“Forty years,” Bill Marriott Jr. says simply while on the phone from New York City. He’s explaining to Lodging why he decided it was time to step away from the CEO post at Marriott International Inc.—the hotel conglomerate his father founded 85 years ago—and pass on the reins to longtime President and Chief Operating Officer Arne Sorenson. Marriott Jr., who recently turned 80 years old, held the title of chairman of the board since 1985 when his father, the legendary J.W. Marriott, passed away. In the following interview with Lodging, Marriott Jr. discussed a variety of subjects, from his decision to step down to his thoughts on how Marriott and the industry have evolved during his tenure to his plans for the future.
Lodging Magazine: You’ve written about it in your blog, but please tell us why you decided now is the time to retire as CEO and pass the torch along to Arne Sorenson?
Bill Marriott: Someone asked me that the other day and I said, ‘40 years.’ They said, ‘OK, we understand.’ I would add to that 40 years and 80 years of age. I’ve been with the company for 60 years. You start to think maybe it’s time to let someone else take this CEO job and run this place. I’ll still be around as executive chairman and stay in close contact with Arne.
Lodging: Will you still be doing your famous hotel visits?
Marriott: Yes, I’m up to 45 so far this year.
Lodging: Why do you do those visits?
Marriott: Number one it is very beneficial to me because I get to see what’s going on. I know which ones look good, which ones don’t look good. But, the most important part is to visit with the people and let them know that there’s a guy named Marriott around and that I care about them and I’m interested in them. It’s in my DNA. My father used to visit the restaurants. I’ve been doing the same thing with the hotels ever since I became president in 1964.
Lodging: Will you also be staying involved with the industry as a whole?
Marriott: I will. I’ve throttled back a little in that area, but if the industry needs me to do something, I’ll do it. It depends what they ask me to do. I love this business. I think it’s one of the most rewarding industries in the world because it does so much to help people. We open a world of opportunity to people who wouldn’t otherwise have it. At Marriott, we have 50 percent of our general managers who came out of the hourly ranks, and that’s pretty impressive. A lot of our senior officers too. If you look around this industry, there’s a lot of leadership that’s come out of our company.
Lodging: What are you most proud of having accomplished?
Marriott: I go back to opening the doors of opportunity to a lot of wonderful people who have been able to provide for their families. Whether they are a chef, a general manager, or a senior executive, I like to think we’ve taught them something and helped them to excel.
Lodging: What kinds of changes in the company have you seen? What has been most significant?
Marriott: I’d say the first is that we’ve gone to more management than ownership. We started that back in the 1970s. Today we own seven hotels out of 3,700. Another is that we were the first hotel company to go multibrand. When we opened our first Courtyard in 1983 the hotel chains were all big box hotel chains. They all said we were crazy to go down-market. You make your money in big hotels and you can’t make money in small hotels. Well, we’ve got 925 Courtyards today that are all making money. We have 18 brands now that we are managing around the world. That would have been unheard of 30 or 40 years ago. The other one would be our Marriott Reward loyalty program, which we were the first to do.
Lodging: What have you learned from your father that you’ve been able to pass on to your leaders and employees?
Marriott: He established the core values of the company. The core value was to take care of your people and the customers and the customers will come back. People drive the company. Understand, the right training is necessary to advance them. We need to open the doors of opportunity for everyone.
Lodging: Speaking of Arne, have you passed on any advice to him as far as going forward with the company?
Marriott: Having worked with him for eight or nine years on a close, personal basis, he understands the way I think and what makes this company great. He brings his own really outstanding set of skills and I think he’ll make a big difference in this company. I think he’ll move it forward.
Lodging: What do you hope Marriott becomes going forward?
Marriott: When people ask me that question my answer is ‘More.’ I want to see more return to our shareholders, more returns to our owners, more opportunities for our people, and more hotels around the world.
Lodging: What do you plan on doing for yourself now?
Marriott: I hope I can spend more time with my grandchildren; that’s the most fun of all.