Arne Sorenson, President and CEO, Marriott International, Inc.

interviewed by Alan Murray, Deputy Managing Editor and Executive Editor, Online, The Wall Street Journal

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Session recap

Arne Sorenson: the new name behind Marriott

The history of Marriott International, Inc. spans 85 years. For nearly all of that time, a member of the Marriott family has been at the helm, until now. Appointed CEO in March 2012, Arne Sorenson knows he will have to carve his own niche as head of the leading global lodging enterprise.

The former corporate litigator discussed the challenge of maintaining the company’s culture during Wednesday’s opening Q&A session with Alan Murray, Deputy Managing Editor and Executive Editor, Online, The Wall Street Journal. He also shared insights on globalization and brand distinction.

Sorenson follows Bill Marriott, who held the position for 40 years. “I can’t try and be him,” said Sorenson, who has held a succession of leadership roles during his 15-year tenure with Marriott. “My name is not over the door. I don’t have that kind of connection.” It’s Sorenson’s charge to lead the company in a way that’s true to Marriott’s culture and in a way that’s true to who he is.

Sorenson agreed that there is something different about large companies that are family-owned. It means their associates don’t work for a faceless corporate entity. “They’re working for a company that has a family dynamic,” he said.

He was introduced to the company 20 years ago, when he was trying contested corporate transaction cases. At the time, Marriott had too much debt and too much real estate, and Bill Marriott walked the halls wondering whether he could make payroll. “That was a very dark time,” Sorenson said. “The company was in peril.”

Marriott got out of the real estate business about 16 years ago — a great move, said Sorenson. Today, Marriott is in 74 countries and has nearly 3,800 hotels but owns just 10 of those properties.

The company opened the first hotel outside the US 35 years ago with a focus on locales where Americans were traveling. Back then, it was about making sure the customer wasn’t disappointed. “Today, not being disappointed is not enough,” Sorenson said.

Brand distinction remains a priority, Sorenson said. The company’s 18 brands run the gamut from Ritz-Carlton to Fairfield Inn & Suites.

The key is making sure the brands lead in distinct segments of the market, whether it’s luxury or full-service. Some factors remain consistent at each hotel, such as room size and features, but the overall vision is to let creativity reign. Marriott’s clients, Sorenson maintained, “need to experience where they’re going.”

Arne SorensonspacerArne M. Sorenson is President and CEO of Marriott International, Inc., a leading global lodging company with more than 3,700 lodging properties in 73 countries and territories and reported revenues of over $12 billion in fiscal year 2011. Previously, Mr. Sorenson was Marriott’s President and Chief Operating Officer, responsible for the global growth and performance of the company’s brands and businesses. Earlier, he served as Executive Vice President, Chief Financial Officer and President of Continental European Lodging, with responsibility for lodging operations and development in the continental European region and the company’s overall financial functions. Prior to joining Marriott in 1996, Mr. Sorenson was a partner with the law firm Latham & Watkins in Washington, DC, where he specialized in mergers and acquisitions litigation. Mr. Sorenson is chairman of Marriott’s Global Diversity and Inclusion Council. He co-founded Marriott’s Global Sustainability Council in 2007, and in 2008 he launched Marriott’s rainforest preservation partnership with the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation in Brazil. Mr. Sorenson was elected to Marriott International’s Board of Directors in 2011. He also serves on the Board of Directors of Wal Mart Stores, Inc. Mr. Sorenson is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School and of Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. He resides in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with his wife, Ruth. They have four children.

 

Alan MurrayspacerAlan Murray is Deputy Managing Editor and Executive Editor, Online, for The Wall Street Journal. He has editorial responsibility for the Journal's websites, including WSJ.com and MarketWatch, and its books, conferences and television operations. Prior to his current position, Mr. Murray was Assistant Managing Editor of The Wall Street Journal and author of the paper's “Business“ column. Previously, he served as CNBC's Washington, DC, Bureau Chief and was co-host of Capital Report with Alan Murray and Gloria Borger. Before his three years at CNBC, he spent a decade as the Washington Bureau Chief for The Wall Street Journal. The bureau won three Pulitzer Prizes and many other awards during his tenure. Also an award-winning, best-selling book author, Mr. Murray most recently wrote The Wall Street Journal Essential Guide to Management and Revolt in the Boardroom, The New Rules of Power in Corporate America and Showdown at Gucci Gulch. Mr. Murray received a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of North Carolina and a master's degree in economics from the London School of Economics, and in 2005, he completed the Stanford Executive Program. He lives in Greenwich, Connecticut, with his wife, Dr. Lori Murray, and their two children.