Marriott's Family Guy

From left, Arne Sorenson, Bill Marriott and developer Ian Schrager in Beverly Hills last year after announcing a new line of boutique hotels. Marriott has praised Sorenson for his humility.
From left, Arne Sorenson, Bill Marriott and developer Ian Schrager in Beverly Hills last year after announcing a new line of boutique hotels. Marriott has praised Sorenson for his humility. (By Jamie Rector -- Bloomberg News)
By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 16, 2009

Eleven years ago, Arne Sorenson received a mysterious phone call from Bill Marriott. It was a Saturday morning. Could he come over to the house? Sorenson was a rising young executive at Marriott International, but the situation was perplexing.

"We had just bought a house on the Eastern Shore," Sorenson said the other day. "My wife said, 'I hope he's not going to fire you.' "

Sorenson was not dismissed. Marriott asked him to become chief financial officer. The Bethesda hotel chain's longtime chief executive clearly remembers Sorenson's reaction. "Arne was pretty quiet," he said. Explaining his silence, Sorenson said, "It never crossed my mind before, either that I would expect to become chief financial officer or that he would offer me the position."

It was the first time that Bill Marriott, as Sorenson puts it, had "taken a bet on me." Sorenson parlayed that bet into becoming, over the last decade, a candidate to succeed Marriott atop the family hotel chain. Marriott promoted him last week to president and chief operating officer -- a move that Wall Street analysts say is the clearest signal yet that Sorenson will one day become chief executive.

While he won't detail the company's succession plan, Marriott said: "The board doesn't lay awake at night and say what happens if Bill Marriott gets hit by a truck tomorrow. The board asked me for a succession plan and I've been giving it to them now for four or five years. They bought off on the plans and that's it."

The story of Sorenson's rise to prominence at the company is a tricky matter given that his last name is not Marriott. His possible ascension to an office that has always been occupied by a Marriott family member would mark a turning point in the company's history. But none of that seems to have stopped his progression.

How he got there and how he won the level of trust Marriott has placed in him is, on the surface, a distinct study in contrasts. There is the obvious generational difference -- Sorenson is 50, Marriott is 76. Marriott is a staunch Republican. Sorenson is a Democrat. Sorenson is fairly hip. Marriott listens to Glenn Miller. And then there are the cars: Marriott prefers fast ones and keeps a stable of Ferraris. Sorenson drives a Prius.

"I took my boys to see his cars once," Sorenson said. "I asked him if he thought the Prius should be in his garage too. I didn't get much of an answer."

But both men, as well as those who have watched Sorensen's career unfold, say that there is more that links them than divides them. Most important is a connection formed through religion and family values. Marriott is a Mormon and a high-ranking member in the church. Sorenson's father was a Lutheran minister. Sorenson's wife traveled around singing religious songs in her family's choir. Even today, according to their friends, the Sorensons will often break out into song at the family dinner table.

"My guess is that what they see in Arne is a guy who is even-keeled and unimpressed by money and fame and prestige and power," said Tim Shriver, chief executive of the Special Olympics and close friend of the Sorensons. "Arne gets around, yes, but he's just as good at parties with kids as he was with the big shots."

Marriott confirmed Shriver's guess.

"Arne's humble," he said. "He's not arrogant. He's not saying, 'I'm the next guy.' He's not running around here with a flag saying, 'I'm it. I'm it.' He's not a big shot. He's not a master of the universe, which is the last thing we need around here. This is a company that goes on family values and a degree of humility."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company