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

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.