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A Conversation With Bill Marriott
The chairman of the local hotel chain talks changing titles, the struggling economy, and the appeal of the Mighty Mo. By Carol Ross Joynt
Comments () | Published December 20, 2011
Photograph courtesy of Marriott International.

Marriott is through and through a Washington family business. Since they first started selling root beer in 1927 on 14th Street at Park Road, the Marriott family has run the Marriott business, whether it was the first Hot Shoppes or the billion-dollar Marriott International it is today. The first president and CEO was the company founder, J. Willard Marriott, who was succeeded in 1972 by his son, J.W. “Bill” Marriott Jr. Now, for the first time, a non-family member is taking over those roles. Bill Marriott announced he’s stepping aside to let Arne Sorenson become president and CEO of the company, which owns or manages more than 3,000 hotels and similar properties in US and throughout the world. The company will soon have 100 hotels in China alone.

The brand is everywhere in the Washington area, as the Marriott, the Ritz-Carlton, Renaissance Hotels, Courtyard by Marriott, the Residence Inn, the Fairfield Inn, and on and on. The corporate headquarters are in Bethesda. In June 2014, Marriott plans to open a mammoth 1,175-room Marriott Marquis adjacent to the Convention Center. And it all started with a root beer stand.

And while Bill Marriott may be changing titles, he makes it very clear he is not retiring anytime soon.

Have you ever thought of reopening Hot Shoppes?
We’re going to have a Hot Shoppes at the new Marriott Marquis Hotel at the Convention Center. I will be overseeing the menu. It will be the first time we reopened a Hot Shoppes since the chain closed.

Will it be faithful to the old menu?
Chicken croquettes might not adapt to today, but you can’t mess around with the Mighty Mo.

I loved the steak-and-cheese and the orange freeze.
The orange freeze is easy: orange sherbet and vanilla syrup.

Last week you announced a change in your status with the company. What is that change?
I’ll be executive chairman of the board. I am chairman now, and I’m just adding the word “executive,” meaning I will not be a passive chairman. I will continue to be involved in the company. Arne Sorenson will become president and CEO, and I will have monthly meetings with Arne and the executive team.

Will you still go to the office every day?
Yes, I’ll still go to the office. Maybe I’ll get another week in New Hampshire at our summer home and another week down South in the winter, but I intend to keep working.

It is a big step to make a non-family member president of the company. Was the decision long in the making?
My dad spent 45 years as CEO, and I spent 40 years as CEO. We’ll be 85 years in business [in 2012]. There aren’t any companies in America that have had only two CEOs and both in the family. But Arne and I have been working together for 15 years. I met him when he was defending a lawsuit for us, and got to know him and was very impressed with him. He said he wanted to get out of the legal practice, and I brought him in to do mergers and acquisitions. He did the Renaissance acquisition and then moved on up. He’s had a broad range of experience. Wicked smart—that’s a New England expression. He’s very, very bright, good people skills, great family. The right guy for the job. If not for him, I might not be doing this. I feel so good about him assuming this new role.

Did you consult with your family as you made the decision?
I met with each one of my children and, of course, my wife before I announced it. They all gave very high marks to Arne and were very supportive. They said it was time for me to back off a little.

Some of your children are in the business, however.
Debbie [Marriott Harrison] is the oldest and is senior vice president of government affairs. David is executive vice president for the eastern region for Marriott Hotels.

Is David in the pipeline to one day succeed Arne?
Arne is only 52!

You’ve often said your roots are in the kitchen, that you started out in the restaurant business. What principles of the restaurant world did you carry over to the hotel business?
Most chains form by acquiring existing chains. We have developed, built, and managed every hotel we had, for the most part. We managed it like a restaurant chain, with a lot of standards: There are 66 procedures that have to be followed to set up a room, which is just like the restaurant card in the kitchen. All those things we used in the restaurant business, we did in the hotel business.

When you walk into one of your hotels, what is the first thing you notice?
People. Are they smiling? Are they energized? It’s a people business. Our associates see customers every day. Almost all of our associates are interacting with customers. I look at that, and then I look at how clean the hotel is, how fresh, how the upkeep is—but the primary focus is on people.

Do you have a sentimental favorite Marriott hotel in the Washington area?
Key Bridge. It was our second hotel, and I was part of the opening team. That was 34 years ago.

Your roots are in the West, where your parents came from, but they started the business here and you grew up here. Do you ever feel a calling to go back to the West?
No. I am an Easterner. I went to the University of Utah and loved the feel of it and the mountains, but I’m an Easterner. I grew up here, went to high school here, the business is here, and my children live here. We’re an Eastern family.

The success you have is global, but you are still a Washington-based company and a Washington business executive. What’s your measure of the business climate here as we enter what is probably the third year of a recession?
Our Washington hotels have been struggling a little bit because Congress cut back from a four-week-a-month session to a three-week-a-month session, and that cut back on people coming to see their congressman or senator, which hurt us. The hotel business in Washington is not as robust as in the past.

Your father was very involved in politics. Are you?
Yes.

You are also very involved with your church, the Mormon church. Republican candidate Mitt Romney is a Mormon. Do you think the scrutiny he’ll receive will be good or bad for the church?
I think he’s a very strong member of our church, and he’s sustained his belief in the church. He’s also making a strong effort to say, “I will govern this country to the best of my ability. The church is a personal thing with me, and the church is not going to be telling me what to do.”

Is he your candidate?
Yes. In fact, he’s named after my father, Willard. Willard Mitt Romney. And I’m named after him, too. He’s Mitt, and I’m Bill.

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  • Joanne Jordan

    This is Joanne Jordan, born in Washington, DC 1945. I lived in Montgomery County, where I received a quality education. My first job out of school was at NIH, National Heart Institute for a few years. Then worked at Commerce Dept, Weather Bureau when it was called ESSA, now NOAA., International Affairs office. Then joined IBM so left MD at age 32 with a job transfer with IBM (I"ve been moved)LOL to Austin, TX. Six years later we relocated to Charlotte, NC. During my time in Charlotte I finished my college at age 48 with degrees in psychology and sociology, but finally got that degree.

    I am a graduate of the Wheaton High School class of 63 and we are having our 50th reunion October 5 and our main base being at the Holiday Day Inn in Gaithersburg, It will be a 3 day event (plans still not finalized) and Saturday night dinner at the Manor Country Club. There was a rumor that we were going to have a Hot Shoppes night, but lo and behold, not true. I ran across your conversation with Bill Marriott article and got so excited until I got to the part that the hotel will not open until 2015. We all grew up at the drive-in Hot Shoppes and all our memories are based around it such as after the Friday night football game, everyone would go to the Wheaton Hot Shoppes drive in.

    In essence we grew up on a Hot Shoppes diet and would do anything to taste those goodies again. I also read an article posted by Mike DeBonis, 12/10/2011 entitled: Hot Shoppes is coming to D.C. I think there were over 160 comments and one including a person who was so desperate he said he would drive up from North Carolina to get a hot fudge ice cream cake. Post after post were desperate pleas to be able to taste anything on the Hot Shoppes menu. And these were posts from all the high schools in Montgomery County.

    A short story about me visiting my brother who lives in Germantown. He also works for NOAA and asked him to look for a Hot Shoppes as that was at the top of my list on this visit. The only one was at Tyson's Corner Shopping Center so we got in the car and off we go. We got there about 4:00 pm, got a seat and the waitress asked what we wanted and said Hot Fudge Ice Cream Cakes. She said oh I'm so sorry they only serve them in the Short Line. I asked her what that was and it was the lunch meal. I very nicely asked if I could see the manager. A Big cheery fellow comes to our table and asks how can he help us. I told him I born in Washington, DC and currently now live in Charlotte, NC and asked waitress about ordering Hot Fudge Ice Cream Cakes, only available in Short Line.

    Being at the right place at the right time with the best person he said: I have the ingredients in the freezer, and think I can work it out and make you some Hot Fudge Ice Cream Cakes. He was our Hero. We were in shock, someone going above and beyond their duty to make a customer from NC happy. Would you pass this story on to Mr. Marriott. The idea crossed my brain if he could help us find out where to get those items to make the cake, especially the hot fudge sauce and I could have a surprise after the dinner. Wouldn't this make a good local story if I could surprise the class after dinner by going down memory lane to a taste of Hot Shoppes?. My email is jojor4@windsteam.net or can call me at 704 628-0271. Maybe you could make arrangements for me to write a personal letter to Mr. Marriott and explain my idea and see if this would be possible. I'll do whatever - does he still live in the MD area? Do you have any suggestions? Thanks for listening to me, Sincerely, Joanne Jordan

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