On the day 80 years ago that Charles Lindbergh started his solo transatlantic flight, J. Willard Marriott, a 26-year-old native of Utah, opened a root beer stand in Washington, D.C. Raised in the family business, the founder’s son, J. W. (Bill) Jr., now heads Marriott International Inc., a lodging company with $16 billion in annual revenues. Besides its eponymous brand, Marriott operates under such names as Ritz-Carlton, Renaissance, Courtyard, and Fairfield Inns. The stock has tripled in value over the past five years. At 75, Bill Marriott has been CEO since 1972, and he is still very much in charge. He spoke to THE AMERICAN from the family vacation home in New Hampshire, where he had just finished his Pilates workout.
THE AMERICAN: Bill, you’re a blogger [www.blogs.marriott.com]. Why?
It’s a great way to connect with our customers and employees. Half of it is personal, and they seem to like that a lot.
You’ve blogged about the “multicultural world” of Marriott. What do you mean by that?
We operate in almost 70 countries, and at home we just opened our first Hispanic-owned hotel in Washington. More than 400 hotels are owned by minorities. Robert Johnson, the founder of BET, is a big investor, and he’s got over 100 of our hotels, and we employ about 40 or 50 different nationalities in the United States alone.
Explain how you operate.
Marriott is both a management and a franchise company. We manage over 50 percent of our hotels, and we’re the largest hotel manager in the world. We own about 10 hotels and franchise the rest. We will have 3,000 hotels by the end of this year. We could not have grown if we had taken the debt on our balance sheet for ownership positions.
You have not been shy about joining important public policy battles. What is your position on immigration?
People who are in this country should have a path to citizenship. We do the very best we can to certify anybody we hire and make sure they are in the country legally. I’m sure from time to time we are probably not given correct information when we interview, but we connect with the government on every hire. People ought to have an opportunity to live the American dream. They are talking about 12 million illegal workers in this country. If all were deported, I think the economy would absolutely collapse. Hispanics are taking entry-level jobs, so the price of labor would just go through the roof.
What about amnesty?
We do not favor amnesty. They should pay for their citizenship through some contribution—a fine or entry fee to become a citizen. Marriott lost a hotel and two employees at Ground Zero on September 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center went down, so we’re very concerned about secure borders.
Do you think more CEOs should be involved in public policy and do you think some CEOs are reluctant to get involved?
I think most are interested in the policy areas that affect their business. In our industry, I think they need to step up, because we employ a tremendous number of people. There are close to a million people working in the hospitality business. With those numbers, you’ve got a great amount of concern about labor policy. We’ve got to be more active.
Earlier this year, you celebrated Marriott’s 50th year in the lodging business. What is the biggest change you’ve seen?
The growth of the industry has been huge, and, of course, there has been a lot of innovation. The role of technology is tremendous. There is a lot of competition, and people are traveling more than ever before. You’ve got these wonderful hotels with big atrium lobbies and airport hotels, which really didn’t exist when we started.
No hotels near airports?
The Marriott Twin Bridges, near National Airport, was our first hotel and one of the very first airport hotels in the country. We didn’t build for the airport; we built for the highway, for U.S. 1. Of course, it was right next to the airport and the Pentagon, which were two huge drivers of business.
In the early years, did you serve alcohol at your restaurant chain, Hot Shoppes?
No, and we didn’t serve it at Twin Bridges because Virginia was a dry state. We had to make a decision to sell liquor when we opened in Philadelphia in about 1961. We decided that if we are going to be in this business, we’re going to have to sell liquor. We’re going to have to satisfy our customers, because they are not going to stay in a hotel if they can’t get a drink. So we bit the bullet.
And when you say “bit the bullet,” you mean because of your Mormon religion?
Yes. We were not comfortable with it, but we said we think this is going to be a good business for us, and we can make a contribution.
You are especially involved in healthcare issues. Do you have a solution to rising costs?
I don’t, and we are worried. We encourage our people to have annual physicals, and we’re making it cost-effective for them to do so. Back in 1932, we had our own doctor on the payroll to take care of our employees. We were one of the first companies to have any kind of healthcare program for entry-level people. Today, we have an exercise facility at headquarters, and we encourage our people to use it. We do an awful lot to encourage wellness, such as free annual screenings for cholesterol, and we have nurses in all of our big hotels.
How has terrorism affected your business?
Each hotel has its own threat level, with a crisis team ready and procedures in place. We’ve had terrorist incidents in Jakarta and Islamabad, and we continue to be concerned.
How are you making your hotels greener?
We want to reduce our energy use by about 20 percent by 2010, and we are making good progress. We have put in light bulbs that consume far less energy, and we give people the option of having their towels washed every day or not. We will build our first green hotel in the next year or two.
You are always looking for the next opportunity. What is it?
We have just announced Nickelodeon Hotels by Marriott. We teamed up with Nickelodeon, the cable network, to develop hotels that are very kid-friendly. We find that parents are traveling now with their kids, not leaving them at home like they used to. Also, we just teamed with Ian Schrager to develop boutique hotels, and, of course, he is the godfather of that business. Those are two new opportunities we are excited about—two spaces we haven’t been that have growth potential.
Image credit: photo by Mary Noble Ours.