2011-09-03 / Top News

Grand Hotel Owner R.D. Musser Retires After 60 Years

His Philosophy: Service Must Be Impeccable at Landmark Hotel
By Karen Gould

Grand Hotel owner and chairman R.D. Musser, Jr. steps out the front door of the hotel and onto the famous 660-foot-long front porch Monday, August 29, just days after announcing his retirement. Mr. Musser, who will turn 80 years old in April, is turning over the responsibility of running the 1887 Mackinac Island landmark to his son, Dan Musser III. Grand Hotel owner and chairman R.D. Musser, Jr. steps out the front door of the hotel and onto the famous 660-foot-long front porch Monday, August 29, just days after announcing his retirement. Mr. Musser, who will turn 80 years old in April, is turning over the responsibility of running the 1887 Mackinac Island landmark to his son, Dan Musser III. After 60 years, R.D. Musser, Jr., owner and chairman of Grand Hotel, is retiring. During his career, he has greatly expanded and improved the hotel and resort, adding guest rooms, a golf course, and restaurants. He sees his role as an exacting manager of superb customer service and a thoughtful steward of the historic property. He takes pride in leaving the 1887 hotel in better condition than he found it.

He will continue to have a working role at the hotel, but will pass the authority for its operation to his son, Dan Musser III.

“Dan’s going to run the place. It’s time,” Mr. Musser said. His daughter, Mimi Cunningham, is vice-president.

The process of turning over the authority has been in the works for a while, he said, sitting in his office Monday, August 29. Mr. Musser will continue to keep his office at the hotel. He will maintain a presence there, check on things, do what he can to help, but next spring, he and Amelia, his wife of 54 years this November, will return to the Island later in the spring and they will travel to their home in St. Croix earlier in the fall.

Mr. Musser will be 80 years old in April.

“I think of myself as a good steward of the building,” he said of the historic hotel.

He began working at the hotel in 1951 during his summer vacation from Dartmouth College. Harry Truman was president then and color television was first broadcast in New York. He was learning the business, watching his uncle, hotel owner W. Stewart Woodfill. Mr. Musser held various posts at the hotel in those early years, from cashier to waiter.

“I came here as a kid right off the farm, really,” he said. “After a summer or two here, I thought I might like it. It was intriguing.”

He spent two years in the U.S. Army, but 10 years after he began working at Grand Hotel, he started running it in 1961. That spring was the beginning of many changes that would follow.

“I remember distinctly when John Kennedy was running for president,” he recalled. “He came over here Memorial Day weekend to solicit Governor [G. Mennen] Williams’ votes at the Democrat Convention to support his nomination, which he got. That permission was given on Mackinac at the governor’s residence. Michigan was the first industrial state to declare for Kennedy. It was a beautiful day, a beautiful weekend, and downtown was pretty active, and we’re not open yet. I thought, ‘This is crazy.’ That was the impetus for me to start figuring out how to lengthen the season. That was an awakening to me.”

At that time, the hotel did not open until early June, and it closed mid-September, about a 15-week season.

“That’s a pretty short time period to make a living,” he said. “We’ve needed October, September, and May.”

Rooms in the early and late season were filled with convention business and through the creation of enthusiast weekends that included Somewhere In Time, Carlton Varney antiques, History, and Ballroom Dancing.

“We had to build those things, which has been good for us and, I think, for those organizations, too,” he added.

He and Mrs. Musser took ownership of the hotel in 1979.

“Any business is a challenge to run,” he said. “I don’t think that’s news to anyone. There are pretty simple parts to this business you can figure out pretty quick. First one, you’ve got to sell rooms. And you have to close it in the fall and get it open in the spring. Those are two challenges. They’re unavoidable. That’s the way it is. You have to put a crew together and have some kind of training for the crew when they get here, a lot of green people who don’t really know much about what they are doing. That will be never ending. I don’t think it changes much from year to year. It’s the same set of challenges.”

The larger challenges, he said, rested with his is uncle, a very independent entrepreneur, who came here without any money.

“You have to bear in mind he ran the hotel during the Depression and during the war,” recalls Mr. Musser. “It was 15 years of hell trying to make a living in a resort hotel. I have no idea how he did it”

Mr. Woodfill made a success of the hotel and he put Mr. Musser and his sister, Mimi, whose father died when they were young, through college. Mr. Woodfill gave him a bank account during his college years, which today Mr. Musser credits for teaching him how to manage money.

“He was an amazing guy,” he said of his uncle. “He had a requirement from me. He wanted to hear from me one day a week. He didn’t care if it was a postcard or a letter, but it had to be the same day every week. That was a good discipline.”

Tasks like the letter served to teach him about business and discipline.

“I don’t think he taught me much specifically about running a hotel,” he said. “He taught me how to run a business. He was a firm believer that you had to deliver quality. He was a firm believer that you had to publicize it and he was very good at that. He knew that you’d better have pretty good food and you’d better have a clean place. You’d better have someone smiling.

“What he did teach me was to try and be filled with integrity.”

Built in 1887, the hotel is planning its 125th anniversary celebration for next year. The white, pillared building on Mackinac Island’s West Bluff makes a striking first impression on visitors arriving by ferry from the mainland. The hotel has become a symbol of Michigan, the backdrop of two movies, and the focus of numerous books and magazine articles.

It has earned distinctive awards as a top American and international hotel. Among its famous guests, five U.S. Presidents have visited, and Mr. Musser has greeted them all. Gerald Ford came to the hotel while serving in office. The hotel has six suites named after first ladies and decorated by Carlton Varney, who consulted with them.

Through the years, obvious changes have taken place in the hotel business with the addition of computers and the Internet, but, to Mr. Musser, the most striking change has been in the shift of ownership. Few hotels remain privately owned, as Grand Hotel does.

During his career, the hotel has added a second golf course, gone from one restaurant to five, and nearly doubled the number of guest rooms. When he took over, there were 40 rooms with no bath and 120 rooms that shared a bathroom. He converted the attic into a fourth floor of rooms, expanded the east wing, and now there are 365 individually decorated rooms, all with private baths.

“We’ve done a lot of physical stuff I felt strongly needed to be done,” he said. “We’ve put a lot of money into building a new perimeter foundation. The pillars in the front are new. It was all wearing out and in trouble... We had a period of maybe five years, at [the west end], when it sank over four inches. That wasn’t so good. Those are things that will continue to happen with this old building, but I’m leaving it in better shape than when I started. I’m proud of that.”

Mr. Musser speaks highly of his staff and credits them for helping to make the hotel a success, including Executive Chef Hans Burtscher, and Managing Director John Hulett, who has served the hotel for more than 40 years. Following his uncle’s example, Mr. Musser has retained good lawyers, accountants, and architects.

“We have some wonderful employees here who have been loyal to the property and to me,” he said, “and I’ll be ever grateful for that.”

Mr. Musser manages by example, with a strong work ethic and a physical presence in all areas of the hotel.

“I think you need to be able to smell where to go, when,” he said. “You know when you have a huge arrival you’ve got to be somewhere around the front desk, and I think you know when they’re departing you’ve got to be somewhere around the front of the building to see that bags are getting back and forth.

“Like any business, common sense is a good guider, a very good guider.”

Mr. Musser has contributed to the community in many ways, but likely most notable were his efforts to help organize and then serve as chairman of the city’s Board of Public Works for 36 years, from 1970 to 2006. He was instrumental in getting all of the water and sewer pipes replaced downtown, and the water and sewer plants built. Electric lines went underground, and the roads were rebuilt during his service.

The concern in the city was that there would not be enough water to put out a fire downtown, he recalled. The pipes were bad and the tank and power were inadequate. In the summer, the downtown would almost run out of water in the afternoon.

“I remember when we were finishing downtown and we didn’t have any money left and Market Street was still standing there by itself,” he said. “Telephone poles were all over and we had a difficult time getting service to anything to the north side of Market Street. Governor [James] Blanchard was in office and we needed about $500,000 to get the street torn up, a pipe in there, and the overhead utilities underground. I remember writing to Governor Blanchard that it was a shame, for a half million bucks, we couldn’t find some money and put Market Street underground. He responded… He made that happen and I’ll be ever grateful to the governor for that.”

In 2010, Grand Hotel gained national attention for the accomplishment of the Mussers’ Scottish terrier, Sadie, who was named “Best in Show” at the 134th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. The walls of the executive conference room just off Mr. Musser’s office display photographs and other memorabilia from Sadie’s success.

Since the show, he said, Sadie has become a mother and now has two five-month-old puppies. The Mussers plan to breed her again.

“She’s a lovely mom,” he said, and she is enjoying her retirement.

Mr. Musser’s office is a few steps off the main-floor lobby and is filled with rich wood bookcases, many family photographs, an antique tea service, and mementoes. A well-worn book, “In the Pink: Dorothy Draper – America’s Most Fabulous Decorator,” by Carleton Varney rests atop a coffee table in the sitting area just a few feet from his desk.

On his credenza sits a black laptop computer and next to it is an electric typewriter. He prefers the typewriter over the computer. His uncle made him learn to type, he said.

Mr. Woodfill used onionskin paper to type out complaints that he had from his tours around the hotel. The complaints were sent out to violating departments.

“They called those Woodfill’s butterflies,” said Mr. Musser. “He turned them out in multitudes.”

Mr. Musser follows the same practice, typing notes and sending them to departments in an effort to make every aspect of the hotel better.

“We are a detailed business and you need to be attentive to such,” he said.

The notes won’t stop just because he is retired, he said.

“I intend to be in the building most days and I’ll be doing the same things I do now in many respects,” he said, including sending out his notes to departments. “But I’m not going to have the responsibility of looking around and making sure this and this happens. That’s Dan’s game now.”

Mr. Musser has had challenges through the years, including financing the hotel.

“The biggest challenge is always trying to make this place work, to make it somewhat profitable,” he said. “It’s been a continual battle to get the funding to do what we think we should be doing. And there is a wish list that probably will never, ever be fulfilled. We can at least aim towards it.”

He’d like to see a spa, another golf course, and more restaurants.

As for running the hotel, his son will face different challenges than he did, but he is confident in his ability to continue the hotel’s success. His son has held various posts in the hotel through the years.

“I had him raking traps [on the golf course] when he was seven years old for an hour or so a day,” Mr. Musser recalls. “He’s been all over this place. He’s worked the kitchens, been reservations manager, worked the bar, sold conventions, and he’s very aware of all aspects of this property.”

Plans are underway for a new stable. The current building just north of the hotel is about to fall down, Mr. Musser said. Now, working with Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, a new stable will be constructed this fall at the Four Corners near the Carriage Tours barns. The hotel will lease the stables, which will include a display area for antique carriages. They hope to open the stables in the spring.

“The rumor is out, I know, that we’re going to build more rooms up there,” he said. “I haven’t seen those plans.”

Through the years, he said, he has seen Mackinac Island improve.

“It’s getting better and better,” said Mr. Musser. “It’s a more cohesive place than when I arrived here, and I’m glad for that. We have better boats, better roads, and safer buildings.”

He and Mrs. Musser have reared their children on the Island and he has spent threequarters of his life here.

“I like it a lot,” he said. “I have a wonderful feeling about Mackinac Island. Amelia and I have had 54 good years here.”

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