Last year, Arne Sorenson took over the role of CEO at Marriott International – no mean feat for a man who doesn’t bear the family name. But he’s taking it all in his stride.

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Arne Sorenson has no plans whatsoever to fill his former boss’s shoes. Last year, when he took over from Bill Marriott as CEO of Marriott International, the world’s largest publicly traded hotel chain, he was only the third person to occupy that position in 85 years, and the first not to be named Marriott.

Yes, he laughs, it was intimidating. The Marriott portfolio today is made up of 3,800 properties in 74 countries and territories under 18 brands, including Ritz-Carlton, Renaissance and Courtyard.

It reported more than US$12b in revenues for the fiscal year 2011.

“It’s a big job,” admits Sorenson, “and I’m keenly aware of the breadth of the responsibilities. At the same time, we are rich with many, many talented people, and this is not a job that I do alone. I will not be Bill Marriott, and I can’t pretend that I want to try to be him.

Instead, I want to do this job in a way that’s consistent with who I am and what the company needs now.”

Marriott has been through several significant transformations over the years. It started out in 1927 as a small root-beer stand in Washington, DC, before becoming a restaurant business, a hotel chain and, most recently, a management and franchise company.

But the one constant has been family: it was founded by J. Willard Marriott and his wife, Alice, who passed it on to their son Bill after 45 years.

He held the position of CEO for another 40. So why would he hand the top job to someone named Sorenson?

As Sorenson sees it, it’s about preparation.

“I would say that it’s been very important to the company, including Bill Marriott, who had a very powerful vote in all of this, that the next CEO of the company be consistent with the culture of the company,” he explains. “In many respects, I have been more powerfully trained by him than by anybody else, so I’m hoping that a lot of that has rubbed off.”

Sorenson has had almost 20 years to get to know the culture. In the early 1990s, as a corporate litigator for law firm Latham & Watkins, he worked with Marriott Corporation on the legal battle that resulted in it splitting into Marriott International and what is now Host Hotels.

The executive suite is not filled with Ivy League-educated MBAs, but by a diverse cross-section of people.

In 1996, Bill Marriott invited Sorenson to join his company as Senior Vice President of Business Development.

One of the qualities for which Sorenson is known is being accessible.

“Most of my team would say maybe too accessible!” he laughs.

“I don’t ever want to put restrictions on any of our people getting to me. I do get more and more direct feedback from customers by email usually. I really hesitate to put filters on that, or make that difficult, because I like to get the direct read. Although there are times when at 12:00 at night I’ll get an email from somebody saying, ‘I’m checking in at X hotel, and the line is too long. Can you help me?’”

Looking outward

The most important part of Marriott culture, Sorenson believes, is providing opportunity for its associates, and it does that by having an environment that encourages success and growth.

“The executive suite is not filled with Ivy League-educated MBAs and the like,” he explains, “but instead by a very diverse and broad cross-section of people — including those who started in modest hotel positions like security guards, waiters, housekeeping managers — all of whom have stepped into big roles here because they’ve earned them.”

Our growth will be disproportionately outside the US for many decades to come.

Sorenson is also known for having a keen sense of cultural trends. It’s believed that, as CEO, he will continue to inject new energy into the hotel group, bringing in younger customers, making it more environmentally friendly and continuing its global expansion.

What he brings to Marriott is, he says, “an openness to learn from our people and from the external environment that we’re operating in, about how to do better and how to continually evolve our business. That means doing business in countries that are new to us, determining what our competition is doing and what others are doing in society today, and making sure we are staying current with what our guests would like, how we engage our guests emotionally. That is very much an outward looking kind of inquiry, not an inward one.”

This perspective is particularly important given that, last year, Marriott reached a milestone: it now has more hotels outside of the US than within it.

For most of its history, Marriott’s overseas customers were Americans abroad who expected a familiar brand no matter where they were in the world. All of that is changing.

Today, 60% of customers at Marriott hotels in Shanghai, for example, are Chinese, and the company will be hiring 20,000 employees in China this year.

“I think our growth will be disproportionately outside the United States for many decades to come,” says Sorenson.

“Our pipeline is bigger today outside the US, and I think it will continue to grow to be more global, as far as the eye can see. Why? Because those economies are growing faster than the economy of the United States and the economies, broadly, of the West. You look at the developing world and it’s a place that’s rich with opportunity and in significant need of more hotel rooms.”

Marriott’s market is changing, not only in geographical terms but also in taste.

“The product around the world is looking less and less predictable,” Sorenson observes. “In the generation past, people preferred not to be surprised, even at the expense of a more richly local experience. I think people today absolutely insist on knowing where they are waking up.”

The fact that Marriott only owns about 10 of its 3,800 hotels makes this a great deal easier to achieve.

Its local partners know their markets, so asking them to create that local experience is a natural fit. It also means Marriott can move more quickly to embrace emerging trends, such as that toward “boutique” travel.

But how does the company maintain the cohesive Marriott identity and ethos while still allowing its franchises the flexibility to move with the times?

There are brand standards for food and beverage service, as well as room furnishings and size. But beyond that, it’s back to culture.

Sorenson says that Marriott associates are expected “to be empowered, to have an opportunity to succeed and grow in their careers. We would expect that there be a warm welcome to our guests in every one of those places.”

He adds: “There are some cultural nuances that would define how that welcome is communicated, but we think it can be warm and friendly in every part of the world.”