Accessibility links

Breaking News

Marriot CEO Traces Beginnings to Modest Family Restaurant Chain

Visitors to the Bethesda, Maryland, headquarters office of Marriott International are often struck by its opulent décor and the many fine works of art on display. But the worldwide hotel empire that J.W. Marriott, Junior, now heads started very modestly, as a nine-seat root beer stand his father opened in downtown Washington, D.C. on May 20, 1927. That was also the day aviator Charles Lindbergh began his historic transatlantic solo flight.

John Willard Marriott later opened a chain of restaurants called Hot Shoppes. J.W. Marriott, Junior, who goes by the name Bill, was born in 1932. He recalls growing up in Washington with those inexpensive family restaurants. "My earliest memories were waiting for my father to get off work and my mother would drive us to the Hot Shoppe on Georgia Avenue. We'd wait there for a long time for my dad to get out of there and then [we'd all] go home to dinner. That was back in 1936-37."

With the fledging Hot Shoppes restaurants a success, Marriott Senior went on, in the late 1930s, to launch one of the first in-flight food services, signing up with several early airline companies.

Bill Marriott says developing new business ventures was a familiar topic around the Marriott household, whether at home at the dinner table or when going out to eat. "We always went out to eat at the Hot Shoppes," he says with a laugh. "We ate out a lot and grew up with the smell of hamburgers and French fries. It was a family business: the family was in the business and never got out of the business." But while Bill Marriott learned a lot about the hospitality industry from J. W. Marriott Senior, he says his father never urged him to take up the family business. "He said it was too hard, too tough and it's up to you. It was strictly my choice."

Fifty years ago, Marriott says his father noticed how highway-side inns called motels were growing in popularity across the United States. "It was the early 1950s then and people were starting to travel by car and they wanted a place to stay by the side of the road; they didn't want to stay in a downtown hotel." He points out that the only major motel chain of the time, Holiday Inn, was still in its infancy. "So [my dad] built a 365-room motel, which we called the world's largest motor hotel. We opened it in 1956."

Bill Marriott, meanwhile, had earned his degree in finance from the University of Utah and served as an officer in the U.S. Navy. In 1956, he joined his father's flourishing company and was named its chief executive in 1972. John Willard Marriott, Sr., died in 1985. By then, the motel chain he'd created had evolved into a global network of full-scale hotels with world-class ballrooms and conference facilities.

Since taking the reins of the company, Bill Marriott has worked to make sure the hotels continue to evolve, to meet guests' changing needs for such comforts as high-speed internet, DVD players, finer linens.

Bill Marriott has also been an innovator on the business side of the hotel industry. In the 1970s, he moved the company beyond hotel ownership, and into new property management and franchising endeavors. In the 90s, he took Marriott out of the restaurant business altogether, to better focus the company's growth in the hotel industry.

Bill Marriott says that despite his company's growing complexity, it continues to be guided by the Mormon religious faith he learned from his father. "Our church believes in family values - being kind to people and giving them opportunities. My dad was very kind to his employees and paid them as much as he could afford to pay them. He paid for their health care back in the 1930s when nobody was paying for health care!"

Although Bill Marriott is proud of the wide range of hotels his company operates, from the luxurious Ritz-Carltons to the modest Fairfield Inns, he says he is most proud of the 143,000 employees who work for him and the special service they provide to hotel guests worldwide. "We've been able to take our culture of caring for people around the world," he says.

In addition to his leadership of Marriott International, J. W. Marriott, Jr. is a devoted family man. He also serves on the boards of many national organizations. His generous commitments to public service, like his successful business ventures, reflect Bill Marriott's time-tested talent for caring for people, around the world.

For earlier profiles in VOA's
American Profiles series click here