Hilton was born in Dallas, Texas, the son of Mary Adelaide (née Barron; 1906–1966) and Conrad Nicholson Hilton (1887–1979), founder of Hilton Hotels. Hilton grew up with three siblings: Conrad Nicholson Hilton, Jr., Eric Michael Hilton, and Constance Francesca Hilton. His father was of half Norwegian and half German descent, and his mother was from Kentucky.
He served in the Navy during World War II as a photographer. As a child, Hilton was fascinated by aviation, and learned to fly when he was 17. After his wartime discharge, he attended the University of Southern California Aeronautical School, where he earned his twin-engine rating at age 19.
Before joining his father in the hotel industry, Barron Hilton honed his business skills in a variety of entrepreneurial ventures. He acquired the Los Angeles-area distributorship of Vita-Pakt Citrus Products, co-founded MacDonald Oil Company, and founded Air Finance Corporation, one of the nation's first aircraft leasing businesses. In 1954, Barron was elected vice president of Hilton Hotels, running the company's franchise operations and creating the Carte Blanche credit card as a service to the company's customers.
In 1959, sportsman Lamar Hunt offered Hilton the Los Angeles franchise in the new American Football League. Hilton named his team the Chargers, but denies that he did it to create synergy with his new credit card business. A fan had nominated the name in a contest, and Hilton selected it because of the bugle call and "Charge!" cheer that was often sounded during USC football games at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Chargers began playing at the Coliseum in 1960, but in spite of winning the Western Division, the club found it difficult to compete for fans with the Rams of the National Football League in their own stadium. Hilton moved the team to San Diego in time for the 1961 season and played in tiny Balboa Stadium.
Hilton began working with the local newspapers to engender support for construction of a state-of-the-art stadium. Encouraged by San Diego Union sports editor Jack Murphy, among others, a referendum was passed in 1965, and the Chargers began play in new San Diego Stadium in 1967. With the availability of a new stadium, the city received a baseball expansion franchise from the National League, and the San Diego Padres began play in 1969. It was named Jack Murphy Stadium after Murphy's death in 1980, and is now known as Qualcomm Stadium.
Hilton also served as AFL president in 1965, and helped forge the merger between the AFL and the NFL, announced in 1966, that created the Super Bowl. In all, the Chargers won five divisional titles, and one AFL Championship, during Hilton's six years at the helm of the club. In 1966, directors of Hilton Hotels Corporation asked Hilton to succeed his father as president and chief executive officer of the company, provided that he drop his football responsibilities. He sold his majority interest in the team for $10 million—a record for any professional sports franchise at the time—after an initial investment in a franchise fee of just $25,000.
With the death of the Bills' Ralph Wilson in 2014, Hilton became the last surviving member of the Foolish Club – the nickname the original AFL owners gave each other, as they absorbed the start-up expenses and player salaries necessary to compete with the established NFL.
Once charged with the responsibility for Hilton Hotels Corporation, Barron Hilton soon showed his father's genius for cost controls and real estate deals. In 1970, he convinced the board to expand into Las Vegas by purchasing the International and the Flamingo from financier Kirk Kerkorian. Hilton Hotels thus became the first company listed on the New York Stock Exchange to venture into the gaming market. Renamed the Las Vegas Hilton and the Flamingo Hilton, the two resorts tapped a new source of income from gambling in a state where it had been legal since 1931. Barron could also see that Las Vegas would become a leading convention destination, capitalizing on the company's strength in that important market segment.
Hilton personally introduced two innovations that have become standard features of casinos everywhere. Calling on his background in photography, he installed video cameras throughout the casinos to replace the "eye in the sky" system of observers peering through two-way mirrors in the ceiling. He also introduced progressive Pot o' Gold slot machines that produced a succession of world record jackpots, generating free publicity around the world.
Las Vegas would also become the self-proclaimed Entertainment Capital of the World. Of all the headliners to perform at the Hilton or the Flamingo, the most successful and spectacular was Elvis Presley. After a decade in the movies, he began performing in front of live audiences again in 1969 at the opening of the International (a few years later renamed the Las Vegas Hilton). He went on to star at the Las Vegas Hilton two months a year—performing two shows a night, seven nights a week—until shortly before his death in 1977. Presley set a world entertainment record at the Las Vegas Hilton for selling out 837 consecutive concerts. The Las Vegas Hilton also left its mark on boxing, hosting the famous upset of Muhammad Ali by Leon Spinks in 1978, and the 1986–1989 heavyweight tournament won by Mike Tyson that made him a household name.
The company's expansion into Nevada had an immediate impact on its bottom line. By 1972, the two resorts contributed 45 percent of the company's income (before interest income, interest expense, write down of investments and sales of properties), nearly matching the income from the other 160 Hilton hotels in the United States.
On the hotel front, in 1975, Hilton sold a 50 percent interest in six of the company's largest hotels to Prudential Insurance Company for $83 million. He took a leaseback to manage the properties, collecting lucrative management fees and a percentage of their gross profits. Perhaps more importantly, the sale proved that these hotels were worth double their book value, demonstrating the underlying value of the company's real estate holdings. The transaction also enhanced the value of the stock held by every HHC shareholder. Hilton used the proceeds to pay down high interest debt, and repurchase 20 percent of the company’s stock—all at market rate—which was still trading well below the company’s book value.
Hilton continued to expand the domestic hotel chain through franchising and the selective acquisition of management contracts and hotels in emerging markets. In 1977, he completed a hotel purchase that his father had initiated 28 years earlier. When Conrad Hilton bought the Waldorf-Astoria in 1949, he actually bought the hotel’s operating company and its 30-year lease to run the hotel. The building, and the land under it, were still owned by the realty arm of the Penn Central Railroad. Knowing that the lease would expire in 1979, Hilton deftly negotiated to buy the hotel and real estate from the railroad. The landmark property, whose current value is estimated around $1 billion, was purchased by Hilton for just $35 million.
As competitors aggressively spread across the U.S. in the '80s, Barron held his own by rehabbing his own hotels and increasing revenues in Las Vegas. Through a series of massive additions to the Flamingo Hilton and the Las Vegas Hilton, the company nearly tripled its rooms in Las Vegas by 1990, from 2277 to 6703. He also launched Conrad International in the '80s, and Hilton Garden Inn in the '90s,< adding two brands that covered important price points at opposite ends of lodging's pricing spectrum.
In contrast to his gamble on gaming, Hilton earned a well-deserved reputation as a financial conservative. After seeing his father struggle to overcome the effects of the Great Depression and World War II, he maintained the strongest balance sheet in the industry. Throughout his 30 years as CEO, he carried a low debt-to-capital ratio and a high credit rating, enabling him to gobble up such properties as Bally's Reno (formerly the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino-Reno). The 2000-room resort was opened in 1978 for $230 million, and purchased by Hilton in 1992 for $88 million. With strong cash flow and plenty of liquid investments on hand, he was able to weather the inevitable recessions and business interruptions that struck the industry from the mid-'60s to the mid-'90s.
Hilton continued as chairman of the board through the next decade as his hand-picked successor, Steve Bollenbach, dramatically expanded the company through a series of mergers and acquisitions. The advent of friendly capital markets in the late '90s enabled him to acquire such popular brands as Embassy Suites, Doubletree, Hampton Inn, Homewood Suites, Bally's and Caesars. Then, in 2005, he reacquired Hilton International, 38 years after it had been sold to TWA. With the company now strategically complete, Bollenbach spun off the gaming business, which merged with Harrah's in 2005 and was renamed Caesars Entertainment. In 2006, the gaming company was acquired by two private equity funds, Apollo Management and Texas Pacific Group, and still operates as Caesars Entertainment.
In the meantime, the hotel business continued to soar. With the best known and most respected name in the industry—and popular domestic brands ripe for expansion overseas—Hilton Hotels Corporation proved to be irresistible to The Blackstone Group. In 2007, the private equity firm purchased Hilton Hotels Corporation, consisting of 2,800 hotels with 480,000 rooms in 76 countries and territories. Blackstone paid $47.50 per share, a 32 percent premium over the July 2 closing price. The $26 billion, all-cash transaction included $7.5 billion of debt.
Host Hotels & Resorts veteran Chris Nassetta was hired to manage the company, which was renamed Hilton Worldwide, Inc. In the six years since it took over operations, Hilton Worldwide has expanded to 4041 hotels, with 665,667 rooms in 90 countries as of December 2013. With another 900 hotels in the development pipeline around the world, the company has all but assured the continued presence of the Hilton brand in the global lodging marketplace through the 21st Century and beyond. The privately held company just released an initial public offering that generated $2.3 billion in new investor capital, without selling any of Blackstone's 76 percent equity interest in the enterprise.
In 1979, Barron Hilton's father, Conrad Hilton, died at age 91. He left 13.5 million shares of Hilton Hotels Corporation stock—97 percent of his estate—to the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, a humanitarian charity which he had established in 1944.
In his will, Conrad also gave Barron the right to purchase those shares in order to maintain family control of the company, but the foundation challenged the option in probate court. It took an entire decade to resolve the issue. Hilton's right to exercise his option was upheld in an appeals court ruling in March 1988, giving him voting power over roughly 34 percent of the company's outstanding shares. Conrad's bequest of stock was worth $160 million when he died in 1979. Thanks to his son's successful management of the Hilton Hotels Corporation, those shares were worth $654 million when the settlement was reached late in 1988. In a press statement issued after the favorable ruling, Hilton said it gave him "the opportunity to structure an arrangement whereby my father's two objectives, retaining control of the stock in family hands, and benefitting charity through the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, can both be achieved. I am confident that my father would be pleased with this accord."
The settlement was finalized in 1989. Neither Hilton, nor the foundation, had to actually pay for the shares; they split them instead. Hilton received 4 million shares, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation received 3.5 million shares, and the remaining 6 million shares were placed in the W. Barron Hilton Charitable Remainder Unitrust, of which Barron is the executor. He receives 60 percent of the unitrust income, and the foundation 40 percent, during his lifetime, then the fund transfers to the foundation.
On December 25, 2007, Hilton announced that he will follow in his father's footsteps by leaving about 97 percent of his estate, estimated at that time to be $2.3 billion, to the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. Included was an immediate pledge of $1.2 billion, the proceeds of the sale of Hilton Hotels Corporation and Harrah's Entertainment Inc., which was placed in a Charitable remainder unitrust that will be transferred to the foundation upon Hilton's death at whatever value the trust is worth at that time. The remainder of the funds that constitute Hilton's pledge of 97 percent of his estate will come from his personal assets, which were estimated at $1.1 billion at the time.
Throughout his career, Conrad Hilton supported a variety of causes, particularly those involving the nuns that had helped educate him in his native New Mexico. He established the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation in 1944, and made a total of $7.6 million of gifts before his death.
In his last will and testament, Conrad left general guidance for the use of his endowment. He wrote: "There is a natural law, a Divine law, that obliges you and me to relieve the suffering, the distressed and the destitute. Charity is a supreme virtue, and the great channel through which the mercy of God is passed on to mankind. It is the virtue that unites men and inspires their noblest efforts. 'Love one another, for that is the whole law;' so our fellow men deserve to be loved and encouraged – never abandoned to wander alone in poverty and darkness. The practice of charity will bind us – will bind all men in one great brotherhood. As the funds you will expend have come from many places in the world, so let there be no territorial, religious, or color restrictions on your benefactions, but beware of organized, professional charities with high-salaried executives and a heavy ratio of expense. Be ever watchful for the opportunity to shelter little children with the umbrella of your charity; be generous to their schools, their hospitals and their places of worship. For, as they must bear the burdens of our mistakes, so are they in their innocence the repositories of our hopes for the upward progress of humanity. Give aid to their protectors and defenders, the Sisters, who devote their love and life's work for the good of mankind, for they appeal especially to me as being deserving of help from the Foundation."
Barron asked his trusted confident, Donald H. Hubbs, to become president of the foundation when his father died. A lawyer and certified public accountant, Hubbs had worked for Barron for years, and advised his father before that. He had managed the foundation since 1969, and over the next two decades, articulated Conrad's vision for the family charity. Hubbs developed a "big project" approach that would concentrate the foundation's spending on a limited number of causes where the board and staff felt they could have the greatest impact. He would then select a partner with particular expertise in the area, and grant them enough money to create real, systemic change for the beneficiaries they served. This focused approach has enabled the Hilton Foundation to help wipe out the Guinea Worm disease in most of central Africa; expand the programs of the Perkins School for the Blind internationally to help educate blind children and students with multiple handicaps; improve sanitation in poor villages ravaged by Trachoma, the leading cause of preventable blindness in the world; provide wells for clean water in villages of 500 to 1000 people that spread from Ghana to Mali and Niger, helping all but eradicate the Guinea worm disease; create an alcohol and drug aversion education program for adolescents, known as Project Alert; develop a Model State Code on Domestic and Family Violence that has been adopted and adapted by all 50 states; and provide funding for projects undertaken by Catholic sisters around the globe.
Barron's son, Steven M. Hilton, succeeded Hubbs as president in 1998, and has further refined the focus of the foundation while steadfastly following his grandfather's guidance. He began working as an assistant program officer in 1983, and was elected vice president and board member in 1986. He became CEO on Hubbs' retirement in 2005 and chairman in 2012. The foundation now invests in 11 priority areas, including strategic initiatives and priority programs. Strategic initiatives involve funding several partners, generating new knowledge, and collaborating with other funders to achieve measurable impact:
Supporting Catholic Sisters, helping Sisters sustain and broaden the impact of their work; caring for vulnerable children, helping children affected by HIV/AIDS in the developing world to thrive in the communities where they live; transition-age youth in foster care, helping U.S. youth transitioning out of the foster care system to find their path to success; ending chronic homelessness, making permanent supportive housing a reality for chronically homeless people in Los Angeles County; preventing substance abuse, helping people gain the understanding, skill, and confidence to resist drugs alcohol abuse; providing safe water, increasing sustainable access to safe water for people in severe need in developing countries.
The foundation also gives priority to the following program areas:
Confronting sight loss, preventing blindness and empowering those facing the challenges of visual impairment; nurturing Catholic schools, supporting and extending their educational benefit to more youth; responding to disaster, providing water, sanitation and other aid to people in the aftermath of natural disasters while promoting disaster preparedness; educating students for hospitality industry, creating opportunities for the next generation of hotel and restaurant managers; and overcoming multiple sclerosis, seeking a cure and improving quality of life for those who are affected by MS.
In 1996, Barron Hilton presided over the inaugural award ceremony for the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize. This annual award is presented to a nonprofit organization judged to have made exemplary and extraordinary contributions in alleviating human suffering. A distinguished, independent and international jury makes the selection among a number of notable applicants. At $1.5 million, the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize is the world’s largest humanitarian award, and helps brings public attention to the work of the recipient charity. Hilton Humanitarian Prize Laureates have formed collaborative partnerships in the field and are working to increase public understanding in developed nations for solutions to problems in the developing world.
Hilton was born the year Charles Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic. When he was 7 or 8 years old, he would ride his bike to Love Field in Dallas to watch the exotic planes of the day take off and land. He promised himself that he would one day learn to fly. He took private flying lessons at a field on the north shore of Oahu during his time in the Navy, and got his pilot's license at age 17.
In addition to his single-engine and multi-engine ratings, Hilton eventually earned glider, lighter than air (balloons) and helicopter ratings as well. He maintains a small fleet of aircraft at his Flying M Ranch in northern Nevada that includes sailplanes, tow planes, aerobatic aircraft, hot air balloons and classic, restored biplanes. He flew them all until he retired from the cockpit in 2012 at age 84.
In the ‘90s, he boldly backed the first attempts to capture one of the last great milestones in aviation—flying non-stop around the world in a balloon—with the Earthwinds Hilton and Global Hilton campaigns. While falling short of the ultimate goal, Hilton is credited with inspiring the efforts of those who achieved the feat. Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones were the first to make a trans-global flight in 1999; Steve Fossett became the first to complete the flight solo in 2002.
From 1980 to 2009, he also hosted the Barron Hilton Cup, a unique glider competition. Pilots who flew the longest triangular flights in six regions of the world earned participation in a weeklong soaring camp at his Flying M Ranch east of the Sierras in Northern Nevada. Co-founder Helmut Reichmann, Germany's three-time world soaring champion, devised a handicap system that enabled pilots flying older gliders to compete with elite pilots in high-performance aircraft of the latest design. Once at the Flying M, they flew recreationally alongside world champions and celebrities invited to attend by Hilton. Beginning in 1996 with its predecessors, the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., EADS, had served as a partner in the event.
Over the years, a number of notable pilots regularly joined Hilton for weekends at the Flying M. They include entertainers John Denver and Cliff Robertson; astronauts Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan, Bill Anders, and Ulf Merbold; and test pilots and record-holders Chuck Yeager, Johnny Myers, Clay Lacy, Bruno Gantenbrink, Bob Hoover, Carroll Shelby and air, sea and land adventurer, Steve Fossett.
On Labor Day, 2007, Fossett took off from the Flying M Ranch and never returned, perishing in a crash in the Sierras. In spite of an intensive search, the wreckage wasn't discovered until the following spring. The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause(s) of this accident to be "the pilot’s inadvertent encounter with downdrafts that exceeded the climb capability of the airplane. Contributing to the accident were the downdrafts, high density altitude, and mountainous terrain." Examination of the airframe and engine revealed no evidence of any malfunctions or failures that would have prevented normal operation.
The Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum honored Hilton in 2010 by christening the Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery. The redesigned exhibit recognizes aviators like Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and the Tuskeegee Airmen. The gallery includes an early childhood education component funded by the Hilton Foundation to help youngsters catch the same enthusiasm for aviation that he discovered as a child when Lindbergh and Earhart were making headlines.
For his lifelong support of aviation, Hilton received the prestigious FAI Gold Air Medal from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale in 2009, the same award bestowed upon some of his closest friends and personal heroes, like Yeager, Armstrong, Cernan, Jones, Fossett, and Lindbergh himself.
In 2012, Hilton was also inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame in San Diego, and was hailed as the "patron saint of sport aviation."
In 1947, Barron Hilton married Marilyn June Hawley; they remained married until she died in 2004. They had eight children: William Barron Hilton, Jr., Hawley Anne Hilton, Stephen Michael Hilton, David Alan Hilton, Sharon Constance Hilton, Richard Howard Hilton, Daniel Kevin Hilton, and Ronald Jeffrey Hilton. Their oldest, William Barron Hilton, Jr., was born in 1948 and their youngest, Ronald Jeffrey Hilton, was born in 1963. Barron Hilton has 15 grandchildren, including Paris Hilton and Nicky Hilton Rothschild; both of them are Richard Hilton's daughters.
Barron Hilton's principal residence in Holmby Hills was originally designed in the 1930s for Jay Paley by architect Paul Williams. It was used as the 'Colby mansion' in exterior scenes for The Colbys television series.
Hilton is a member of a duck club on Venice Island in the Sacramento – San Joaquin River Delta near Stockton in Northern California. Every year he puts on a large Fourth of July fireworks display, attracting thousands of boaters to watch it. Hilton and several friends purchased the Flying-M Ranch in Lyon County, Nevada in the mid '60s, and he bought them out in 1972.