Bill Marriott: Check your ego at the door

Debbie Harrison Marriott and her father Bill.

Debbie Harrison Marriott and her father Bill.

By Colleen Isherwood, Editor

TORONTO — Big Picture Conferences scored a coup when they brought JW (Bill) Marriott Jr. to this year’s Canadian Hotel Investment Conference for a session consisting of an interview by his daughter, Debbie Marriott Harrison. But two other journalists and I scored an even bigger coup, when we were invited to sit down with Bill, his daughter and son-in-law Ron Harrison for a private and wide-ranging discussion.

According to Debbie, her father’s leadership style is to sit back and be quiet during a meeting, listening carefully to what is being said and not letting anyone know what he is thinking. Then he asks the right questions and gets consensus.

“Egos?  Leave them behind,” Marriott told us. “You can’t delay decisions, you have to go out and touch and feel. You develop a style of listening. Perseverance is very important — keep moving the ball, realize success is never final and  never rest on your laurels,” he advised.

Marriott learned a valuable lesson about listening during a visit to his family cottage by former president Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower visited with the intention of going quail hunting, and Bill’s father had stocked the grounds with plenty of quail. But it was a cold, blustery day, and Eisenhower was comfortable inside by the fire. When asked if they should go grouse hunting, young Bill took his cue from the president. “No, I think we should just stay here by the fire,” he said.

The biggest change?

The biggest change in hotels over the six decades Marriott has been in the business is the proliferation of brands.

“When I started there was Hilton, Sheraton, no Hyatt, Westin and Holiday Inn. Now we have 19 brands, all for different market segments. We have been adding a brand a year for the last four years.

“We need brands to provide market opportunities and increase distribution. The key to success is wide distribution — we’re in an arms race with Hilton. By the end of the year, we hope to have one million rooms including those under development.”

On Delta

“We are very proud of Delta,” said Marriott, who toured the new Delta Toronto on his way to the conference. “The best way to expand is through local acquisitions. Delta had distribution in Canada that we didn’t have. We have done the same thing with AC, which has a huge footprint in Spain.

Marriott also recently bought Gaylord, which has four big-box hotel complexes catering to conventions and groups. They are planning to build two more.

Generation blend

While Marriott is conscious of the needs of  the millennials, the executive vice-president of human resources is stressing Gen Blend — so that Marriott does not exclude any generation. “The key is to be thoughtful,” Marriott said.

Global expansion

Marriott is now in 80 countries, including recent openings in Haiti and Georgetown, Guyana. When working in other countries, “you have to be careful, manage risk, get other people to own your hotel and manage culture,” he said.

Managing culture sometimes means going into the technical colleges and sometimes going deep into curriculum. “We’ve see our influence in spades,” said Marriott. “The general manager at the Port au Prince came from the Marriott Champs Elysees, and the staff there are every bit as good as those in Paris.”

Biggest regret

Looking back, Marriott said he regrets not pushing his father into hotels earlier. “He grew up with the Depression and he didn’t want debt. He was very, very conservative. If we had gone into hotels earlier, we would have been the commander in chief.”

On family and business

When Marriott’s son David was in first grade, he was asked to draw a picture of his dad at work. He drew a man behind a desk wearing a tie. When asked to draw a picture of his dad at home, the picture was of a man behind a desk — with no tie.

Marriott made a point of being home at 6 p.m. each day for dinner with his family. After dinner, he would take off his tie and do some work at home.

At 83, he doesn’t talk about retiring. “I’m passionate — that’s what keeps me involved.” He still works 50-60 hours a week and tours 250 hotels a year. 

“I’m locked out of the house from 9 to 5,” he quipped. “I love it, I love to visit people and see the opportunities we create for people.”