When Nassetta took over in 2007, Hilton lagged behind other hoteliers. He had to restructure not only the operations, but the culture. "People really didn't know where we were going," he says.
Nassetta focused on lucrative international markets — at the time, only 19 percent of Hilton's new hotels were planned for overseas. He also franchised more hotels — a quick way to grow the company with minimal capital investment or risk.
Today, Hilton Worldwide is the largest hotelier in the world, by rooms, with 679,000. Of its planned hotels, 60 percent are now outside the U.S. Its initial public offering last December raised $2.35 billion, surpassing Twitter's IPO the month prior. It was the second largest IPO of the year and the biggest ever for a hotel.
Nassetta, 51, is as likely to greet you with a high five as a handshake. He gets animated about the gifts he's received from world leaders who welcomed Hilton into their country, like a zebra skin rug, swords and watches.
"I know I've got a dagger here," Nassetta says, rummaging through an office cabinet.
And he loves to chat. An interview lasts three hours, long enough to require a bathroom break — but not a pause in the conversation. Nassetta talks all the way through the washing of his hands.
"I am very long-winded," he acknowledges. "Everybody tells me that."
Hilton was once an innovator. The pina colada cocktail is said to have been invented in 1954 at the Caribe Hilton in Puerto Rico. Hilton pioneered the idea of an airport hotel in 1959 in San Francisco. And highlighting its cultural importance, in 1975 the Muppet characters Statler and Waldorf were introduced, named after two Hilton properties in New York.
But by 2007, many of Hilton's rooms were tired looking. Private equity firm Blackstone Group purchased the company; Nassetta was brought in to turn it around.
Nassetta moved the headquarters from Beverly Hills, California to the Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C. There was a massive bloodletting: of the 600 headquarters employees, only 130 moved east.
"If you want to change a culture, you change 80 percent of the people," he says. "We had lost touch with the front line."
So Nassetta and his senior executives started spending one week each year working at hotels — in housekeeping, engineering and the front desk.
"Their job is harder than your job," Nassetta says. "You get in there, and you pay them the respect."
Nassetta is the fourth of six kids. His grandfather arrived in America from Italy before the Great Depression with a few dollars in his pocket and just as many words of English in his vocabulary. He was a woodworker and started his own shop in Connecticut making church pews and cabinets.