The Washington Post

Bill Marriott: The man I know

A few years ago, back when I was covering Marriott International, the Bethesda company delivered some news that investors did not like. Its stock dropped that day more than any other company in the S&P 500. The story I wrote for the next morning’s paper was not flattering to Marriott.

And then my phone rang. It was Bill Marriott.

When a CEO calls you the morning that bad news about his company is in the paper, the tone of the conversation is generally not joyful. I braced myself for an earful. Bill Marriott said he was calling to say thanks.

He didn’t like reading the story, he told me, but he thought it was fair, and he wanted to say thanks for that. He asked about my family. I asked about his. And we hung up and went about our days.

Bill Marriott, with his wife Donna. (Rebecca D'Angelo/FTWP)

I’ve gotten to know Bill Marriott pretty well during the past seven years. I’ve traveled with him to Paris to report a long magazine story about his life. I have visited his home. I flew with him earlier this week to Michigan, and I wasn’t surprised when he told his pilot, “Save the donuts.” And I spoke to him yesterday when he announced he was stepping down as CEO after 39 years -- a time period longer than my entire life.

So here’s what I can tell you about the Bill Marriott who called me that day to say thanks for hammering his company in print --- actually, no, let me tell you a little story about my grandpa Wally.

He owned a coffee shop when I was growing up, and oh did he love his customers. Late in life, in his retirement, he worked in a deli — Bagel Bar West, in Florida — slicing bagels. Not long after he died, my mom and I went to the deli to pick up lunch. The woman behind the counter said, “Was Walter your grandfather?”

I said yes.

She said, “What a gentleman.”

I’d say that about Bill Marriott too.

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