Correction to This Article
An article in the July 1 Magazine misstated hotel magnate Bill Marriott's affiliation within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is a member of the Sixth Quorum of the Seventy.

Root Beer Roots

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By Michael Rosenwald
Sunday, July 1, 2007

THE MANAGER IS PACING. Doris Schaefgen has a walkie-talkie in her hand as she hustles around the glorious, glass-domed lobby of the Paris Marriott Hotel on the Champs-Elysees. She adjusts the chairs in front of the bar. She straightens menu cards on little lounge tables nearby. Someone drops a newspaper while waiting to check in; she rushes to pick it up. She inspects the pots of plants. And then, satisfied that everything in the lobby is just right, she heads to the top of a set of escalators and waits.

Hanging on the wall above her shoulder: a portrait of two men dressed in dark suits, white shirts and red ties. The older of the men, with sharp gray hair, is J. Willard Marriott, the son of Utah sheep herders who founded the company in 1927 with a tiny root beer stand in Northwest Washington. The other man, much younger, with sharp dark hair, is Bill Marriott, J. Willard's son, who transformed what had mostly been a restaurant and food-services chain into one of the largest hotel companies in the world. J. Willard is long gone, but his son, now 75, is still in charge, and 45 minutes ago his private plane touched down at Charles de Gaulle International Airport, where an assortment of chauffeur-driven Peugeots were waiting for him, his wife and senior members of his company. He has been on the road for more than two weeks -- in Barcelona to meet with the money men who own his hotels in the United States, and now in Paris to show Wall Street analysts around the new European version of his Courtyard hotels, and to treat them to a private tour of the Louvre and a fancy dinner in its vast hallways.

Schaefgen is performing a task known within the company as the "hover." Marriott is an exacting man. He sees dust that other people can't. He will be strolling through a hotel and notice out of the corner of his eye that the paint in the hallway down toward the bathroom is fading. Though he is quick to point out problems, Marriott is also legendary for going out of his way to acknowledge the hard work of his 150,600 employees. He's the kind of boss who shakes hands with the maids, chats up the desk clerks and slip tips to those who impress him. Many hotel workers spend their entire careers hoping he will visit their property. One dishwasher was so excited at the prospect of shaking Marriott's hand that he bit off part of his finger trying to pull off his rubber gloves with his teeth.

Over the years, Marriott has come to expect the hover and everything that tends to come with it, including fresh coats of paint. For that, the billionaire used to carry paint remover in his luggage. He grew tired of brushing up against freshly painted walls and ruining his suits. He is in luck this day; there appears to be no wet paint in sight. Marriott does not arrive to the sound of a band playing, though that has happened a time or two. Dressed in dark pants and a blue sweater, he steps off the escalator with his wife, Donna.

"Welcome back," Schaefgen says. ("That's what you say to a repeat guest," she explains later. "He's a repeat guest, just a very important repeat guest.") Marriott is not the young man in the portrait anymore. His hair has gone silver. He's a bit bent over. He looks a little tired from traveling. In a few minutes, he'll be in the elevator on his way to his suite, and the tension in the lobby will evaporate. But for now, everyone seems to be looking at him. Even the guests seem to know someone important has arrived.

Marriott's face lights up as he glances around. He is at home here in this lobby, as he is in every other lobby of his 2,800 hotels around the world. He shakes the hands of his employees, pats a few on the back, and then makes his way to the concierge desk.

"How's it going?" he asks.

THIS MAY SHOCK ANYONE YOUNGER THAN 35, particularly those who have watched companies such as Google fork over millions of dollars for firms that haven't reached their first birthday, but there used to be a time when chief executives built their companies over a period of decades. They sold 10 packs of gum one year and 20 the next and 40 the year after that. Some time later, such entrepreneurs came to dominate their particular industries, making themselves extremely wealthy. Warren Buffett belongs to that time. Rupert Murdoch belongs to that time. And so does J.W. Marriott Jr., known to family and friends as Bill, and to his employees as Mr. Marriott.

Marriott was 25 when the company opened its first hotel in 1957, near the Twin Bridges in Arlington, in what seemed, at the time, like a momentary departure for a root beer stand that had evolved into a chain of popular eateries called Hot Shoppes. But Bill Marriott opened another hotel a couple of years later at the Key Bridge, and then he opened one in Dallas, then in Philadelphia. Sometime next year, the company could open its 3,000th property. (The company no longer owns its hotels. It manages them for hefty fees paid by developers, who own the buildings.) The Marriott name is on more buildings than just about any other family name in the world, except McDonald's, which passed out of the hands of its founding brothers long ago. This fact sometimes still surprises Marriott. One night, he saw one of his hotel's awnings in the background of an evening news report. "Hey, that's our name!" he said.

But Marriott now appears to be approaching a crossroads, the sort that inevitably surfaces for longtime chief executives such as Buffett, Murdoch and Marriott, who are all about the same age. The question that keeps creeping up on them is: How long? How long will they keep doing this? How long can they keep doing this? Buffett and Murdoch have begun to talk openly about succession, but not Marriott.

"I have no plans to retire," he says, and it's easy to tell by his tone and his body language that he means it. He says that his long tenure at the top has greatly benefited the company, providing "a consistency of message, a consistency of style." His employees, he adds, "don't have to worry about things, because they know how I will respond."

Marriott's family, particularly his wife, is not sure what he would do if he weren't working. Donna says the only way she can get him out from behind his desk on Saturdays is to take him to a movie, usually a thriller. Even on vacation, he won't read and relax for more than a week. After that, she says, he disappears to go see hotels. He visits about 300 a year, both his own and those of his competitors. "If there's a hotel to be seen," Donna says, "he'll see it."


CONTINUED     1                 >

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