When his mother passed away, 16 years ago, John decided to commemorate her with an annual golf tournament. To date over $1 million has been raised for two specific causes: the Corrymeela Centre, County Antrim, which promotes peace and reconciliation between the Northern communities, and Barrettstown, County Wicklow, a place that provides leisure activities for children with serious illnesses. To hear John talk about these projects is to know that they deeply touch the heart.
In the words of HIllary Clinton, “John Fitzpatrick is the very best kind of Irishman, he is utterly committed [to peace in Northern Ireland] both as a businessman and as a great humanitarian. I am proud to know him.” We too are proud to know John and to name him our Irish American of the Year.
P.H: Tell me about your early mentors.
My father was a huge mentor. He was what I would call an old-fashioned hotelier, in the sense that it was all about service, it was all about the customer. He’d always say to me, “Remember, no matter how big you get or how many hotels you have, you’re still an innkeeper. And if you remember that, you won’t go wrong.”
Did you always want to work in the hotel business?
At one stage I wasn’t sure because in the old days, I never saw my father. We saw Dad when we were going off to school in the morning, we’d see him at 6 when we were having dinner, and then at 7:30 he’d head back to work. In those days hotel managers went to work in the morning, came home for a dinner break, and went back to work for the rest of the evening, usually not coming home until after midnight. That was tough for me as I grew up.
When did you start working in the family hotel?
Dad was always tough on us, in that you never got anything for nothing. If we wanted to have money we had to work. When I was only about 14 or 15, I was cutting the lawn at Killiney Castle – that was my summer job. I knew that the bar was the best place to make tips but I was too young to work there and I started off as a dishwasher. When I turned 17, I persuaded my father to let me work behind the bar washing the glasses. Eventually I started serving drinks. I did this every weekend while I was in school.
Looking back, I probably worked too many hours, but it was my own decision. I didn’t frequent the bars and clubs in my earlier years, like the rest of my friends, but I was a late bloomer and made up for it later.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
I love meeting customers. I’d rather be down meeting customers than doing anything else. That’s the way I am. People are always saying, “You work too hard, you work long hours.” My friends are always saying, “Why are you going back in?” Even if I’m at a reception or having drinks with friends, I always try to stop in at one of my hotels on the way home – even if it’s just to walk through the lobby. I can walk into my hotels and within five or six minutes I know if everything’s okay. I can just feel it.
Why did you pick New York City to open a hotel?
In the beginning, capital was very limited, but Dad was a great salesperson, and I remember the banker saying, “Paddy, you want to go to the States, but of all places to open a hotel you want to go to New York City, can you not pick somewhere else?” And I remember Dad saying, and it sounds corny now, but at the time it got [the message] across, “Why not New York?” He said, “It’s like the Frank Sinatra song, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.” And I swear, I’ll never forget that day because all the bankers looked up and they couldn’t argue with him.
How did you, in such a short time, put your stamp on the city?
I have to give credit to a great woman, Angela Phelan [Angela, who sadly passed away in 2009, wrote a popular social column for the Irish Independent newspaper]. Angela was the one who put us on the map. She said that since it was an Irish-owned hotel, the Irish heads of state should stay here when they visited New York. She called [Taoiseach] Albert and his wife Kathleen [Reynolds] who she was very friendly with, and they came to stay.Then Mary Robinson, who was president at the time, stayed here and that was the start of it. It wasn’t me putting my mark on New York, it was the Irish supporting me that really did it.
And you in turn support the Irish through your foundation –
I have to say, how that all started was a little bit selfish. When Mum died, it was a huge shock to us. Dad was very successful but he wouldn’t have been a success without Mum. She was a great mother but she also helped him with the business. Where did I learn about interior design? I used to follow Mum around the hotel. Everybody knew Dad, but I was afraid as the years went on it would be all about Paddy Fitzpatrick and Mum wouldn’t be remembered. So I said, we’re going to do a memorial fund in honor of Mum.