Marriott’s next boss may sound like its namesake, but Arne Sorenson is no clone


Arne Sorenson, the new chief executive of Marriott International, at the company's headquarters in Bethesda, Md. (Courtesy of Marriott International)
December 18, 2011

Listening to Arne Sorenson, it’s hard not to hear a little of J.W. “Bill” Marriott Jr.

“Success is never final, and that is in our DNA,” said Sorenson, who is in line to take over as chief executive of Marriott International in March, after Bill Marriott announced last week he is relinquishing the post to serve as executive chairman. “No matter how well we’re doing, what can we do better?”

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.”

Within a year of signing on as senior vice president of business development, Sorenson in 1997 helped orchestrate Marriott’s $1 billion deal to acquire the Renaissance hotel chain, a move that gave the company a foothold in Asia. His success was soon rewarded with a promotion to chief financial officer.

“Arne came in and clearly was one of the brighter guys in the company,” said Steve Joyce, the chief executive of Silver Spring-based Choice Hotels International, who worked at Marriott for 25 years. “He was such a quick study and mastered a number of things that people take decades to do in a few short years.”

Marriott tapped Sorenson to head European lodging operations in 2003, giving the rising star a chance to learn every facet of the hotel business.

“Arne spent a considerable amount of his time overseas helping drive the acceleration of Marriott’s global growth,” said Hilton Worldwide chief executive Christopher Nassetta, the former head of Marriott spinoff Host Hotels.

In the five years of Sorenson overseeing operations abroad, Marriott expanded its portfolio of properties in Europe from 151 to 172 hotels. Driving that growth made him a prime candidate to head operations for the entire firm, a role he took on in early 2009.

Sorenson became the chief architect in reorganizing Marriott into four units divided along geographic lines—the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and Asia— each with its own president. The move speaks to Sorenson’s objective of decentralizing the corporate structure to ensure the continued success of the company.

“I went in to talk to Mr. Marriott right before we announced it, and said ‘I just want to make sure you’re okay with this because what we’re talking about is distributing more power and authority outside of this building,’” Sorenson recalled. “He laughed and said ‘Of course. Long ago, I realized I couldn’t make all of the decisions. We need to set people up to take ownership of their work.’”

Though Marriott has more than 47,000 rooms under development abroad, compared to 14,000 10 years ago, Sorenson is equally focused on U.S. operations.

“The growth potential in the United States is very strong. We have about 9 percent of the rooms in the industry [in the U.S.], that’s a leading market share, but we can gain more,” Sorenson said.

Sorenson will be the first CEO from outside the founding family, but Marriott has no reservations.

“Arne’s wicked smart,” Marriott said in a playful New England accent. “He has the total confidence of the board of directors and our family. He is willing to make decisions and take risks, and not unduly so.”

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel covers the banking industry for The Washington Post.
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