News & Politics

Growing Up Marriott

Inside the family behind one of America’s great businesses: How J. Willard Marriott and his son Bill turned a DC root-beer stand into a worldwide empire. But will any of Bill’s four kids take over the company?

In the lobby of Marriott headquarters in Bethesda, Bill Marriott is on a stage wearing blue jeans and a 1950s-style varsity-letter jacket, telling stories about the old days. Before him stand nearly a thousand employees gathered to celebrate the golden anniversary of the company’s first hotel, near the Pentagon in Arlington.

“We had an outside check-in booth,” Bill tells the crowd. When business was good in the summer, he would look into cars pulling in and give rooms to the biggest families: “We got almost $14 for a room with five people.”

It’s been 50 years since Bill helped his father, J. Willard Marriott Sr., and mother, Alice, diversify their legendary Hot Shoppes restaurant chain and open that first hotel. Today Bill, at 75, is one of the richest men in America, and Marriott is one of the world’s largest hospitality companies, managing hotels under brands that include the Ritz-Carlton.

“Who would have thought on that cold January day in 1957, just before Eisenhower’s inaugural, that we would have almost 3,000 hotels?” he says. “Here’s to 50 more great years.”

For some time, many in the industry assumed that Bill’s son and namesake, John Willard Marriott III, 45, would take over for his dad. But when John resigned from his top post in the company in 2005, the business world buzzed with speculation that an outsider would take the reins for the first time.

That’s hard to imagine. Marriott is a $12-billion empire built on values passed from one generation to the next. Bill’s three other children are widely liked executives at Marriott. The eldest, Debbie, 49, has an office next to her dad’s. Stephen, 47, though blind and deaf, travels the country to train sales staff. David, the youngest at 33, has on his office wall a white chef’s coat inscribed ceo trainee, a gift from former coworkers.

Like Paris Hilton, Bill’s kids grew up as hotel heirs, their family name plastered on buildings. But they are the anti-Hiltons. Raised as Mormons, they were taught to be humble and work hard. As teenagers, they worked scrub jobs at the company as training in the Marriott way.

“I don’t look at it like I’m working for a company,” says 36-year employee Ed Rudzinski, general manager of DC’s Marriott Wardman Park Hotel. “I’m really working for a family.”

The long line of Marriotts as entrepreneurs starts with J. Willard Marriott Sr., who grew up tending sheep and cattle on his family farm in Marriott, Utah, a small town founded by his grandfather. At 13, he launched a business raising lettuce. The farm work kept him from finishing high school, though he later went to junior college and the University of Utah.

Raised by devout Mormons, J. Willard helped out at Sunday school as a young boy. His grandfather, John Marriott, who followed Brigham Young west to Utah in the 1850s, had four wives and at least 30 children, according to Marriott: The J. Willard Marriott Story by Robert O’Brien.

At 19, J. Willard did a two-year mission in New England and passed through Washington on his return home. Years later, he took a date to a root-beer stand and found long lines. Remembering DC’s muggy weather, he went to California, tracked down A&W founder Roy Allen, and asked for a license to sell root beer in Washington.

J. Willard and his business partner, Hugh Colton, opened a nine-stool, nickel-a-mug A&W stand on DC’s 14th Street on May 20, 1927, the same day Charles Lindbergh started his flight across the Atlantic. The weather was hot. Business boomed.

A few weeks later, J. Willard went back to Utah to marry Alice Sheets, his date from that first visit to a root-beer stand. She and J. Willard spent their honeymoon driving back to Washington in his Ford Model T.

When winter cut into the demand for their cold root beer, they walked a few blocks to the Mexican Embassy and came back with recipes for tamales and chili, which Alice practiced cooking. The hotter the food, the more people would drink.

One day in September they closed the root-beer stand. The next day it opened as the Hot Shoppes.

J. Willard and the Perfect Burger

As a child, Bill shined his father’s shoes every Saturday so they’d look nice for church on Sunday. If the shoes weren’t perfect, his father told him to do it again.

Bill was born in 1932 and named John Willard Jr. His brother, Richard, came along seven years later. They mowed the lawn, washed the cars, and swept the driveway. Their father checked to make sure their rooms were clean.

“He was very concerned that he had some money and his children would not learn how to work,” says Bill, who went to St. Albans, the DC boys school next to Washington National Cathedral. His classmates called him “Hot Shoppes.”

J. Willard and Alice had become sole owners of Hot Shoppes early on when Colton,who’d graduated from law school, decided the business wouldn’t be able to support two families and sold them his half. They’d also joined a more prominent social circle. In 1930 Alice’s widowed mother, Alice Taylor Sheets, married Reed Smoot, a Republican senator from Utah. J. Willard started playing golf, and he and Alice dined at the White House. A few years later, after Smoot returned to Utah, they moved into the senator’s house on Garfield Street in DC’s Wesley Heights, where Bill and Richard were raised.

With jobs at a premium during the Depression, J. Willard hired workers for little more than tips and meals. “He started making big-time money back in 1931,” Bill says. “Everybody was living in apartments. Nobody had air conditioning, so in the summer people didn’t want to cook because it was too hot in their kitchens. They wanted to come to Hot Shoppes and eat in their cars.”

The company was the first to open drive-in restaurants; “running boys” brought food to the car. People liked eating outside, Bill says: “The thing that really got the business going was the fact that he was in the right place at the right time with the right product.”

Bill tagged along with his parents when they visited Hot Shoppes. His father shook hands with the kitchen workers and called many of them by name—“How are you? How’s your family?” J. Willard visited employees when they were sick and paid their medical bills. “Take care of your employees,” he told Bill, “and they’ll take care of the customers.”

Bill saw how his father insisted on order. Cooks had to follow a recipe card for every dish. Hash browns would be turned on the grill only once. Waitresses had to pick up glasses by the sides. Servers couldn’t have mustaches below the corners of the mouth.

He listened as his father argued with a manager about how to season a hamburger. “They must have thrown ten hamburgers away,” Bill says. “My father wanted more salt. Eventually he got his point across.”

When Bill was 14, his dad put him to work stapling invoices. Soon he was washing dishes and cooking burgers.

In his senior year at the University of Utah, where he studied banking and finance, Bill took a class from speech professor Royal Garff, who talked about his daughter, Donna, a freshman. Bill asked a friend to point her out, then engineered a date.

Members of the Sigma Chi fraternity were nominating girls for the title of sweetheart of Sigma Chi for an upcoming dance. “I just nominated you for sweetheart,” Bill told Donna. “You have to go with me if you want to be considered.”

After the dance, Bill courted Donna for about four months before they began dating exclusively. “It was hard work to get her interested,” he says. “Real hard work.”

Upon graduating in 1954, Bill, a member of ROTC, headed to a Navy training school in Georgia. He and Donna spent the next few months writing letters. He knew there was nobody else for him. She was smart and beautiful. She had her feet on the ground.

A few months before he began active duty—Bill worked on a Navy ship as a supply officer—he called Donna from Georgia and asked her to marry him. She was shocked it happened so fast. She barely knew anything about his family.

“I just need a little bit of time,” she said. “I’d like to run this by my folks.”

In June 1955, Bill and Donna were married in Salt Lake City’s Mormon Temple in front of family and friends who belonged to the church. More than 800 guests joined the couple to celebrate that evening. Because Donna’s father didn’t make much money, family friends pitched in with shrimp and a cake with white sugar flowers. Bill’s fraternity brothers serenaded his bride with the “Sweetheart Song,” a Sigma Chi tradition.

Battle of Father and Son

By the time Bill came back to Washington in 1956, after two years in the Navy, his parents had opened Hot Shoppes from Philadelphia to Richmond. Their catering division was serving airlines. Company stock, first offered in 1953 at $10.25 per share, had sold out in two hours.

The company recently had broken ground on its first hotel, the Twin Bridges motor hotel in Arlington near the 14th Street Bridge. The location was a few minutes from National Airport, the Pentagon, and downtown DC.

“When they built the first hotel, nobody really knew anything about the hotel business,” Donna says. “Bill went to his dad and said, ‘Why don’t you let me run the hotel, and I’ll learn.’ ”

Bill and his parents hung pictures at the hotel until late at night in January 1957, so they could open for President Eisenhower’s second inauguration. Someone called the hotel to see if the family wanted to buy a new Disneyland hotel in California. Bill asked his father.

“Heavens, no,” J. Willard said. “We probably won’t be able to make this one work.”

Bill led the hotel division and sometimes butted heads with his dad. J. Willard had once told his son, “Nothing good ever happens in a hotel.” He hated the idea of taking on debt—a fear that came from watching his father lose everything in the Depression when he couldn’t repay a loan he’d taken to buy sheep.

“I was probably not as sensitive to what he had been through in the Depression,” Bill says.

Despite J. Willard’s reluctance, Bill kept pushing. “My dad drove the hotel business,” John says. “We would be a restaurant and food-service company if we were what my grandfather created.”

J. Willard demanded perfection from his son. When he visited Bill’s house, he ran his finger along the furniture checking for dust. “Mom went ballistic,” says Bill’s son Stephen.

Bill says his mother, Alice, often refereed his battles with J. Willard. Both men trusted her. Tender and loving, she listened to Bill. They traveled to Beverly Hills together to pick out carpets and wall coverings. She helped J. Willard with hiring. She’d later pick the name for Fairfield Inns.

“She’d go to his dad when it got really bad and say, “You can’t treat him like this. What are you going to do if he decides he doesn’t want to stay with the company?’ ” Donna says.

About once a year, J. Willard praised Bill. “I don’t ever tell you you’re doing a good job because my father never told me I did a good job,” he’d say. “But you are. I’m happy.”

In 1964, J. Willard named his son executive vice president, a promotion that meant Bill soon would become president even though he was only turning 32. J. Willard struggled with the decision, according to O’Brien’s biography. The night before the announcement, unable to sleep, he wrote Bill a letter: “A leader should have character, be an example in all things. This is his greatest influence. In this you are admirable. You have not taken advantage of your position as my son. . . .”

He attached a list of guiding principles. Among them: “Pray about every difficult problem. Manage your time: Make every minute on the job count. People are number 1—their development, loyalty, interest, team spirit. Develop managers in every area. This is your prime responsibility.”

As president, Bill replaced uncles his father had hired with more experienced staff. “His dad wouldn’t do it—he told Bill if he didn’t want them around, he’d have to get rid of them himself,” Donna says.

J. Willard, still skeptical of the company’s hotel growth, hounded Bill with questions and second-guessed him. J.Willard agonized over issues; Bill made his decisions quickly.

Bill learned some lessons the hard way. Soon after building its first hotel in Atlanta in 1965, Marriott declined to buy a second property nearby—partly because it included an open-air, multistory lobby that a Marriott team saw as wasted space. Bill also didn’t think the company needed two hotels in a city.

“Out of our ‘wisdom’ was born the Hyatt Regency of today,” he writes in his autobiography, The Spirit to Serve: Marriott’s Way, coauthored by Kathi Ann Brown. “A steady stream of people passed through the hotel simply to stand in the ‘awesome’ spot in the lobby.”

Employees quickly learned that Bill—most called him “Mr. Marriott”—inherited his father’s perfectionism and penny-pinching ways. “There was nothing worse than sitting on an airplane for three hours and having Bill or his dad sitting next to you,” says Jim Durbin, a family friend and former company president. “They’d have your financial statements: ‘How come you had ten peas on the plate with the cordon bleu?’ ”

Even today, Bill walks into a hotel and checks for clean carpets and hot soup bowls. If a hotel reports high occupancy rates, he wants higher.

He asks managers to learn the business from the bottom up, as he did. When veteran television-news anchor Kathleen Matthews joined the company last fall as a public-affairs executive, she changed bedclothes, cleaned windows, and wiped down a bathroom with a housekeeper.

“You’re supposed to clean a room in 20 minutes. Bill says there are 60 steps,” Matthews says. “Within five minutes I was perspiring.”

Over the years, Bill developed a reputation for spotting and developing talent. Fred Malek joined the company in 1975. He was leaving the Nixon administration and planning to leave Washington, but Bill persuaded him to stay.

Malek spent 14 years with Marriott, including eight as president of the hotel line. Bill impressed him with the way he invited dissent. “He had a good way of not imposing himself in a meeting—of getting everybody to express themselves and getting a dialogue going,” says Malek, who went on to become president of Northwest Airlines and later founded two private-equity firms. “He was easy to argue with because he wasn’t bothered by it. He wanted you to argue with him.”

Bill also mentored Al Checchi, who became cochair of Northwest Airlines, and Steve Bollenbach, who now runs Hilton hotels.

“It’s significant how many great business leaders Bill Marriott trained,” says former general counsel Sterling Colton, whose father, Hugh, was J. Willard’s business partner in the root-beer stand. “He had a wonderful way of maximizing the abilities of the people he hired.”

Bill’s work habits have changed little. Though he recently started a blog, he won’t use a computer and dictates his entries. He hates voice mail; his assistant, Phyllis Hester, types his messages on a typewriter. He carries three-by-five schedule cards in his pocket and bigger cards for taking notes about hotels that he tours.

Hester says he’s always checking his watch. When she puts papers in his in-box, he whips through them in an hour. If she doesn’t clear his out-box fast enough, he’ll sometimes put it on her desk.

“My mother tried to teach me patience,” Bill once told her.

Hester said, “She failed miserably.”

Family Time in Kenwood

By the time Bill became CEO in 1972, he and Donna had three children. Debbie, their first, was born in 1957 with a congenital heart defect. She cried all the time, but heart-lung machines were relatively new, and doctors wanted to wait to operate.

When she was five, Debbie couldn’t walk far without getting out of breath. Bill and Donna brought her to the Mayo Clinic, where they spent the night on their knees praying as she underwent surgery.

“The next night, her heart went into fibrillation,” says Donna, who later joined the board of the American Heart Association. Doctors and nurses stayed with Debbie all night and pulled her through.

Growing up, Debbie told her dad everything. “Ever since I was a little girl we had this connection,” she says. “He worried about me.” In third grade, she argued with her best friend and wrote the girl a letter calling her bossy.

“What do you think of this?” she asked her father.

“If I were you, I’d wait a few days, see how it goes, and read it again,” Bill said. Years later he told his daughter he has a drawer of letters he’s written but never sent.

Debbie’s brothers Stephen and John arrived soon after she did, a few years apart. The youngest, David, was born in 1973, when Debbie was 16.

The family lived in a brick ranch house in Bethesda’s Kenwood neighborhood. Bill made it a point to keep his kids out of the newspapers. When he wasn’t traveling, he was home by 6:30 for dinner. Donna cooked; Debbie made the salads. In the evening, Bill worked in his study but made time to check the kids’ homework.

“He’d stop everything and put his pen down and read our papers and edit them for us,” says Debbie, who went to the National Cathedral School for girls. The boys went to St. Albans, Bill’s alma mater.

Weekends were sacred to Bill. He took the kids to Annapolis to see boats and to movies, museums, and Civil War battlefields. He and Donna cheered Stephen on during Little League. David remembers Redskins games, NASCAR races with his dad, and especially rides in the Lamborghini that his dad kept in Arizona, where the family vacationed: “I thought it was the coolest thing, like stepping into a spaceship.”

Bill was busier when David was young. The company was expanding to Europe, getting into the cruise-ship business, and launching the chain of Great America theme parks (ventures that Marriott later sold).

When David’s first-grade teacher asked him to draw a picture of his dad at work and his dad at play, he chose nearly the same image: Bill sitting behind a desk wearing a suit and tie in one picture, a sweater in the other.

J. Willard and Alice doted on their grandchildren. Before weekends at the family’s 4,200-acre ranch in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge, they took the kids shopping for cowboy outfits.

J. Willard taught Debbie to shoot guns. He let the kids drive his Jeep and took them horseback riding. Debbie and Stephen didn’t like horses, but their grandpa wanted them to ride any­way.

“He wanted to make you tough,” John says. “He believed you needed to be beaten up a little to be successful.”

The Marriotts spent summers at the family compound on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, as they do today. Each family had its own house. Bill and his brother, Richard, who was running the restaurant division, flew back and forth for business.

J. Willard gave the kids chores. When John was eight, his grandpa paid him to pick up pinecones in the woods. “I talked him into paying me a quarter per grocery bag, so I got $1 an hour,” he says.

In the mornings, Alice cooked breakfast for the kids, and J. Willard took them on walks in the woods. He told stories about herding sheep as a boy, chasing bears away with his rifle. John laughed at his grandpa’s coyote howl.

Bill’s kids didn’t think it was a big deal that their last name was on buildings. They grew up around the business, ate at Hot Shoppes on weekends, and walked through hotels with their dad.

“I never said, ‘Wow, look—it’s my name up in lights,’ ” says Debbie, who as a two-year-old cut the ribbon on the family’s second hotel near Key Bridge.

Bill and Donna raised the kids to work for what they wanted. “My parents had the philosophy that we only spend money on education and travel,” Debbie says. “We didn’t grow up with fancy cars in a big house.”

Donna drove carpool in a station wagon. The kids had allowances. Debbie earned a few dollars a week cleaning her bathroom, washing dishes, and caring for the family’s miniature poodle. John had to pay half the cost of his new bike.

“They all got cars when they were 16, and they weren’t Cadillacs,” Bill says. “That was about the only thing we really indulged in—so we didn’t have to drive them around.”

When they worked summer jobs with the company, the kids were treated like everyone else. David washed dishes at the Pooks Hill Marriott. Debbie worked at a hotel front desk. Stephen cooked fries at Roy Rogers, which Marriott owned. Bill didn’t pressure his kids to work in the business, Stephen says, but “I know he hoped we’d go into it.” Even as late as college, Debbie wanted to be a doctor; David had childhood dreams of becoming a Redskin.

On John’s first day working at one of the Marriott restaurants, he raised a spatula to smash a hamburger, as he’d seen McDonald’s cooks do.

“What the hell are you doing?” Bill asked. “The bottom of the spatula never hits the top of the meat.”

When Donna accompanied Bill on business trips, she asked J. Willard’s driver to pick up the kids from school. If he arrived in a limousine, Debbie and her brothers wouldn’t get in.

“I tried really hard to distance myself from this perception people had that you’re a Marriott so you must be rich,” says Debbie, who wore worn-out jeans when she wasn’t in her school uniform. “I was almost embarrassed by it.”

Stephen sometimes put stephen garff—his middle name—on his name tag when he was a hotel manager. Some of John’s friends assumed he’d pay for dinner when they went out. Others wanted free hotel rooms.

“When you think somebody’s a really good friend,” John says, “and it turns out they’re not—that’s what’s really hard.”

All the kids attended college in Utah, where the family name was well known. The basketball arena at Brigham Young University, which Stephen and Debbie attended, is called the Marriott Center. Classmates asked if they were related to “that building.”

“There were a lot of people that used us all our lives, but it taught me to be discerning,” Debbie says. “It was easy to tell. They didn’t want to talk about me. They wanted to talk about my family.”

In 1978, when she married Ron Harrison, now Marriott’s president of lodging for Canada, Debbie was anxious to take his last name. She knew the anonymity would help protect her children.

Last year Debbie was at a fancy Washington dinner where someone introduced her as “Mr. Marriott’s daughter.”

“There was a guy at the end of the table who actually said to me, ‘Now that I know who you are, you’re going to be really interesting to talk to,’ ” she says.

“How Do You Work for that Mormon Guy?”

Inside a small room in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Potomac, Bill sits on a folding chair, his wife next to him, and takes his scripture book out of its worn brown-leather case. The writing on the chalkboard reads lesson 3—grace for grace (for unto you . . . a savior is born).

About 25 people are gathered here on a January morning for Sunday school. Bill’s son Stephen sits in front, closest to the teacher, because of his hearing problem. The ward members—a ward is similar to a parish—watch a video about the birth of Jesus. Down the hall, Ron is teaching a group of church teens; later Debbie will work with the young women’s group.

Church is a pillar of Bill’s life. His parents took him to services in the Commerce Department auditorium when he was three months old. As he raised his children, he wanted them to hear the messages he’d heard growing up: Be modest. Be humble. Work hard.

In the mid-1970s, soon after David was born, the church called on Bill to serve as bishop for two years. Clergy in the Mormon church are volunteers. Bill put in 70 hours a week at work and 25 more as bishop. He counseled married couples and helped people find work, sometimes in his hotels. He talked with teenagers about church proscriptions on drinking, smoking, and premarital sex. He visited church members who were sick and planned funerals.

One day, as he watched worshipers file into the room, he told Donna that he knew the burdens each of them carried. “I think it made me a lot more compassionate,” Bill says.

Years ago Bill and his dad decided to put a Book of Mormon in hotel rooms along with the Bible. “I’ve had a lot of people tell me they read it and have become members of our church,” he says.

The book is one of the few signs that a Mormon runs Marriott. Bill and Donna don’t serve alcohol at their holiday party. At banquets, servers remove the couple’s wine glasses and coffee cups.

“People would say, ‘How do you work for that Mormon guy?’ ” says Bud Ward, a former senior vice president and the industry’s first African-American hotel executive. “Bill’s a Mormon; I’m an Episcopalian. He’s a Republican; I’m a Democrat. And you know what? We never talked religion, and we never talked politics.”

The Mormon church calls men at 19 to devote two years to mission work. Stephen went to Canada, John to Japan. But David wasn’t sure he wanted to go. Most of his friends weren’t Mormon, and his high-school life wasn’t centered on the church. He went to parties and listened to the Grateful Dead. He’d taken his parents’ car out before he got his license. Some called him a wild child.

“The fact that I come from a very conservative Mormon family—some people may have perceived that just because I behaved like a normal child, I was some wild child,” David says. “I get a chuckle out of hearing people say that.

“When you’re that age, your friends are your life. Mormons aren’t perfect. We’ve all had our breakdowns.”

Bill at times got angry at David and raised his voice, a rarity, Donna says; “I thought Bill was going to kill him.”

Considering whether to go on a mission, David prayed and sought advice from his brothers. “I decided I better take this opportunity to figure out if this is really what I believe and what I want my values to stem from,” he says.

He spent two years in Manchester and Liverpool, England. He woke up at 6:30 to study scripture. He could listen only to classical or church music. He went door to door to spread the message of the church. Some people accused him of being in a cult. Some thought Mormons stole women for their harems and smuggled them to Salt Lake City through a tunnel.

When people slammed the door in David’s face, he knocked again. “It was the first time in my life I was really looking outward,” David says. “It answered a lot of questions for me.”

Bill says the mission changed his son’s life: “He came back ready to go to work, settle down, and have a family.”

A Tragedy and a Miracle

One afternoon in August 1985, the family had a cookout at its compound in New Hampshire. The sun was sparkling off the water. Bill, Donna, and all the kids except Stephen were there, along with Richard and his wife and four daughters.

J. Willard was in his favorite place with his favorite people. The menu included summer corn, which he loved. At some point in the meal, he went inside, saying, “I’ll be back in a minute.”

When he didn’t come back, Alice went to check on him. Bill followed. Debbie, then 28, looked through the window and saw her grandpa lying in his big reclining chair in the living room. Her aunt Nancy, Richard’s wife, was doing CPR.

Debbie and Ron took turns trying to revive him. He was gagging, which made it seem as if he were breathing. The family waited for the paramedics for 20 minutes before Bill got in his car to look for them.

J. Willard died as Debbie and Ron worked on him. The heart attack was at least his sixth. He was 84.

More than 2,500 people gathered for the funeral next to the Mormon Temple by the Beltway in Kensington. At the service, President Nixon called J. Willard “one of the most successful businessmen of this century.” Roy Rogers, Strom Thurmond, and Billy Graham attended. Close friend George Romney—whose son, 2008 presidential candidate Willard Mitt Romney, is named for J. Willard—dedicated the grave.

Bill read from his father’s favorite poem, “Trees,” which is inscribed on a piece of wood outside his office door:

The tree that never had to fightFor sun and sky and air and light,But stood out in the open plainAnd always had its share of rain,Never became a forest kingBut lived and died a scrubby thing. . . .Good timber does not grow in ease: The stronger the wind, the tougher the trees.

Days after his father’s funeral, Bill and his family returned to New Hampshire and tried to get back to normal, comforted by their belief that Mormons live an eternal life and they’d see J. Willard again.

When friends came to visit, Bill said he’d take them for a boat ride, one of his favorite pastimes. He asked Debbie, Ron, and their boys to go along.

Bill went to the dock a few minutes early to gas up the boat. It was a humid day, and the air wasn’t moving, so gas fumes gathered around him. When he turned the ignition key to check the fuel gauge, a spark from the starter ignited the fumes.

The explosion was so loud that the windows in Debbie’s house shook.

She heard screaming and ran. The flames from the boat leaped 60 feet into the air. She saw her dad walking out of the water; he had jumped into the lake. The skin on his hands was peeling off. He had burns on his face and legs.

That Bill walked away from the accident was a miracle, Debbie says: “The doctor said the blast should have knocked him out. He would have burned to death.”

David was almost 12. That day was the first time he saw fear in his father’s eyes.

Bill spent nearly a month in the hospital. Doctors grafted skin on his hands and legs.

After the accident, he worked fewer hours, ate better, and exercised. “He stopped and smelled the roses,” Donna says.

That didn’t last long. Bill had trouble sitting still. He worried. In 1989, he had three heart attacks, followed by coronary bypass surgery, which sidelined him for about six months. But he was soon back on the job working at full throttle.

Today, though he’s well past retirement age and worth $1.7 billion, Bill still brings home at least one briefcase on weekends. He spends a third of his time traveling. Four hours in Toronto for a groundbreaking, a shareholders meeting in Spain.

“He’d go through a city’s worth of hotels in one day if you let him,” Donna says. At budget time, Donna tiptoes by his study.

“Sometimes you wonder if it’s too much,” Bill says. “But it’s good. It’s good for you.”

Ed Rudzinski, general manager at Marriott Wardman Park, says Bill visits at least ten times a year. One time, he rolled down his car window, stuck his head out, and yelled, “I’mmmmm here.”

The night of the hotel’s Black Tie & Boots presidential inaugural party in 2001, Rudzinski’s phone rang around 11. “Is that party still going on over there?” Bill asked. “I want to come by and see it—and bring my family.”

Rudzinski surveyed the scene. There were 12,000 guests, including President George W. Bush. Hotel staff had set up 75 bars. Beer bottles were everywhere.

We need to get things in order, Rudzinski thought. No, he decided, let Mr. Marriott see what we’re dealing with.

Bill and Donna arrived with John and David and their wives. They stood at the top of the stairs, above one of the ballrooms. He took Rudzinski by the arm: “How many people you got in there?”

“Probably 5,000 in that room,” he said.

Bill looked at Donna proudly: “Five thousand people in there.”

He took his wife and sons from room to room. “Will you look at this?” he said. “This is what we do.”

Outside work, Bill and Donna lead lives that hint at their wealth without flaunting it. In 1991 they moved from Kenwood to the Avenel golf community in Bethesda. Their Georgian-style brick house, which was custom-built, is worth $6 million and has a solarium and a movie theater.

One of Bill’s indulgences is his collection of 30 vintage cars, which he keeps in garages next to the house. The walls are adorned with ribbons Bill has won at auto shows. Hester says the only time she sees her boss nervous is when his cars are being judged—“because that’s something he has no control over.”

Bill has taken the family on exotic trips to Kenya and Turkey. But he doesn’t own a yacht or a private jet.

“The family wants to maintain a major stock share in this company,” says Bill, who shines his own shoes. “I can’t go out and sell my stock. I have all I ever need—so why worry about it?”

On his frequent date nights with Donna, Bill wears his Levis and drives his Mercedes; Donna has a bad back so she can’t get into most of his sports cars. They listen to big-band music. Sometimes they eat in Marriott hotel restaurants, but they also like fast food. Marriott employees spotted the two recently at a McDonald’s on a Saturday night.

“What are you doing here?” one asked.

“This is where we eat,” Bill said.

They like going to movies at Tysons Corner Center. John says his dad was happy when he started getting the senior-citizen discount.

“Bill likes shoot-’em-ups like Clint Eastwood and Denzel Washington,” Donna says. “We go to those for a while, and then I say it’s time for me to see a chick flick.”

The kids are a big part of their lives. John, Debbie, and Stephen live within five minutes of their parents and go to church with them. Bill takes his cars out with John, who has 15 of his own. David, who lives in DC, is building a house nearby.

On Christmas morning, Bill and Donna load up their minivan and bring presents to their kids and grandkids.

When the family gets together, conversation inevitably turns to the company: “Have you seen the redo of the JW Marriott downtown?”

That’s how it’s always been for Bill—family and business blur. Every winter, he and Donna spend three weeks at the Harbor Beach Marriott Resort & Spa in Fort Lauderdale. They sit in the sun and read. Donna does needlepoint. After about a week, Bill gets antsy and starts touring hotels. Once he got up at 4 in the morning to meet a night crew.

“He can never retire,” Donna says. “I’ve told him that. I’ve said, ‘You’d just die. You wouldn’t know what to do with yourself.’ ”

Who’s the Next Bill?

For years, it was assumed that if any of Bill’s children took over when he stepped down, it would be John. In 2003, at age 42, John became president of North American lodging. He was also in charge of global brand management and sales. Business Travel News had called him one of the “most influential executives” in the hotel industry.

During his years as a company executive—early on he was running banquets—he’d learned his dad’s tricks. John would walk into a hotel room and take his shoes off. If his socks got wet, he knew the staff had cleaned the carpet to prep for his visit.

He and Bill didn’t always see eye to eye. When an advertising agency pitched an ad showing a man wearing sandals, Bill said, “Get rid of the sandals—that’s not our customer.”

“Actually, that is one of our customers,” John said. “They’re trying to go after the next generation.”

John, like his brothers, was used to being under a microscope as the boss’s son. “People make it very clear that they expect the worst of you, so you have to prove them wrong,” he says. “They expect you not to work very hard. They expect you to go tell your father everything.”

But in recent years, John had frustrations with his role as son and executive. “If the chairman and CEO is your father and you’re a senior executive—but not reporting to your father—then the people who do report to him tell him what they want to tell him about you,” he says. “If they’re interested in his job, and they see that I’m kind of making my way up the ladder, then they see me as a threat,” he says. “It’s a tough position to be in.”

He also realized he wanted to be more entrepreneurial—something that isn’t always easy inside a big company. He and his team had developed a strategy of using customer profiles to personalize hotel stays. It was his idea to give guests their airline boarding passes at checkout.

“I’m more like my grandfather,” John says. “I’m on the creative side.”

John talked with his father and thought about his next move for a long time. He’d founded the family’s private partnership, JWM Family Enterprises, which owns and develops hotels.

He decided he’d focus on expanding JWM, a job that would leave him time to work on start-ups. He is particularly interested in a small medical company. “There are different business opportunities where you can make money but it doesn’t necessarily help anyone,” says John, who serves as vice chair of Marriott’s board. “A lot’s been given to me. I need to give back.”

Before his public announcement in fall 2005, John told his father he was resigning. “I was disappointed,” Bill says. “He worked in the business almost his entire life.”

Though there had been talk that John wasn’t comfortable enough in the spotlight to be the public face of the company, the move surprised some employees. “For John to step aside was quite a shock,” Ed Rudzinski says.

One morning in December, Stephen is getting ready to speak to a ballroom of Marriott employees during the company’s Sales School at the Westfields in Chantilly. He stands to the side of the stage, waiting for his introduction. Dark sunglasses cover his eyes.

“Two steps,” a colleague tells him, then someone leads him to the podium, which he grips with both hands.

“Welcome, everybody,” says Stephen, executive vice president of company culture. “Isn’t this a great hotel?”

Stephen’s health problems make him an unlikely choice to replace his father as CEO. They started with hearing loss when he was in ninth grade. His parents thought he wasn’t paying attention at dinner.

“Can’t you hear me?” Bill would ask.

Doctors couldn’t determine the cause. He wore hearing aids, which made him feel awkward. “Some people have to wear glasses—do you think they’re geeks?” Bill told him. “It’s the same thing.”

Toward the end of his Mormon mission, Stephen had trouble driving at night. By the time he finished graduate school, he couldn’t see the chalkboard.

It wasn’t until several years later that doctors figured out what was wrong. He’d started to stutter. His hands jerked. A muscle biopsy showed that he has MERRF syndrome, a rare disorder that damages mitochondria—the energy source for cells—and affects the brain and muscles.

There is no cure for MERRF syndrome. “My dad likes to fix things fast,” Stephen says. “I think he got a little frustrated because he wanted to fix my eyes and my ears, and he didn’t know how to do it. None of us know how to do it yet.”

About three years ago, Stephen lost his sight completely. He sometimes can get a sense of what people look like from their handshakes. He can’t read Braille because his hands shake too much. He uses a voice-activated computer program to scan documents and type e-mails. His assistant, Judy Goulden, reads him his mail. He memorizes his speeches.

“Steve can listen to things, and two weeks later he’ll recite it word by word to an audience,” Goulden says. “It’s a gift.”

Using his cane, Stephen can find his way from his sixth-floor office to the lower-level gym for workouts. “If he’s in the hallway facing the wrong way, people will say, ‘Hi, Mr. Marriott—let me help you,’ ” Goulden says.

He was walking through a hotel lobby once holding onto a friend’s arm when the friend stopped to pick up litter. Stephen, recognizing what he calls “the Marriott bend,” later phoned the general manager to say there was trash in the hotel.

Thanks to his hearing aids, he can pick up loud sounds and talk on the phone. During meetings, he sits at the middle of the table and asks colleagues to speak up. He listens to football games on the radio. His son, Blake, a senior at Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School, cooks for Stephen when his wife, Julie, is away. He plays golf: Friends line him up, and he swings.

“What frustrates me is when people put limitations on me,” Stephen says. He once reminded his father that a blind man climbed Mount Everest.

Stephen drops by Bill’s office often. They have lunch every few weeks. Bill hugs him at work, as he does all the kids. Unlike his father, Bill’s generous with his praise and affection. “I’m proud of you, Stephen,” he says, “and I love you.”

Bill calls Stephen his hero. “He’s got more courage than anybody I’ve ever seen,” Bill says. “I’ve never heard him complain. Every now and then he’ll say, ‘I wish I could see what my daughter looks like when she gets married.’ Those things really grab you.”

Debbie only recently stepped into a big role at the company. Last fall Bill offered his daughter the job as Marriott’s vice president of government affairs.

Debbie hadn’t worked in the business since she was 21 and clerking at a hotel front desk. After she married Ron, her days were filled with raising their five children­, volunteering on boards, and running a church youth group. She became a mental-health advocate after her twin boys, now 27, were diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

“Sometimes you see a person and say, ‘They have everything going for them—the perfect life,’ ” Ron says. “Everybody has issues. Everybody gets scratched.”

Her dad’s offer came at the right time. Ron travels four days a week. Four kids are off on their own. The youngest, Kim, is a junior in high school. Soon the couple will have an empty nest.

“I told him years ago, ‘You need to have Debbie work here,’ ” says Bill’s assistant, Phyllis Hester. “I thought Debbie was a lot like his mother—very smart.”

Bill’s mother, Alice, who died in 2000 at 92, had served on Marriott’s board of directors. She was treasurer for three Republican conventions and vice chair of Nixon’s inaugural committee. “My grandma did things before women were doing things,” Debbie says.

Debbie likes that the job combines her interests in politics, Washington, and the company. She also enjoys helping to keep the family values at the core of the company. “A lot of people think it’s about the prestige or the power or the money—but it’s not,” Debbie says. “In our family, it’s more of a stewardship.”

She and Bill have stayed close through the years. When Debbie battled thyroid cancer three years ago, Bill and Donna flew to the Mayo Clinic for her surgery. “He called the doctors and made sure I was getting the best treatment,” Debbie says. “Still being mom and dad.”

Bill stops by her office every day. They’ll chat about her kids but also work. “I feel a little pressure,” Debbie says. “I don’t want to disappoint him.”

If her light is off, Bill will ask his assistant, “Where’s my darling daughter?”

It’s a Tuesday before Christmas, and Bill is touring the Renaissance Washington, part of his annual holiday hotel visits with staff. He’s brought David along.

Employees gather in the lobby to meet their CEO, cheering when he arrives.

Bill walks around saying hello and posing for photographs, his son behind him. “Here comes David,” Bill says.

David shakes hands with dishwashers, cooks, housekeepers, and sales associates—people doing jobs he’d once done.

“Happy holidays,” he says. “It’s nice to see you.” He’s watched his dad greet employees for years.

At 33, David leads a global sales team that handles Marriott’s largest business relationships. He oversees reservation centers and sales offices around the world. He reports to an executive vice president, not his father.

“I don’t go to my father if I have issues or challenges,” he says. “Obviously I have a one-way line to the chairman—I don’t want to take advantage of that.”

Colleagues ask David whether he’s a candidate for CEO. “I’ve never been one to get ahead of myself,” he says. “Things will work out for the best—whether that means a Marriott is taking over the company one day or a Marriott isn’t. The thing we want to ensure is that we get the right person for the job.”

The day after the hotel tour with David, Bill sits on the couch in his office and talks about the future. Should something happen to him, there’s a succession plan. But he says he’s not going anywhere.

“A lot of people retire too early and end up very frustrated,” he says. “You’ve been on a fast cycle all your life, and all the sudden the cycle stops.”

Bill smiles when he hears that colleagues have mentioned Debbie as his possible successor. She’s very good, he says, but she doesn’t have business experience.

What about David?

“There’s a lot he needs to learn through the years—but we’ve got time,” Bill says. “We’ll see how it goes. You just never know.”

Meanwhile, as the company prepares to celebrate its 80th anniversary in May, the family’s next generation is coming of age in true Marriott fashion. Debbie’s daughter spent a summer pumping gas at a boatyard near the family’s New Hampshire compound. John’s daughter Nicole, 18, has worked bagging groceries.

Debbie’s son Chris Harrison graduates from Brigham Young this spring and hopes to get his MBA. He voluntered with a friend last summer at an orphanage in India. He wants a job where he’s working with people. He likes making deals.

Two years ago, Chris’s dad, Ron, approached Ed Rudzinski at Marriott Wardman Park about a summer internship for Chris. He told Rudzinski the family didn’t want anyone finding out Chris was a Marriott.

Rudzinski wasn’t sure what to do with Chris that summer. He was the first of Mr. Marriott’s grandchildren to get involved in the business.

When Bill came by the hotel one day, Rudzinski said, “I understand your grandson’s going to be training here.”

“Where are you going to put him?” Bill asked.

Rudzinski suggested the front desk or events planning.

Bill said, “Put him in the kitchen.”

Staff writer Cindy Rich teamed up with television’s Arch Campbell in the March issue to write about his battle with cancer.