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Sidney Willner, 88; Lawyer, Executive for Hilton

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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 15, 2005

Sidney H. Willner, 88, a lawyer who helped break up the German coal and steel industry after World War II and then became a key player in the expansion of Hilton International Inc., died of pneumonia March 14 at his home in New York.

Mr. Willner spent the largest part of his long working life with Hilton, but he also clerked for the celebrated U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Learned Hand, worked for the Securities and Exchange Commission, practiced international and corporate law in Washington, and started a new hotel business at age 73.

Curt Strand, the longtime chairman of Hilton International, said he considered Mr. Willner to be his top associate, "quite indispensable" for his negotiation skills and good judgment as the company expanded from four to 90 hotels worldwide. "You had to really appreciate his intellect. He was a person very, very much devoted to fairness in dealing," Strand said.

Mr. Willner negotiated the company's purchases, sales, leases and management contracts. The partnerships he crafted were with governments as well as private investors, and they required someone unusually adept at combining profit with improvements in the local economy to the satisfaction of occasionally suspicious property owners.

A Chinese billionaire acquired the Hong Kong Hilton and "was perfectly prepared" to tear it down and erect a larger office tower on the property, Strand said. Mr. Willner "was instrumental in finding a way for us to make a relatively modest investment which brought this man onto our side."

He also helped keep the Havana Hilton in the company's hands for a critical year in 1959, after Fidel Castro came to power. "Castro was very much in love with the hotel and literally lived in the kitchen before he got installed in the palace," Strand said. "He put in a cot and slept there. That was his hangout, which didn't keep him later from nationalizing the hotel and stealing it."

Those negotiation skills influenced many colleagues throughout the years, said Jonathan Berger, who succeeded Mr. Willner in the Hilton job in 1982. Mr. Willner taught him that "there are more ways to get a good result than winning a debate," Berger said.

"His negotiating style was unusually nonconfrontational. He would say all the right things and be very soothing to the other side, and it would only be later they would realize he hadn't given them anything."

Mr. Willner was born in Union Hill, N.J., and graduated from Columbia College at age 19. He received a law degree from Harvard Law School in 1938. After clerking for Hand, he worked for the SEC as associate director of its public utilities and corporate reorganization division. He enlisted in the Army at the start of World War II and rose to the rank of captain in the Judge Advocate General Corps.

During the postwar period in Germany, 33-year-old Willner reorganized German coal and steel industries, breaking up the three dominant companies into 30 enterprises. He also helped negotiate the treaty that created the European Coal and Steel Community, one of the forerunners to the European Union. In a personal letter in 1952, John J. McCloy, the U.S. high commissioner for Germany, praised Mr. Willner's tact, skill and persistence, saying they had earned him the respect of the Allies and the Germans, "including those elements which have been opposed to our objectives."

Upon returning to the United States, he went into private law practice, focusing on international and corporate law and representing broadcast networks in privacy and libel cases. He also was president of what is now the United Nations Association-USA.

He joined Hilton International in 1958 as vice president and later as vice chairman. After his mandatory retirement at age 65 and a few years of consulting, a 73-year-old Willner and Fred Eydt started a hotel chain, backed by London investors. Medallion Hotels bought up what Mr. Willner called "slightly used hotels with potential," primarily in the southwestern United States, and turned the collection into a profitable chain. Mr. Willner served as Medallion chairman until the company was sold in 1998, when he was older than 80.

Throughout his life, he enjoyed writing poetry and playing the piano, his daughters said. He returned to the Washington area in his retirement, living in Bethesda until last summer.

Strand called Mr. Willner "easygoing to a fault. . . . At a corporation, people come to work at 9 o'clock. Sid would come in at 10 o'clock or so, but he could accomplish more coming in at 10 o'clock than most people who arrived much earlier."

His wife of 54 years, Dorothy Willner, died in 1993.

Survivors include his companion, Mariam P. Jaegerman of New York; two daughters, Denise Willner of New York and Karen Ferguson of Washington; and a grandson.

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