J.W. Marriott Jr., who built the company his parents started as a District root beer stand into a global lodging giant, is stepping down as chief executive, ending a storied 39-year run that ushered in a new standard of dependable, middle-class hospitality for travelers around the region, the country and then the world.
The word “Marriott,” in red letters on buildings from Bethesda to China, came to signify home for weary families making their way to Disney World, for traveling salesmen careening around the Midwest and lately for weary road jockeys keeping pace with globalization.
In the process of building the 3,600-hotel empire, Marriott’s family became one of the richest and best-known in the region. The family and the firm donate millions every year to philanthropic efforts, particularly for people with disabilities.
The company employs 15,000 people locally, but its influence stretches beyond its hotels and its Bethesda headquarters. Many in the industry say Marriott was critical to seeding the region’s strength in hospitality. A host of former Marriott executives have run some of the largest hotel companies, including Hilton Worldwide, RLJ Lodging Trust, Choice Hotels and Host Hotels & Resorts — all of which are based in the area.
Throughout the growth of his family’s company and the industry, there was Mr. Marriott, as his devoutly loyal employees call him, espousing his family’s simple maxim that if you take care of your employees, your employees will take care of your customers, and your customers will come back.
That philosophy still permeates the company — which is now worth nearly $10 billion and employs 129,000 people — after countless nights of putting heads in beds. Arne Sorenson, a trusted Marriott lieutenant for more than a decade, will become chief executive in March, the first non-Marriott to run the company. J.W. Marriott, known as Bill, will become executive chairman.
“Bill Marriott is more than the grandfather of our industry,” said Fred Malek, the company’s former hotels president and co-founder of an Annapolis hotel investment company. “He’s been the pacesetter we’ve all wanted to measure up to. Nobody will ever replace Bill Marriott as the maestro of this industry.”
Before Christopher Nassetta took the reins at Hilton as chief executive, he came up through the ranks at Marriott spinoff Host Hotels & Resorts in Bethesda. He served as president and chief executive of Host.
“I gained a great deal of experience as a result of my time at Host and have an amazing amount of respect for the organization and the people, including Bill Marriott and Arne Sorenson,” he said. “In many ways, Bill has helped define the industry as it exists today and has a very important place in the history of the hotel business.”
But it’s a protege inside Marriott who is taking over at the top. Sorenson emerged as the likeliest successor after the chief executive’s second-oldest son, John, left the company in 2005 to run the family’s investments.
“It’s time to do this, and I’m happy to be turning over the company to Arne,” Bill Marriott said in an interview. “The family has great trust and confidence in him.”
Sorenson, 53, becomes just the third chief executive in the Bethesda firm’s history. He joined the company’s legal department in 1996, rising to become chief financial officer and then president.
Polished, well-spoken and unpretentious — often eschewing first-class travel for a seat in coach — Sorenson is the son of a Lutheran minister. He and Marriott, a devout Mormon, bonded over the years despite their age difference, with humble family values linking them.
Bill Marriott is not going anywhere. He intends to be extremely active and vocal, and his family will probably continue to exude power in the company. The Marriotts control about 14 percent of the firm’s outstanding stock, the largest single stake, and several family members work in important jobs in the organization.
“This is a tremendous moment for me personally,” Sorenson said in an interview. “I’m enormously grateful to Bill Marriott of his support. I’m grateful that he is staying involved. He has forgotten more about the hotel industry than I will ever know.”
That Marriott is stepping aside is in many ways not a surprise. He is about to turn 80, and though he still visits hundreds of hotels a year, where employees treat his arrival like that of a rock star, the pace of running a global chain is difficult even for a young man.
Still, his move is likely to surprise and sadden employees at every rung of the organization who always assumed, only half in jest, that he would step down on the day he died, perhaps at his desk.
In the age of corporate titans and swashbuckling chief executives, Marriott is the anti-mogul: folksy and unaffected. He carries a beat-up canvas tote bag. He tells old jokes, listens to old music and likes fast cars. He is happiest around his family, and if junk food is there, too, even better.
This week, as a Washington Post journalist traveled with him to visit Steelcase, a Michigan company helping Marriott redesign its offices, the aging chief executive seemed happiest ordering a cheeseburger (rare) in the cafeteria. On the way to Michigan in his corporate jet, Marriott told the pilot, “Save the doughnuts.”
Marriott has always eschewed business-school babble, preferring to lead from his gut with simple maxims such as “success is never final” or “the logical decision is the right decision.” He believed, like his father J. Willard Marriott, that taking care of employees and customers was his most important role.
Marriott in many ways has lived his life in the shadow of his father, who was tough and unrelenting with his son. They battled endlessly; his father called these fights “stretching exercises.” While the father was interested in building up the food part of the family empire — including the famous Hot Shoppes restaurants — the son saw that the company’s real future was in hotels.
But hotels required going into debt, and the elder Marriott despised owing people money.
“Debt was something that he didn’t understand, and he hated it,” Bill Marriott said several years ago. “He didn’t want anything to do with it. He was haunted by the Depression.”
But the son would not be deterred, and one after another, he opened hotels across the region and then the world. To this day, he deflects praise for the company’s success.
“He doesn’t like to step forward and take a lot of credit for things,” his wife, Donna, once said. “I’m the one who tells him, ‘Well, you really built this company.’ ”
Marriott told a dozen or so senior staff members that he was stepping down at a private meeting with them at Steelcase on Monday. A loud and sustained applause could be heard in the hallways.
Staff writer Danielle Douglas contributed to this report.
Other executives on Marriott:
“In many ways, Bill has helped define the industry as it exists today and has a very important place in the history of the hotel business.” Christopher Nassetta, chief executive of Hilton.
“When I started working at Marriott in my twenties, Mr. Marriott knew my name the first week I started and was always checked in to see how my career was going, which meant a lot.” Mark Brugger, chief executive of Diamondrock Hospitality.
“Nobody will ever replace Bill Marriott as the maestro of this industry.” Fred Malek, Marriott’s former president and founder of an Annapolis hotel investment company.
“Some executives want to be the smartest guy in the room, but Bill always wanted to make sure he had the brightest and best minds around him. He was never afraid to give up and coming executives roles where they could learn, demonstrate their skills and even skin their knees.” Norman Jenkins, chief executive of Capstone Development. “