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Bill Marriott: folksy and fair

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Like many leaders, Bill Marriott, the 78-year-old chairman and chief executive of Marriott International, finds it difficult to find time for rest and relaxation. His vacations don’t last more than a week, and then he’s off to check on his hotels. He visits about 300 a year.

He’s an exacting man, the kind you would expect to preside over nearly 3,000 properties worldwide. He notices slightly faded paint, or dust that others don’t see. In fact, Marriott doesn’t sleep much at his hotels. He hears every sound, including bills sliding under doors at 3 am.

At a hotel in Paris, he checks out thoughtful new details for business travelers, but then he spots a raised marble threshold and stops, noting that guests will have to wheel their luggage over it. A mistake.

Besides being restless and exacting, Marriott also possesses other marks of a leader:
  • He’s always looking for opportunities. As a young man, he asked his father to let him run the family’s first motor hotel, one of the first in the country.

  • He’s real. He doesn’t treat people unkindly or lord it over them. He has one corny joke he enjoys telling over and over.

  • He plays fair. Marriott International isn’t too union-friendly. But even union leaders don’t question Bill Marriott’s relationship with his employees. “In corporate America, how many executives pay attention to their workers?” asks John Wilhelm, president of Unite Here, which represents Marriott employees. “He’s a very compassionate and interested person. You don’t get many executives like that.”

  • He promotes from within. Forty percent of Marriott’s managers were hourly employees.

  • He cares. “I hope my people know I am interested in what they are doing,” he says. “People tell me that’s kind of unusual. I can’t understand why.”
Some people say the firm’s old-fashioned strengths—consistency, efficiency and service—aren’t good enough anymore; it also has to be cool, innovative and energetic. Our take: In this age of spottiness in the basics, we’ll take consistency, efficiency and service.

— Adapted from “Root Beer Roots,” Michael Rosenwald, The Washington Post Magazine.

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