You have always approached your work with a substantial social conscience, especially in the founding of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association. How do you explain this?
I faced a lot of discrimination in my early days, trying to get my first job. I couldn’t get into the training program I wanted. I had people make discriminatory comments to me during the course of my sales calls.
I was always sensitive to other people’s discrimination since 1947 when my father took me to a baseball game, and I saw Jackie Robinson play his first game. I was 10 years old at the time in Boston. I had never in my life heard the kind of names they called him. Watching how he was discriminated against by people just yelling at him in the stands—it left a massive impression on me.
That impression ended up going all the way through college, where I broke some dating rules by doing some interracial dating with an Asian woman. I accepted a non-Jewish person into a Jewish fraternity, and we lost our charter. I was always racially in front of the curve.
When I got to Days Inn, the proudest thing in my 53 years was the forming of AAHOA. We started with 12 people, and now there are 12,000 members.
If there’s a legacy that Mike Leven has had in this business, it’s AAHOA. If they want to put me in the ground and ask, “What did he do as a hospitality person, a business person,” you can say Las Vegas Sands is the greatest financially or Holiday Inn is now 2,200 hotels. Days Inn is now 2,000. But nothing compares, nothing compares with being able—with the help of others—to found the Asian American Hotel Owners Association. It’s truly an American, freedom experience. That’s the legacy I want.
You are 76 years old and could have retired long ago. Yet, here you are, not just working but heading up a major international resort company, among other endeavors. Why? Do you have plans for slowing down?
Well, I do have some plans to slow down. I think the greatest level of work for this company—what I came for—has been somewhat completed. It’s always ongoing. There’s still growth to be had in the future, and I want to help the company get to its next level of development and keep a stable management team if I can, which is not easy.
Slowing down to me will eventually mean just taking some time off, keeping myself in place, staying involved in policy-making and decision-making of the company at the senior level. Although my contract is ending in December, it’s probably likely I will continue on in some capacity where I will be involved for the next couple of years.
I don’t feel the slightest bit tired. I am healthy and my golf game is as good or better than it’s ever been, and I don’t play that much. My wife is happy to support my efforts. She has been around the 53 years I’ve been in the business, and she’s happy I’m doing it, but she doesn’t want me around the house all day, and I don’t want to play golf five days a week.
I like being in the position of a senior adviser. I like helping people, doing some wonderful things with the small foundation I have. I’m scholarshiping a lot of kids, some in Israel, some in the States, most the first generation in their families to go to college.
As long as I have something to contribute, I want to stay in the fight, because it is fight. There are always people who do not want to do the right thing. I want to do the right thing. That’s what it’s going to be.