green light. Talking about a coworker behind his or her back would be a yellow light. An employer forcing his or her employee to hug him or her would be a red light.
There are certain well-scripted stories that are told during this orientation that craft how Kessler Enterprise employees view Mr. Kessler, and it’s no surprise that Robin Canada, director of Human resources at the Kessler Enterprise’s Mansion on Forsyth Park, is in charge of telling them. She’s a short woman in her mid-50s, and an excellent storyteller. She weaves a tale of a hotelier who built a successful company, and now runs it with his grown son and daughter—his wife still by his side—while he infuses his hotels with his passion for the arts. In his spare time, Robin borderline gushes, he donates and contributes to local charities. He’s even started an assistance program for Kessler Enterprise employees who are in need.
Mr. Kessler and his development partners sit at table 45 for nearly two hours.
It’s hard to tell exactly what they talk about, Harris explains while in the server’s station, but the topic is definitely the construction of Plant Riverside, or, as she likes to refer to it, “the next place for Kessler to touch his employees and get naughty with his mistresses.”
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned while serving Mr. Kessler,” she says, “It’s that you never speak to Mr. Kessler unless Mr. Kessler speaks to you.”
“Why not?” Asks one of the new servers.
“Why not?” Harris asks bewilderedly, almost sarcastically, almost angrily. “That’s like going into a shark-infested ocean with fresh wounds is why not. And if Mr. Kessler wants something, you give it to him.”
In the corner of the server’s station stands Tiffany Davis, restaurant supervisor. She’s a sweet woman with burgundy-dyed bob and pink acrylic nails. She’s been with the company for over a year now and is well aware of Mr. Kessler and how he behaves.
“I mean, he’s never gotten weird with me, thank god, but I feel like it’s one of those things you just kind of get used to. It’s still a major red light, but what are you going to do?”
Later in the night, Mr. Kessler’s black Mercedes SUV pulls into the Mansion on Forsyth Park’s valet car port. Out of the back seat exits Mr. Kessler and Ashley Borders, star of Bravo’s Southern Charm: Savannah. He introduces her to Tracy Lopez, the front desk associate, says they are here to discuss business, and tells her that if Borders needs anything, Lopez is to get it for her immediately. The two retreat to the Bösendorfer Lounge on the opposite side of the lobby and Lopez scoffs at the excuse of an elderly, esteemed hotelier and a 30-year-old actress and fashionista discussing business at ten o’clock at night.
The lounge, which recently underwent millions of dollars’ worth of renovations, has an aquatic theme to it; the chairs are all hand-selected Versace. The marble columns match the marble floor and bar. A hired pianist in the far right of the bar plays a specially created Bösendorfer piano—worth more than a quarter million dollars. Mr. Kessler and Borders—who wears a green, low-cut dress and bright red lipstick—opt to sit next to each other at a private table, away from the few lounge patrons who remain from earlier in the night.
A quarter to eleven, Michelle Douglass, the bartender, announces last call. Mr. Kessler approaches her and asks her if she would mind staying just a bit longer so he can finish his conversation with Borders and, “You know, just in case we need a few more drinks. You’ll get overtime,” he assures. Douglass agrees, but not really by choice. Half an hour passes and Mr. Kessler pulls two chairs up to the piano where the pianist—who is seemingly also being paid overtime—still plays. Douglass overhears them giggling and admits she’s just happy she’s not Borders. She notices him glance down Borders’s shirt several times. It’s not the first time Mr. Kessler has brought another woman into the lounge, and it’s not the first time he has introduced a woman to Lopez at the front desk. Typically, the women who come in are introduced to her as students at the local Savannah College of Art and Design, and typically they enjoy drinks with Mr. Kessler at the bar. “I only hope that they are 21,” Lopez admits.
But it’s not just students and TV personalities. There have been “old friends,” “business associates,” and others. Yet never, Lopez says, has Mrs. Kessler come in for drinks.
Despite Douglass not being able to overhear Mr. Kessler and Borders’ conversation, she says with confidence that she doubts it’s in regard to his legacy project, the Plant Riverside District, noting their “touchy-feely” body language.
The complex is set for completion in Spring of 2019. Development partners like Vanderbilt and Vinson say they are excited for the completion and the two are certain it will help the Savannah economy. Employees like Harris and Lopez express disdain for the project, thinking of it as just another place for employees, and women in particular, to be mistreated. It’s estimated the venture will bring at least 700 jobs to the 4.5-acre area alone. And if all goes as planned, it will become the public legacy of Richard C. Kessler.