That philosophy is the crux of Bill Marriott’s approach to business, the foundation on which he built the company his parents started as a District root beer stand in 1927 into a 3,600-hotel powerhouse. It stands to reason that the 79-year-old would pass the torch to someone with shared values. But don’t expect Sorenson, 53, to be a clone of his mentor.
The president and chief operating officer has in 15 years proven to be a quick study of the corporate culture, but also a driving force behind its evolution. Sorenson spearheaded environmentally friendly policies at Marriott’s hotels, breathed new life into its brands and raised its flags in dozens of cities around the world.
“During Arne’s tenure, Marriott has really caught up with the trends that some of the more fashion-forward companies have been focused on,” said hotel analyst David Loeb of Robert W. Baird. “Arne’s personality and his style just brings more of a focus on the younger generation.”
Sorenson is more the Prius-and-salad type, whereas Marriott is known for his love of Ferraris and cheeseburgers. Both, however, are disarmingly charming, plain-spoken and driven.
“They share the same core values, so there will be a lot of similarity in leadership,” said Mark Brugger, chief executive of Diamondrock Hospitality and former vice president of project finance at Marriott. “Inevitably, Arne will make his own mark on the organization and make it a more global enterprise.”
It hasn’t been an easy road for Sorenson. He had to navigate the company through the post-Sept. 11 era, when travel came to a standstill. And then came the downturn, which led to cuts in staff and a fall in revenues. The Edition brand, introduced under his watch, has also struggled to gain its footing.
Analysts, however, generally praise Sorenson’s leadership, especially in light of the recent spin-off of Marriott’s flagging timeshare business, and anticipate more to come.
It’s no small feat that Sorenson will become the third chief executive in Marriott International’s history. Unlike many of his peers in the C-suite, Sorenson didn’t start out in the hotel business. He ran a successful practice as a corporate litigator at Latham & Watkins throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.
Sorenson first met Marriott when he defended the company in a lawsuit brought by bondholders angered by the spinoff of what is today known as Host Hotels & Resorts. Marriott was so impressed, he asked Sorenson to join the company a few years after the case wrapped up.
“I told him, ‘I don’t want to work for you as a lawyer, because I have a great practice and I’d like to do something different,’ ” Sorenson said in an interview at Marriott’s headquarters Thursday, the day after the announcement. “He said okay. I said okay. And that was it.”