Marriott's Lasting Legacy
Arne Sorenson Might Be Moving Into CEO Role, But Bill Marriott’s Personal Touch Will Continue To Be Felt
“He has a sense of noblesse oblige in a way that I’ve never seen. He’s just a remarkable guy. He’s very smart, clever and tough, but a pretty plain spoken guy who understood and could evolve with the times to stay relevant for more than 50 years in the business. There have been others in this industry, but he’s the one and only. I don’t think you’ll ever see anyone else have that kind of impact.” – Steve Joyce, CEO of Choice Hotels, and a former Marriott executive
Despite being just about everyone’s top competitor, the respect for Mr. Marriott outside the Bethesda office is just as great as inside. Part of that is because many industry leaders got their start with Marriott.
Choice Hotels CEO Steve Joyce spent 26 years with Marriott and worked as an executive vice president in Bethesda before moving to the competition’s headquarters down the road in Silver Spring, MD in 2008. Hilton CEO Chris Nassetta never worked for Mr. Marriott, but he did work extensively with him when he started with Host in 1995 as an executive vice president before becoming CEO.
“If you look at the way the business exists today, the segmentation and the fact it’s so global, Bill was very much at the forefront of those advances,” Nassetta says from his office in nearby McLean, VA. The Hilton leader recalls joining Mr. Marriott at a GM conference in San Francisco when the hotel’s staff numbering nearly 1,500 lined the walls of the pre-function space to greet their leader. “It was an eye opener for me,” Nassetta says. “You could really see from the looks of the people how much they admired him. I was awestruck.”
Joyce offers a story showing another side of Mr. Marriott’s leadership: “We were traveling and at a dinner and they were very specific about who was going to be included, and a gentleman with us thought he’d be at the table and wasn’t,” Joyce recalls. “Bill looks around for a while, and I knew what he was going to do.
“He moved from the head table and went and sat with the guy who wasn’t included. That’s just the way he is. That kind of leadership permeated the company and is what created the culture, why people wanted to work [there] and what spawned a generation of leaders. All of us aspire to be that kind of leader, but hardly anyone accomplishes that.”
“One of the greatest things I’ve learned from Bill is his respect for the individual, whether it’s a lender financing a $100 billion hotel or a housekeeper. They are both people. He said to me one day about going through hotels, ‘It’s the oddest thing. People want to take pictures of me and they put them on their refrigerators.’ I said Bill, you’re a rock star, the equivalent of the U.S. president in this business. He said, ‘I just don’t get it.’ It’s that kind of humbleness that is so impressive.” — Roger Dow, CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, and a 34-year veteran of Marriott
The stories are all the same, whether they come from the GM of a Courtyard, the head of Hilton or any Marriott employee who’s witnessed a property visit from Mr. Marriott. When he arrives, the associates have already made sure everything is as perfect as it can be. They’re waiting at the entrance or lining the halls waiting to see their leader.
“I want to see the people, see how they’re feeling,” he says. “You can really tell if they are enthusiastic and happy, if their manager is taking care of them.”
Bob McCarthy was waiting tables at Phineas Prime Rib, a Marriott restaurant, when he first met Mr. Marriott. He knew it was a big deal — “because his name was on the building” — but at the time, McCarthy had no intention of a career with the company. He had gotten the job while a senior at nearby Villanova University outside Philadelphia and after graduation he was on his way to becoming an FBI agent. But the boredom from filing fingerprint cards and a chance meeting with another Marriott executive at the restaurant led him into hotel operations.
He started as a housekeeping manager at an Atlanta property in 1976, and now 36 years later, McCarthy will become chief operations officer of Marriott International.
His rise would have made J. Willard Marriott Sr. proud. McCarthy isn’t an exception. Roger Dow, a long-time sales and marketing executive at Marriott and now CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, started summer work as a lifeguard at Marriott’s sixth hotel, in Saddle Brook, NJ.
Similar stories can be found throughout the halls of the Bethesda building housing the company since 1979. Marriott is one of just 13 companies to appear on FORTUNE magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list every year since it launched in 1998.
Associates in the corporate offices can take advantage of a large hotel-style gift shop in the lobby, a beautiful fitness room, a separate Pilates studio [where Mr. Marriott can occasionally be found], a day care, dry-cleaning services and a massive and competitively priced cafeteria serving pizza, sandwiches, salad, sushi, soup and more. Those things may not be possible in Marriott’s hotels, but Mr. Marriott does what he can.
“I learned the importance of the hourly worker from my father,” he says. “To do whatever you can to provide opportunities for them: a good meal when they come in for lunch, good working conditions, nice locker rooms, good wages and benefits. Everything needed to keep them happy, because they are faced with the guests. It’s not like a manufacturing company where the employee never sees the customer.”
Dow remembers his first property visit from Mr. Marriott like it was yesterday. “My crew was up all night scrubbing that pool,” he says. “You could serve lunch on our pool deck.” Dow went on to help create the frequency rewards program originally called Marriott’s Honored Guest in 1983 while vice president of marketing. He says it wouldn’t have happened without the gut instinct and buy-in from Mr. Marriott because of the high cost to operators that came with it.
Mari Snyder, Marriott’s VP of social responsibility and community engagement, has only worked for the company for a dozen years, but she’s had her own experiences in a kitchen with Mr. Marriott. They’ve worked side-by-side in food banks during the company’s annual global volunteer day of service.
“I will tell you if you talk to the vice presidents of [corporate social responsibility] beyond hospitality, in any industry, the biggest complaint people have is a given: You have to have executive engagement,” she says. “I’ve always felt very blessed in that area.”
“When I got back from Dubai over Thanksgiving, he said to me, and he really got sentimental: ‘When you think about where we started, it’s pretty amazing you can just go to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Jordan and you can stay in one of our hotels. I’m really proud of that.’ I’ve never heard him say that before. He’s amazed at how the company has grown.” – Debbie Marriott, the senior vice president, government affairs, and Mr. Marriott’s only daughter
Debbie Marriott grew up just like her dad, going to Hot Shoppe restaurants as a young child, “every single Sunday,” she recalls. They went for dinner, but always ended up in the kitchen for an inspection.
It’s on those visits with her father that she first saw what she now says is one of his greatest contributions to the company and hotel industry. “We set the importance of standards in this industry,” says Debbie, now the senior vice president of government affairs, from her office almost directly next door to her father’s. “The standard operating procedures— the menu cards in all those hotels — make sure the club sandwich in Dubai tastes the same as in Bethesda. How the housekeepers clean the room — we have so many of those standard operating procedures. My grandfather started that and my dad perfected it.”
Debbie, age 54, came back to the company almost six years ago after raising a family, and her three brothers all have worked for the family business. Steve, 52, is executive vice president of culture, and David, 38, is chief operating officer of the Americas Eastern Region. John, 50, worked for Marriott for most of his career, but left several years ago to run the family’s personally owned hotels as CEO, JWM Family Enterprises.
Mr. Marriott’s wife, Donna, doesn’t officially work for the company, but Debbie says her mom has been just as important to her dad’s corporate success: “She would say her job is to make sure he stays healthy and to manage him. She’s a real strength to him and makes sure he does what he’s supposed to be doing.”
Debbie says the children knew their dad’s decision to relinquish the CEO title was coming soon, but all were surprised at how quickly it happened in December. They didn’t find out until just days before for fear it would get out publically first.
“Arne is fabulous, just wonderful,” she says. “He doesn’t have any ego, and that’s important in our family. My dad always talks about how there are no big shots in this company … He shares our family values and we feel like he is part of our family and we support him 100%.”
Would Mr. Marriott have preferred one of his children take over the top spot? “Ahh, maybe someday,” he says. “Today Arne’s the right guy for the job and I’m very supportive of him and everyone in the family applauds his efforts. He’s a pretty super guy and we’re lucky to have him.”
He says succession plans were being discussed for some time, because “when you get to 80, you shouldn’t assume you can be CEO anymore.” And with a laugh, Mr. Marriott adds, “Most CEOs retire in their 50s or 60s, so I’ve got another 20 years on them.”
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