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Bill Marriott reflects on a life with no reservations

Published February 23, 2013 6:16 pm

Profile • For Bill Marriott, 80, as one phase ends, another begins.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Hotel magnate Bill Marriott remembers a simple lesson he learned from Dwight Eisenhower in 1954 that has been a guiding principle in his leadership philosophy while building Marriott International into one of the largest lodging chains in the world.

The guidance came during a visit to the Marriott family home in Virginia by the president, who had invested in the Marriott family's business when it went public in 1953 ($10.25 per share), and Agriculture Secretary Ezra Taft Benson. The guests and their hosts were trying to decide whether to go outside in bitter cold temperatures to shoot quail or remain inside by the warm fireplace.

"What do you think we should do?" the former Supreme Commander of Allied Forces asked young Marriott, an ensign on leave from the Navy.

Marriott recalled that his suggestion to stay by the fire was a "no-brainer." But he said he also realized that he had just witnessed one of Eisenhower's strategies for handling not only the supersized egos of World War II but in dealing with everyday people. One of the most powerful men in the world consistently sought out others' advice — even from lowly junior military officers.

"Thanks to that fireside chat with Eisenhower nearly 60 years ago, I've always tried very hard to listen and ask questions," Marriott says in his new book, ``Without Reservations: How a Family Root Beer Stand Grew Into a Global Hotel Company.''

In a recent phone interview from company headquarters in Bethesda, Md., Marriott acknowledged that he's "a long way from perfecting the art of listening," but added that "you can't learn anything when you are doing the talking. If you want a team to support you, to go through fire and brimstone with you, to sacrifice and look up to you as a leader, you've got to be able to listen to their opinions, and to be interested in their opinions, because they know more about the subject than you do."

The 80-year-old executive was more direct in his book: "Sometimes good listening simply requires keeping your mouth shut."

Listen to learn • J.W. "Bill" Marriott Jr. speaks with the assurance of a man credited with expanding his parent's Hot Shoppes restaurants and A&W franchise in Washington, D.C., into a global hotel chain.

A few weeks ago, he granted a 30-minute interview to discuss his new book, his family's Utah roots, the importance of taking care of employees so they can take care of guests and whatever else might fit into a half-hour conversation with one of the business world's most respected men.

He placed the call a few minutes early and near the end of the allotted time politely reminded the interviewer that there was time for perhaps two more questions.

In between, he also touched on the importance of family relationships and talked of his love for wife Donna and their four children.

But it was his emphasis on listening skills that stood out. He said adherence to them have been critical to the success of Marriott International, which employs 300,000 people in managed and franchised hotels in 68 nations and territories, operating under brands such as The Ritz-Carlton, Courtyard, Fairfield Inn, Marriott Vacation Club and Grand Residences.

In his book he expounded on the topic by writing that "in our company people from all over the world work together every day, so it's particularly important to listen with patience and respect. Someone who is doing their best to express something in a language that isn't their native tongue deserves nothing less."

Selective listening, Marriott contends, is worse than not listening at all. He said in the interview he learned that the hard way in the 1980s when the chain chose to downplay signals that the hotel industry was being seriously overbuilt. The company eventually had to lay off 1,000 workers, mostly in architectural and construction services, but, he added, the company went beyond simply showing displaced workers the door.

"They were still a part of our family, a part of our organization. We set up a big office and a bank of telephones, and got our senior people from human resources to help develop resumes and put together lists of companies. We found jobs for 90 percent of the people who had been laid off."

Jeff Beck, a professor at the School of Hospitality Business at Michigan State University and a former Marriott employee, says part of the chain's success can be traced to its embrace of the teachings of J.W Marriott Sr., who said that if you take care of your employees, they'll take care of the customers.

"There's been a consistency of leadership, a feeling that this is a company that you truly want to work for over a long time," Beck said. "Both father and son have made a monumental mark on the hospitality industry."

To that, Bill Marriott adds: "People come to work for us and stay with us. The average general manager has been with us 25 years and half started out while they were young. Ninety percent of what we do is serving customers. If they are treated with respect, it leaves a lasting impression. That has helped us build."

From humble beginnings • The company started small, founded in 1927 by Marriott's father, the son of a sheep ranching family in Ogden. Driving a Model T Ford, the senior Marriott and wife Alice had moved to Washington, D.C., and later opened a root beer franchise at 3128 14th St. Together they expanded their business to eateries, fast-food restaurants and food catering, initially selling boxed lunches to airline passengers.

Early financial successes came during World War II, when the Hot Shoppes restaurants were expanded to feed the thousands of workers who moved to the nation's capital to work in defense plants and government complexes.

Bill Marriott's first job was in one of those restaurants when he was 14 years old, stapling invoices. By his high school years, he was cooking burgers and mopping floors, learning the value of having firsthand knowledge of the company from every level. That lesson, in turn, has translated into promoting people from within the corporation.

He joined the company full time in 1956, after graduating from the University of Utah — his parents' alma mater — with a degree in banking and finance.

In 1957, the company expanded to the lodging business, opening the Twin Bridges in Arlington, Va., a motor hotel featuring a gasoline station and a drive-in-registration desk. Bill Marriott said he talked his father into letting him manage the hotel, and it's little wonder that the elder Marriott complied. The son embraced his father's vision.

"Dad felt very strongly that the concerns and problems of the people who worked for him were always worth listening to. In his eyes, a successful company put its employees first. I couldn't agree more," he said in his book.

By 1960, the Marriott strategy was to focus on suburban locations near airports and major convention cities. In 1964, at age 32, Bill Marriott was named president of the company's board of directors. By 1981, the company opened its 100th hotel, on Maui.

Marriott International, the largest publicly traded U.S. hotel chain, was formed in 1992 when the corporation split off its Host Marriott Corp., which operated concessions at airports and entertainment venues. Host Marriott later merged with Autogrill SpA and operates under HMSHost Corp., which offers dining and shopping in 112 airports worldwide, including Salt Lake City International Airport.

Go quietly? Nah • Last March, Bill Marriott entered a new life phase when he stepped down as CEO, noting "I don't think anyone should be CEO of a major business at [my] age." He remains executive chairman, and, like his father before him, keeps up a rigorous schedule of visiting hotels. He noted in the book that his wife was often irritated when the senior Marriott visited because of his habit of running his index finger over the furniture, doorsills and venetian blinds, checking for dust.

Bill Marriott's handpicked successor, Arne Sorenson, served as the company's chief financial officer and head of its European lodging operations. And although that kept with the longtime practice of promoting from within the company, handing the reins to a non-Marriott created a stir inside and outside the lodging industry.

Marriott acknowledged that many had expected one of his four children to succeed him. His eldest, Debbie, 55, was a stay-at-home mother for 20 years before joining the company as head of government affairs. His oldest son, Stephen, 53, performs duties at the company that take into account a rare medical condition that has robbed him of most of his sight and hearing. And son David, 39, who is in charge of 1,200 hotels east of the Mississippi River, is "still young and would need plenty of time and experience to grow into such a big job," Marriott said.

He had expected his second-oldest son, John, to be his successor. Although the 51-year old executive manages the family's real estate investments, he also started his own medical testing company, so, as his father says, he "no longer has to put up with the scrutiny that comes with having Marriott as a last name."

For Bill Marriott, the future holds the promise of him being active in a variety of roles. Whatever the path, he isn't likely to go quietly. In the recent presidential election, he publicly backed the campaign of fellow Mormon and longtime family friend Mitt Romney with a $1 million contribution. Marriott's only sibling, Richard, owner of the Marriott spinoff Host Hotels & Resorts, also gave $1 million. The GOP nominee, whose first name is Willard (after the Marriotts' dad) twice served on the Marriott International board before running for the White House and rejoined it after his most recent defeat.

Despite its humble origins, the Marriott family from its early days in Washington has been connected to powerful people. The mother of Bill Marriott's mother was married to U.S. Sen. Reed Smoot from Utah, who served from 1903 to 1933 and was an LDS apostle.

Brushes with presidents from Eisenhower on down were not uncommon. Bill Marriott's book carries acknowledgements from George H.W. Bush, who calls him "my good friend," and Bill Clinton.

But Marriott insists that his family and the company will always remain grounded. With his children's involvement, he says that Marriott International will still offer the down-home services to hotel guests that have been provided for more than 85 years, "and we'll continue to be a family face with our name on the door."

dawn@sltrib.com

twitter@DawnHouseTrib —

Marriott International hotel chain

Headquarters • Bethesda, Md.

Sales • $11 billion annually

Employees • 120,000 (300,000 in managed and franchise operations)

Holdings • About 3,400 lodging properties in 68 countries and territories

Hotel brands • Marriott, JW Marriott, The Ritz-Carlton, Renaissance, Residence Inn, Courtyard, TownePlace Suites, Fairfield Inn, SpringHill Suites and Bulgari

Resorts • Marriott Vacation Club, The Ritz-Carlton Destination Club and Grand Residences

Other businesses • Manages whole-ownership residential brands, including The Ritz-Carlton Residences, JW Marriott Residences and Marriott Residences; operates Marriott Executive Apartments; provides furnished corporate housing through its Marriott ExecuStay division; and operates conference centers Business advice from J.W. "Bill" Marriott Jr.

Listening • When you open your ears, open your mind, too. Listening is foremost an opportunity to learn.

Training • We can't expect our [employees] to do their jobs well if we haven't shown them how.

Rewards • We [risk] fracturing the team by setting up a reward structure that distinguishes a few disproportionately.

Meetings •The less [the boss says], the less [he or she] sways the discussion. People [should] feel comfortable about raising red flags.

Visits • If I see smiling faces and well-scrubbed surfaces behind the scenes, I know the rest of the hotel more than likely is doing just fine.

Managers • Does she radiate energy and enthusiasm? Does he know every inch of the hotel and grounds? How does the staff react to her?

Decisions • Make a decision and get on with it. If significant new information comes in, be willing to listen and adjust accordingly.

Employees • When [they] are willing to give a guest the clothes off their backs, doesn't taking good care of [them] make good sense?

CEOs • Companies that get into trouble are ones where the CEO never budges from the executive suite and makes decisions without knowing [what's] going on. —

The Utah connection

The Marriott family's roots in the state can be traced to Ogden, where in the early 1900s it operated a sheep ranch. In the 1920s, J.W. Marriott and wife Alice moved to Washington, D.C., where by 1927 they had opened a root beer stand and later several restaurants. From those humble beginnings the dynamic couple eventually started a chain of motor hotels that over the decades grew into a global lodging enterprise.

True to their faith in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Marriott family placed a Book of Mormon in each hotel room. And through the years they donated generously to many causes and organizations in Utah, with the Marriott name gracing the University of Utah library (since 1969) and the Center for Dance (opened in 1989), and at Brigham Young University the School of Management (whose name was changed in 1988) and the Marriott Center arena (opened in 1971).