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Bill Marriott reflects on 40 years leading hotel giant

Outgoing CEO talks about Utah roots, politics and his role in changing the industry.

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A » No. I’ve thought about that a lot. We would not have been able to grow the company if we had kept it private. The family just couldn’t have tolerated the amount of debt that would take.

Q » Today, the company has $2.2 billion in debt. Does that ever worry you?

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A » No, because we get more than $1 billion a year in cash. If the economy tanked, (the) cash flow is pretty stable. Most of it’s coming from management fees, and that comes off the top.

Q » Republican presidential candidate Willard Mitt Romney was named after your father, J. Willard Marriott. He sat twice on the Marriott board, and your family has made significant contributions to his campaign. What’s his biggest obstacle to becoming president?

A » His message is too complicated. He says: I have a 59-point economic policy. My response: People aren’t going to listen to 59 points. They want 9-9-9. And he says: Well, I don’t want 9-9-9. I said: I know, but you really need to simplify your message and repeat it, repeat it, repeat it and don’t wander off.

Q » How important should a candidate’s religion be?

A » It’s important that the candidate be a person of strong moral character. They should be true to their beliefs, whether it’s Protestant, born-again, Mormon, Jewish. There should be separation from church and state. When Kennedy was running, they didn’t want the pope to tell Jack Kennedy what to do. We don’t want the president of the Mormon church telling Mitt Romney what to do. If he’s president, he won’t. The church is totally hands-off, politically. We want the country to understand that a Mormon in the White House is going to be just as effective as anybody else.

Q » You are a very active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. How do you balance your religious beliefs with some of the desires of your guests?

A » I’ve always been concerned about (pornographic) movies in rooms. In the next three or four years, we won’t have any more of those. That’s something we’ve had a real problem with because the Church is very, very opposed to pornography, as it should be, and we are for families. But the owners of our hotels were making a lot of money. In fact, the only movies that make any money are pornography.

Q » What led to that decision?

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A » It was the right thing to do. The other side of it is if they want that stuff, they can get on the computer. So, the demand for them has gone way down. It was a good time to exit.

Q » What do you look for when touring a Marriott hotel?

A » Happy employees. I look to make sure that the hotel’s properly maintained, that it’s clean. Every now and then I’ll taste the food.

Q » What’s your biggest complaint while staying at a hotel?

A » I want a quiet room.

Q » What are hotels going to look like in five years?

A » Bathrooms are going to open more into the rooms because people want light. We’re thinking of a glass wall. You could flip a switch and the glass becomes opaque; flip the switch it goes clear. [Also], we’re going to full floor-to-ceiling windows wherever we can so when you pull the curtains back, you just don’t look through a small window. You’ll see the whole world.

Q » Did Marriott miss out on catering to younger, affluent travelers seeking boutique-style hotels?

A » Oh, yeah, we definitely did. That’s why we’ve got $800 million to launch the Edition brand. That’s the next great opportunity. We didn’t miss the window. We’re just slow getting there.

Q » Arne Sorenson will be the third CEO in the company’s 85-year-history and the first one not named Marriott. How does it feel to turn over the reins to somebody outside your family?

A » He came to work here 15 years ago and he’s done everything. He’s a very good person, a great family guy and very capable. He understands the culture, accepts it and buys into it.

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