Marriott Discusses Retiring As Hotel Chain's CEO

Robert Siegel speaks with Bill Marriott Jr., CEO of Marriott International, who is retiring after 39 years.

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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In 1957, the Marriotts of Washington, D.C., who owned a chain of family restaurants called Hot Shops, opened a hotel. The patriarch, J. Willard Marriott, didn't see much of a future in hotels. But his son, J.W., Jr. or Bill Marriott did. And he went on to create the global hotel empire that bears the family name and the familiar red letter logo.

Bill Marriott is vacating the CEO's office next year when he turns 80, leaving it to a non-family member, longtime Marriott executive Arne Sorensen. We visited corporate headquarters today to hear from Bill Marriott about his life in hotels, as the big date approaches.

March 31st is what we're talking about.

BILL MARRIOTT: Right.

SIEGEL: This is an early exit interview, I guess.

MARRIOTT: Early exit interview, that's right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: So I've been - from what I've read, you don't want us to use the R word to describe what you do.

MARRIOTT: No, no. No R word.

SIEGEL: No retirement.

MARRIOTT: No retirement.

SIEGEL: Are you stepping down, stepping up, stepping aside? Where are you stepping?

MARRIOTT: It's a partnership. Arne has got to have the title and the role of chief executive officer and I will be executive chairman of the board. I will not be as heavily involved day-to-day as I have been, but I intend to be engaged in the business. It's a family business. In 85 years, there's only been two CEOs. My dad for 45 years and I was of CEO now for 40 years

SIEGEL: I'd like you to describe the situation 50 years ago or so when, as I understand it, this Marriott was the Hot Shops. Marriott was all the rest stops on the turnpike, as I recall.

MARRIOTT: I ran the Hot Shops Restaurant drive-ins in Washington. We have a whole bunch of drive-ins in Washington and cafeterias and that type of thing.

SIEGEL: That was the company your father had created.

MARRIOTT: In 1957, we opened our first hotel. That was 30 years after the company was founded in 1927, it was a root beer stand.

SIEGEL: My vague memories of my family driving across country in 1958 and 1960 was that in the cities there might be a big hotel, an elegant place with a fancy dining room. And then in between the cities there'd be motels. And if we're lucky, we'd find one with a high AAA rating or a Howard Johnson's Motel or something.

MARRIOTT: Or a Holiday Inn.

SIEGEL: A Holiday Inn perhaps. The entire level, the entire genre of hotels that I now associate with Marriott, didn't exist.

MARRIOTT: That's right. The highway system that Eisenhower developed in the '50s really started opening up to more highway travel. And the growth of the suburbs, the sprawl - the suburban sprawl - and business is located in the suburbs is used.

SIEGEL: So you stick a hotel in the suburbs. You've got all the business travel that's going to and from those suburban business.

MARRIOTT: We looked for a corporate headquarters in the suburbs to locate our hotels next to. And that's how we developed along with the suburbs. Our first hotel is Marriott Motor Hotel, was in Virginia across the bridge from Washington. Everybody said it would be a total failure because it wasn't downtown. And it struggled the first couple of years. But we're next to the Pentagon.

So when Boeing came in to do business at the Pentagon, they started staying with us because we were across the street. They didn't go downtown and commute. So that really started us going.

SIEGEL: Did you see all this happening 50 years ago? Did you see the interstate highway system come in and saying, I'm going to see hotel? Or did you just go with it and watch it as it developed?

MARRIOTT: We went with it as it developed. We didn't have this great vision that some day Bethesda was going to be the headquarters from Lockheed Martin, you know, or...

SIEGEL: Because you've got to be awfully nimble to take advantage of changes as you're seeing them.

MARRIOTT: Well, yeah. But we started to follow the trend. I mean, when companies would move to the suburbs, we'd move in with them and build a hotel in that suburban marketplace.

SIEGEL: I want to ask you a couple of questions about yourself, not just about business. The Marriott family is a Mormon family.

MARRIOTT: Right.

SIEGEL: You've been active in your church and close to the Romneys. I'm just curious what you've made of the discussion this year of Mormons, between Governor Romney's candidacy and Governor Huntsman's candidacy. There's been some discussion. Have you found it at all disturbing? Or are you pleased the way it's worked out?

MARRIOTT: Well, I have known Mitt a long time. I've known Jon Huntsman since he was five years old. So, I've known him a long time. And I think that both of them would tell you that they, if they are elected, they intend to govern appropriately and that the church would have no effect on the way that they govern the country.

SIEGEL: Do you find it odd, though, that there seems to be more discussion of Mitt Romney's faith than there was of George Romney's faith decades ago, when he was a presidential contender?

MARRIOTT: I think it's probably the rise of the evangelicals and the strong Baptist Belt in the South that are concerned about the Mormons and about our church. And the Mormon Church was not as well-known back then. And today, we've got 14 million members around the world. So, we've gained a lot of members and people are looking at us wondering why and wanting to know more about us. And there's an amount of criticism that comes with that.

SIEGEL: So, with greater awareness and a higher profile comes more of a discussion of what the church is all about.

MARRIOTT: Right.

SIEGEL: I'm told that the subject of food preparation is something that you - I don't mean to say it this way - you relish.

MARRIOTT: Well, I started out in the kitchen when I was 18 when I went to college. We had a Hot Shop Restaurant in Salt Lake City and I went to the University of Utah. And I started as a soda jerk. And I loved to make banana splits. I loved to do sundaes. I loved to do what we had in the Hot Shops, the hot fudge ice cream cake.

And you made that ice cream cake. It was a pound cake. You cut it in half. You put a block of ice cream in there, a piece of cake on top of the ice cream and then you poured hot chocolate all over the top of it. But you had to leave a spot in the middle so that you could put whipped cream and a cherry on that spot.

If you put hot fudge on that spot, the whipped cream and a cherry would slide off the side, and the presentation was gone. So, it's the details of leaving that little spot in the middle of the ice cream cake so you don't lose the whipped cream and the cherry.

SIEGEL: You had to master that.

MARRIOTT: You had to master that. That's part of the deal.

SIEGEL: Presentation is no small thing when you're...

MARRIOTT: Presentation is very important and the details are extremely important.

SIEGEL: In my very brief experience of the hotel dining room industry, the only wisdom I recall hearing from these Miami Beach hotel people, who would come north and work in the Poconos in the summer, was that everyone in the world is making it on the drinks.

MARRIOTT: In the Hot Shops, we made all our money on coffee because we didn't serve booze. But in hotels, we are serving liquor and that is a very profitable part of the business. It's very hard to make money on food unless you have a high-volume and a very simple kitchen.

SIEGEL: But a beverage is...

MARRIOTT: That's why McDonald's makes money.

SIEGEL: So, between the coffee which you shun, I gather...

MARRIOTT: I personally shun, but we sell a lot of it is.

SIEGEL: And alcohol...

MARRIOTT: I'm glad we do and I...

SIEGEL: ...which you personally shun.

MARRIOTT: I shun but we sell a lot of that, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: One has to draw a boundary. I won't even go near the cable TV possibilities, of the movie rentals that people are watching in your hotels. The hotel is not a devout business. It's...

MARRIOTT: It's a commercial enterprise.

SIEGEL: Commercial enterprise.

MARRIOTT: Sure is.

SIEGEL: And you like this business.

MARRIOTT: I love it.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Marriott, thank you very much for talking with us.

MARRIOTT: Thanks, Robert. Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: Bill Marriott, who is stepping down as CEO of the family hotel business next March.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEARY: This is NPR News.

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