Barron Hilton, son, patriot, entrepreneur and generous philanthropist, committed his wealth to the humanitarian work of the Foundation.
Throughout his life, Barron Hilton was a study in contrasts: conservative, yet daring; competitive, yet compassionate; generous, yet frugal. His hard work and resilient spirit led him to build a dynamic and exemplary career as an entrepreneur, sportsman and philanthropist.
A childhood in the hotel business
Born in Dallas on October 23, 1927, Barron Hilton moved with his father, Conrad N. Hilton, to Los Angeles in 1937. As a teenager, Hilton worked at the Town House in Los Angeles, parking cars for hotel guests.
Patriot, serviceman and pilot
After attending the New Mexico Military Institute (the same academy his father attended), Hilton sought a waiver to allow him to enlist in the Navy at the age of 17, despite being underage. A skills assessment taken during basic training at Naval Station Great Lakes uncovered his abilities as an amateur photographer. His talents saw him deployed to Pearl Harbor as photographer’s mate in the I.D. lab, providing identification credentials for Naval personnel returning from the Pacific Theater in World War II.
During his deployment, Hilton fulfilled a childhood dream by taking flying lessons during his free time on Oahu, and earning his private pilot’s license. After his discharge, he returned to the mainland to attend the University of Southern California’s Aeronautical School where he earned his multi-engine rating. Flying would remain a passion throughout his adult life.
Hilton married his childhood sweetheart, Marilyn Hawley, in 1947, and together they started a large and loving family of eight children.
Prior to joining the family business, Hilton spent two decades making a name for himself as an entrepreneur. He purchased the Los Angeles distributorship for Vita-Pakt Citrus Products and founded McDonald Oil Co., Air Finance Corporation, the Carte Blanche Credit Card and the Chargers of the American Football League. The Chargers won five divisional titles and one AFL Championship during his six years as president of the club. He was also instrumental in forging the merger with the National Football League that created the Super Bowl.
In 1966, the board of Hilton Hotels Corporation asked him to succeed his father as president and chief executive officer, provided he relinquish his football responsibilities. He sold controlling interest in the club for $10 million, a record at the time for any professional sports franchise. For the next 30 years, Barron Hilton was known for creating shareholder value and expanding through innovative real estate transactions, including franchising and a bold move into the Las Vegas gaming market. From 1966 to 1996, he transformed the company and generated an average annual rate of return to shareholders of 15% with dividends.
After retiring in 1996, he remained chairman of the board as his hand-picked successor, Stephen F. Bollenbach, presided over a decade of mergers and acquisitions that made Hilton Hotels Corporation one of the largest and most successful companies in the industry. The company’s hotel and gaming operations were purchased by private equity firms in 2006 and 2007.
With his business acumen, Barron Hilton helped grow his father’s 1979 bequest of $160 million in Hilton stock into an endowment of more than $2.9 billion to support the philanthropic work of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. In 2007, Hilton announced that, like his father, he would leave 97% of his wealth to the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. This bequest increased the Foundation’s endowment from $2.9 billion to $6.3 billion and made Barron Hilton the organization’s most significant donor.
Following his father’s death in 1979, Hilton asked his family’s longtime attorney and CPA, Donald H. Hubbs, to serve as president of the Hilton Foundation. Hubbs’ leadership and loyalty to donor intent led to his establishment of a businesslike approach to grantmaking. He funded major projects with longer-term, larger and more focused grants, spread over multiple years, to achieve real, systemic change. In 1998, he was succeeded by Barron’s son, Steven M. Hilton, who had worked under Hubbs since 1983. During his tenure as president and CEO, Steven M. Hilton and the board of directors led the Foundation to pursue deeper, field-specific expertise. Barron Hilton’s mentorship strengthened this direction, and the Foundation’s impact increased through active pursuit of partnerships with grantees, governments, corporations, and other foundations and funders.
Following the sale of the hotel company in 2007, Barron Hilton accepted the chairmanship of the Hilton Foundation board, serving as chair until 2012. As a leader of the Foundation, he was particularly involved with policy matters and played a role similar to that of his father, Conrad. As a board member, he was extremely active in determining policy and direction for the Foundation, stepping down from this role in 2014 at the age of 87. Steve Hilton retired at the end of 2015 and now serves as chairman of the board. The Foundation is led by his successor, president and chief executive officer Peter Laugharn.
Hilton is preceded in death by his beloved wife of nearly 60 years, Marilyn Hawley Hilton. He is survived by his eight children, 15 grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, and thousands of friends and associates in his extended hotel family.