Bill Marriott: Success Is Never Final.


When journalist and New York Times best-selling author Dale Van Atta approached me a few years ago about writing a biography exploring the lessons learned from my life story, I said no.
I had already written a book about Marriott International: “Without Reservations: How a Family Root Beer Stand Grew into a Global Hotel Company.” My work was done. I couldn’t help but recall a Winston Churchill quote: “Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant.”
Dale wouldn’t let it go. Over the course of a year, he enlisted support from my daughter, Debbie Marriott Harrison, and a few close friends, former associates and members of my church. Eventually, I was persuaded that, maybe, an intimate portrait of my more than 60 years in the hotel business could encourage and inspire others.
I’m pleased to announce that “Bill Marriott: Success is Never Final” has been published.
Dale interviewed me for more than 100 hours. He poured through the handwritten journals of my father, J.W. Marriott, stretching back four decades and Dale incorporated some of dad’s journal entries into the book. In that way, it feels like my dad’s voice is heard in the biography.
Dale spent more than 20 hours with Debbie, as well as time with my wife Donna, who has lovingly compiled more than 50 scrapbooks of news clips and other significant family events from our more than 64 years together. Dale met with my brother Dick and his family, Marriott’s president and CEO Arne Sorenson and Marriott’s corporate archivist Katie Dishman. He interviewed hundreds of others too, inside and outside of the company.
The result, six years later, is something very personal. I’ve shared details about my struggles with my domineering but brilliant father, who, throughout my life, was often a harsh critic. I talk about my courtship of Donna, who I proposed marriage to on a payphone (long story) as well as my relationship with my four children (as a busy CEO who traveled a lot, I was determined to be a good father).
The book explores some of Marriott’s huge wins, like when we made a tough but ultimately pivotal decision in the 1970s to divest our hotel real estate holdings and operate properties under management/lease contracts instead. That risky move was a lynchpin for our future success.
During that same era, we considered buying The Walt Disney Company, too. Can you imagine? It was an opportunity that came and went. I can’t ruminate over what might have been. But it was an interesting time, for sure.
The biography is transparent about some of our mistakes, too. I still regret not buying a beautiful hotel in Atlanta that showcased the industry’s first signature atrium-style lobby. We declined on the opportunity and Hyatt Regency snapped it up. It was a huge success and resulted in rapid growth for them. That purchase assisted Hyatt in becoming a tough competitor.
In the end, I hope I’ve passed on some important life lessons. Throughout the next few months, I will share some of those lessons via excerpts from the book. I thank Donna, Debbie and the rest of my family and friends for encouraging me to pursue this project. And I thank Dale for lending me his ear and, ultimately, his writing talent.
Now, here’s an excerpt with a life lesson on how difficult it can be, sometimes, to manage family expectations. Over the decades, I’ve learned you have to trust yourself and follow your instincts. We almost lost the company in 1990 due to a confluence of events beyond our control: the real-estate recession, the Gulf War and the Japanese stock market crash. I feared, at the time, that I had let my father down. Thankfully, we pulled through but not without growing pains:
On September 18 [1990], the nation’s second-largest hotel company, Prime Motor Inns, Inc., filed for bankruptcy. “The idea of Marriott and bankruptcy had never been said in the same breath until Prime Motor Inns went broke,” Bill said. ‘We were doing the same things they were. We were building and selling properties. We were overleveraged like they were. We couldn’t sell our hotels just like they couldn’t. Everybody was saying, ‘Marriott’s going to be next.’”…Bill shared the depths of his anguish with Debbie during that trip [to Hong Kong]. She recalled, “Dad was lying on the couch in his room because of jet lag. He was so tired. I was worried about him. I thought he was going to have another heart attack because he was worrying so much.
Debbie started to say something, and her father began to cry. “As an adult, I have only seen my dad cry like that once, and it was gut-wrenching. Between the tears, he said, ‘I don’t know what to do. I could lose the business.’ Grandpa had always lectured him about keeping the company out of debt. He was thinking about that because, after more tears, he said, ‘I have disappointed my father so much. I am losing the company. He’s up there looking at me right now and I’ve let him down. ‘ And then he asked a heartbreaking question, ‘What have I done?’”


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