BETHESDA, Md. — Bill Marriott has revolutionized the hotel business over the past four decades.
As CEO of the company that bears his family’s name, Marriott led the industry in opening hotels next door to highway exits and suburban office parks. He was also a pioneer in catering to niche markets. In 1983, he launched Courtyard, a chain for cost-conscious business travelers. Today, Marriott has 18 brands, including Fairfield Inn for budget travelers and Ritz-Carlton for the luxury set.
But perhaps Marriott’s biggest innovation was his decision to transform the company into one that manages — but does not own — its properties. That left the company a steady stream of revenue but little exposure to fluctuating real estate values and vacancy rates.
Marriott turns 80 on March 25 and plans to step down as CEO at the end of the month. But this is no ordinary retirement.
He’ll remain chairman of Marriott’s board of directors and will have considerable power over the company through his 10 percent equity stake, which is worth $1.2 billion.
Marriott will spend more time on vacation, yet he plans to work 45 to 50 hours a week when home in Maryland, where the company is based.
"My wife said she married me for better or worse, but not for lunch," he says.
Marriott International traces its roots to 1927, when John Willard Marriott and Alice Sheets Marriott opened a nine-stool root beer stand in Washington D.C. It grew into a popular restaurant chain called Hot Shoppes. Over time, the company expanded. It got into airline catering, the cruise ship business and took over the Big Boy and Roy Rogers restaurant chains.
In 1957, the couple opened their first hotel — the Twin Bridges Motor Hotel in Arlington, Va. But it was their son Bill who transformed the company into a global hotel giant. Today there are 3,718 Marriott hotels in 73 countries. The company’s other businesses have been sold.
Marriott visits more than 250 of the company’s hotels annually, inspecting rooms, kitchens and banquet halls. He also takes note of how employees interact: do managers need to look at employee nametags to tell who they are?
There is often evidence during these visits of last-minute touch ups to impress the boss. That is why Marriott always carries some paint remover.
"They know I’m coming," he says. "They paint everything they can get their hands on."
Marriott sat down in his office and discussed the need for more light in hotel bathrooms, what Mitt Romney needs to do to win the presidency and why it is time to remove pornography from hotel rooms. Below are excerpts, edited for length and clarity.
Q: Your first job was at one of your family’s Hot Shoppes while a student at the University of Utah. What was that like?
A: That was my first real exposure to the business. I worked the grill, cooking hamburgers. I worked the deep-fat fryer, cooking French fries. I learned that I liked the pace of the business. I was excited about the fact that we were always busy.
Q: You then spent two years in the Navy. You had a disagreement with some longtime Navy chefs you were supervising regarding meatloaf. What did that teach you?
A: I gave them a recipe and said, ‘You’re making lousy meatloaf. Make some good meatloaf.’ They wouldn’t do it. If I had gone to them and said, ‘How can we make better meatloaf?’ I would have been more successful.
Q: Your father didn’t want to expand the hotel business. But you convinced him to build other hotels and let you run the operation. How did you do that?
A: We started out with one hotel and it wasn’t doing well, so I asked my dad if he’d let me take over the supervision. He liked hotels. He did not like debt and it was very hard to convince him that if we wanted to have a hotel chain, we couldn’t do it without somebody else’s money.
Q: Do you ever regret the decision to take the company public?
A: No. I’ve thought about that a lot. We would not have been able to grow the company if we had kept it private. The family just couldn’t have tolerated the amount of debt that would take.
Q: Today, the company has $2.2 billion in debt. Does that ever worry you?
A: No, because we get over $1 billion a year in cash. If the economy tanked, (the) cash flow is pretty stable. Most of it’s coming from management fees and that comes off the top.
Q: GOP presidential candidate Willard Mitt Romney was named after your father, J. Willard Marriott. He sat twice on the Marriott board and your family has made contributions to his campaign. What’s his biggest obstacle to becoming president?
A: His message is too complicated. He says: I have a 59-point economic policy. My response: People aren’t going to listen to 59 points. They want 9-9-9. And he says: Well, I don’t want 9-9-9. I said: I know but you really need to simplify your message and repeat it, repeat it, repeat it and don’t wander off.
Q: How important should a candidate’s religion be?
A: It’s important that the candidate be a person of strong moral character. They should be true to their beliefs, whether it’s Protestant, born-again, Mormon, Jewish. There should be separation from church and state. When Kennedy was running, they didn’t want the pope to tell Jack Kennedy what to do. We don’t want the president of the Mormon church telling Mitt Romney what to do. If he’s president, he won’t. The Church is totally hands-off, politically. We want the country to understand that a Mormon in the White House is going to be just as effective as anybody else.
Q: You are a very active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. How do you balance your religious beliefs with some of the desires of your guests?
A: I’ve always been concerned about (pornographic) movies in rooms. In the next three or four years, we won’t have any more of those. That’s something we’ve had a real problem with because the Church is very, very opposed to pornography, as it should be, and we are for families. But the owners of our hotels were making a lot of money. In fact, the only movies that make any money are pornography.
Q: What led to that decision?
A: It was the right thing to do. The other side of it is if they want that stuff, they can get on the computer. So, the demand for them has gone way down. It was a good time to exit.
Q: What do you look for when touring a Marriott hotel?
A: Happy employees. I look to make sure that the hotel’s properly maintained, that it’s clean. Every now and then I’ll taste the food.
Q: What’s your biggest complaint while staying at a hotel?
A: I want a quiet room.
Q: What are hotels going to look like in five years?
A: Bathrooms are going to open more into the rooms because people want light. We’re thinking of a glass wall. You could flip a switch and the glass becomes opaque; flip the switch it goes clear. We’re going to full floor-to-ceiling windows wherever we can so when you pull the curtains back, you just don’t look through a small window. You’ll see the whole world.