Hilton Chief has World on his Mind

Change is the order of the day at the world's largest hotel organization, Hilton Hotels Corp. Only days after private equity giant The Blackstone Group completed its $26-billion privatization of the company in October, the firm tapped outsider Chris Nassetta to fill the shoes of retiring president and CEO Stephen Bollenbach. He got the job instead of former President and COO Matt Hart, who had been in line to succeed Bollenbach. Hart relinquished his executive posts and now sits on the company's board of directors.

Nassetta, 45, is no stranger to the hotel business. For the past 12 years he served as CEO of Bethesda, Md.-based Host Hotels & Resorts. The task facing him is a daunting one: maximize the value of Hilton's holdings while taking the company down some new but strategically slippery paths.

“Chris is not only an incredibly smart and talented executive, but he really cares about people,” says Blackstone Senior Managing Director Jonathan Gray, who engineered the Hilton deal. “That is an extremely important quality when you consider he'll lead a business with more than 100,000 employees in 75 countries. Also, his previous experience at Host overseeing the largest hotel owner in the world makes him the perfect fit.”

During his first week on the job in December, Nassetta spoke with National Real Estate Investor contributor Ben Johnson about Hilton's future and his role guiding the enterprise. (NREI and Lodging Hospitality are both part of Penton Media's Financial Services Group.)

Q Why did you take on your new role at Hilton?

A This is a great opportunity to work with two terrific organizations, Hilton and Blackstone. I have known Jon Gray and others as both friends and partners over the past 15 years and can say from personal experience that they add value to the businesses they invest in. Their support will lead to greater opportunities for our business. And, of course, Hilton is one of the most respected companies in the world. It has powerful brands and a commitment to quality and customer service.

I see my job as taking this great company with its legendary brands to the next level. International growth will be a priority as this part of our business is in the early stages of development due to the fairly recent acquisition of Hilton International. I really believe that Blackstone and Hilton are a perfect combination and look forward to creating value for our brands, owners and team members and to strengthening Hilton's position as the pre-eminent global hospitality company

Q Why are you the right person for this job?

A My combination of experience in finance, hotels and real estate, as well as my relationship with Blackstone, makes this a good combination. I've been on the hotel ownership and franchisee side, so I understand the needs and issues owners have. As Hilton continues to grow its franchise and management business, this perspective will be important to the company's future growth.

Q What is your number-one priority?

A My goal is to further Hilton's position as the pre-eminent global hospitality company. To do that, in addition to maintaining the momentum of our domestic growth, international growth will be a priority. We've already entered into development deals in the fast-growing markets of India, China and the UK. We are also targeting expansion of our brands into parts of Europe including Russia, Italy, Spain and Turkey. Our current strategy is to open 1,000 new hotels internationally in 10 years along with 1,000 in the U.S in five years.

Another priority will be the integration of LXR Luxury Resorts & Hotels (also owned by Blackstone) into Hilton's other luxury brands. We can provide a real boost to these brands by integrating some of Blackstone's world-class assets.

Developing appealing, luxury and boutique brands and reigniting the Hilton brand are important goals.

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