Jerry Inzerillo has a big job ahead of him. A very big job. He is tasked with creating a global landmark in Saudi Arabia, as the country looks to raise its profile in the tourism world.
Inzerillo was appointed by His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to be the first Group CEO of the Diriyah Gate Development Authority (DGDA). Diriyah is a US$50.6 billion mega-project located on the outskirts of Saudi’s capital Riyadh.
Billed as an unprecedented cultural and lifestyle destination for the Middle East, Diriyah will encompass cultural, heritage, entertainment, retail, hospitality (more than 30 hotels and 100 dining options), educational and residential areas. When it opens, the site expects to attract 27 million visitors a year while employing more than 55,000 people.
Diriyah is considered the flagship project in Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 masterplan and is also home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As the project takes shape, Inzerillo and his team’s workload is steadily increasing, but so are their levels of excitement for it. The American expat is a hotel, tourism and hospitality icon with five decades of experience under his belt and a long list of celebrity friends, from Nelson Mandela to Quincy Jones.
Inzerillo has an impressive track record of opening hospitality venues across the world, as the CEO and President of some of the world’s biggest hotel and entertainment brands. So what motivated him to get involved in such a mega-project as Diriyah when he could be retired and on a beach in the Bahamas?
“I decided that I wanted to use my gifts to empower the next generation of tourism leaders and to go to societies that were pro-tourism and had passionate young workforces, especially both men and women,” he says.
“Choosing an assignment is about meaning and inspiration, it wasn’t about the money. I got lucky earlier in my career, made some very good investments, personal investments, that allowed me the financial independence to not take a job just because I needed the money or to provide for my family.”
This independence allows him to select projects he believes in and align with his interests, such as developing young people in the field of tourism.
“And that’s what gets me up every morning,” he says. “That’s what allows me to power through 18 hour days. Last night, we finished at 4.15am. And I’m in at work, 9am, fired up. It’s a full day today because that’s the way the Crown Prince is running the Kingdom.”
“I decided that I wanted to use my gifts to empower the next generation of tourism leaders and to go to societies that were pro-tourism and had passionate young workforces.”
Inzerillo’s connections with Diriyah actually go back to the late 1990s. “I knew Diriyah and was passionate about it. And so I was very excited about taking one of the jewels of the world, the UNESCO World Heritage Site that was undiscovered and unknown, and position it as one of the great gathering places.”
When he told his 95-year-old mother that he was moving to Arabia she told her nursing home friends: “Every time that boy has settled down and done something, he gets up again. He can’t sit still. Every single time that boy builds a business, off he goes again!”
To “that boy”, she was succinct. “Go to Saudi Arabia and bring me chocolate.”
Inzerillo may have worked for billionaire owners and high-profile tycoons over the course of his career but having the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia as your boss is surely something else.
“I mean, The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz is a great inspiration. He’s a wonderful historian and loved by everybody, that’s for sure,” Inzerillo says.
“But I can tell you one thing about the Crown Prince and that’s that he’s the lead CEO in the Kingdom. He thinks like a CEO. He puts in an 80-hour week, is extremely focused on the detail and is KPI-oriented.”
While King Salman is seen as a father figure in Saudi Arabia, Inzerillo says locals see the Crown Prince as a tour de force. “They see him as the quarterback and the fact that he is young, moderate, happy and future-looking, it gets them fired up.”
Saudi Arabia has the largest economy in the Middle East, a population of 35 million and is a member of the G20.
“The Crown Prince runs the country like a business. You could say he doesn’t have stockholders, but he’s got a more demanding thing than stockholders because he has to please the society,” Inzerillo explains.
“He has to take care of his people, so he’s going to hold all the people that work for him accountable for what they’re being either paid or appointed to do.”
The Group CEO quickly adds that the Crown Prince is also “extremely fair” when it comes to mistakes.
“If you make a mistake with him, you’ve just got to be honest. ‘Your Royal Highness, it really didn’t go the way we thought, but we learned from it. Good. Will it happen again? Probably not. Good. We learned? Yes.’”
While the COVID-19 pandemic caused disruptions the world over, and led to some projects and businesses to be mothballed, Diriyah stayed on track and even increased its budgets.
“I really admire the vision, the energy and the commitment of the Crown Prince to open up the Kingdom to tourism,” Inzerillo says.
Before being interviewed, Inzerillo says people often Google him and are amazed at how many celebrities he knows and refers to as his friends.
“Why do I know a lot of celebrities? They stay at the best hotels. I’ve run the best hotels,” he explains. “But there’s another reason why I know a disproportionate amount of celebrities and that’s because I’ve always protected their privacy. In the world of TMZ and social media, where no one has any respect for privacy or gossip, I got you. You are off duty now.”
A common theme that regularly pops up with Inzerillo is trust; a value that was instilled in him from a young age as a busboy in New York and stayed with him throughout his long and eventful career.
“What happened is they became very good friends because you’re trusted. I think trust is one of the key elements of leadership,” he points out.
“When you look at a 55-year career, it’s no longer that relationships are just a combination of bricks, now it looks like a wall. Well, it’s a wall after 55 years,” he jokes.
The King and Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia join a long and impressive list of personalities who have inspired Inzerillo both professionally and personally.
“When I met Nelson Mandela, he was like a second father to me. Mandela was a very big influence on me on the treatment of people,” he says.
Inzerillo admits he has been lucky enough to work with some amazing people, and was excited about moving to Saudi Arabia because of the “optimistic and positive” atmosphere across the country. Many young Saudis are returning home from overseas education and work “because they believe that the Kingdom has a very bright future”.
“If you create a culture where people feel dignified, respected and empowered, you are going to get the best out of them.”
As Inzerillo points out, when you take him on, his workplace culture comes with him. It’s a take-it-or-leave-it moment.
“When I came in, I had youth, willingness and work ethic from the Crown Prince’s vision, positivity and optimism. So what did I do with it?” he asks. “I put in a decentralized employee-driven culture system that basically I’ve deployed my entire career. And that is, if you create a culture where people feel dignified, respected and empowered, you are going to get the best out of them.”
One of the things that Inzerillo is very proud of is that 83 percent of his staff are Saudis, and 36 percent are women, with 16 percent in management positions.
“Here, it’s equal pay, equal position, no differentiation. And what I’m most proud about is that 14 percent of our staff are from the community that we serve, which is Diriyah. That’s very exciting to me,” he says.
The workplace culture Inzerillo has brought in is closely aligned to the motto that the workforce has taken on – One Diriyah. He describes it as a golden rule that everybody’s got each other’s back, and it is something that has become a mantra at DGDA.
“We have hundreds of pictures where you see everybody with their finger up, meaning ‘only one Diriyah’. We say it all the time, every day. Now, what does that mean? It means right now, each individual is critical to the success of the Kingdom, and to DGDA. One individual makes a difference. One family. One vision, 2030, one Kingdom, let’s go, let’s be united.”
Given his time as a CEO and President of a handful of multinational companies, Inzerillo knows a thing or two about leadership. When asked what leadership means to him, he is straight-talking. “Leadership is to serve, be visible, be fair, be kind and keep your promise. Somebody’s paying you to do something, keep your promise, right?”
But he is quick to point out that he is always learning about being a good leader, even in his late 60s. Inzerillo has picked up a lot of advice along the way, including from his current role as Group CEO of DGDA.
“The Crown Prince is an unbelievable example of being a good leader,” he says. “I mean, he’s running a G20 country and yet he’ll give you the time to go over renderings and be Chair of your board meetings. He is unbelievably omnipresent. And during COVID-19 we didn’t lose his presence, it was just virtual.”
With such a long tenure as a leader, Inzerillo has created a legacy for himself, even though this wasn’t something he planned out in advance.
“I don’t really feel ego-wise the necessity to have to prove myself,” he reflects. “So now it’s fun. It’s tiring, but it’s fun because I get to do inspired, meaningful work. But now a word appears that might have been presumptuous two or three years ago, and that is legacy.
“We’ve done some innovative things. We’ve changed the direction of tourism several times. My friend Miles Davis, the great musician, changed the direction of music four times. We changed the direction a few times too, and there’s evidence to support that. So now it’s about legacy.”
With an only child, daughter Helena Zakade (named by her godfather Nelson Mandela), Inzerillo is proud of his body of work and the legacy left to her, even though he’s still building it.
“I like razzmatazz. I like showmanship. I like entertaining people. I like people being festive and dancing.”
“These are things that you can be very proud of because when it comes time to take stock and you’re 80 or so, you’re not going to really say, ‘Well, I made this money. I made that money,’” he says.
“You’re going to say, ‘What did I contribute?’ I’m surrounded by unbelievably young, wonderful Saudis. And when the day comes years from now, I can say I was a brick in the wall of Diriyah, one of the great gathering places of the world.”
Inzerillo was President and CEO of IMG Artists, the global talent management agency, from 2012 to 2014. When asked about celebrities there is no hint of bragging. These are genuine, deep relationships and memories he has that make him the endearing character he is.
“You’re either all in or you’re not. That’s a big thing. Frank Sinatra taught me that. He also says ‘there are no rehearsals in life’.” From Sinatra to Quincy Jones, Inzerillo loves the entertainment world and making people smile.
“I like razzmatazz. I like showmanship. I like entertaining people. I like people being festive and dancing. So I’ve completely extracted little pieces from many to build a component of what I am, because I never had a principal mentor.
“And if your team is inspired and enlivened, and you invest in allowing them to be the best image of themselves that they can be going forward, then you’re going to have a very fired-up staff,” he says. “They’re going to come in wanting to get the job done and wanting to please their Crown Prince. And that’s what happens here.”
Roll on 2030.