Barron Hilton, Longtime Hotel Leader, Dies at 91

Hilton Hotels' retired chairman forged a legacy of diverse accomplishments in business, philanthropy, aviation and sports.
Barron Hilton. Image courtesy of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

Barron Hilton, the retired chairman, president & CEO of Hilton Hotels Corp. and son of the company’s founder, died Thursday at 91. Hilton died of natural causes at his home in Los Angeles, according to the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which announced the death.

Hilton was also chairman emeritus of the foundation, which was created in 1944 by his father, Conrad Hilton. The foundation invests in 11 program areas, including providing access to safe drinking water, ending chronic homelessness and disaster relief and recovery.

In the 30 years Hilton presided over Hilton Hotels, he generated an average annual rate of return to shareholders of 15 percent with dividends. He diversified the company, including franchising and a move into the Las Vegas gaming market. After retiring in 1996, he stayed on as chairman of the board and chose Stephen Bollenbach as his successor.

In addition to his long career in the hotel industry, Hilton was the founding owner of the Chargers of the American Football League and was instrumental in forging the merger with the National Football League that led to the creation of the Super Bowl.

A career spanning decades

Born in Dallas in 1927 to Conrad Hilton and Mary Adelaide Barron, Hilton got his first start in his father’s company as a teenager, parking cars for hotel guests at the Town House in Los Angeles. He joined the Navy at 17 and served in active duty at Pearl Harbor. Following his military service, Hilton set out on a 20-year career as an entrepreneur.

After the young executive achieved success with Vita-Pakt Citrus Products and McDonald Oil Co., his father asked him to join the family company as vice president of Hilton Hotels Corp. in 1954. Hilton continued to manage outside  business initiatives, founding Air Finance Corp., one of the nation’s first aircraft leasing businesses, and Carte Blanche, a consumer credit card marketed as a service to loyal Hilton customers. In 1966 he succeeded Conrad Hilton as the company’s chairman, president & CEO.

In 2006 and 2007, Hilton Hotel Corp. and Harrah’s Entertainment, the successor to Hilton’s gaming operations unit, were purchased by two private equity firms. At the time of the deal, Hilton announced that he would leave 97 percent of his fortune to the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, a step mirroring his father’s. That gift is projected to increase the foundation’s endowment from $2.9 billion to $6.3 billion.

Hilton was preceded in death by his wife of nearly 60 years, Marilyn Hawley Hilton. He is survived by his eight children, 15 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.