In the mid-1990s, an outside counsel hired to represent Marriott International was doing an excellent job.
Bill Marriott, then CEO of the eponymous company, was impressed by the lawyer's style and capabilities. "That's one sharp guy," he told a senior Marriott executive at the time, and he expressed a desire to bring him in-house.
Soon, the attorney, Arne Sorenson, was the company's associate general counsel, and a short time later, a senior vice president for business development, handling mergers and acquisitions. He was to go on to become CFO, COO and, in 2012, CEO.
"One of Bill Marriott's greatest abilities is to hire people different from himself," the senior Marriott executive told me.
Sorenson, who died Monday at age 62, was indeed, in some regards, quite different from Bill Marriott. Different political parties. Different religions. Different public personas.
But they shared common ground where it counts: Thoughtful. Modest. Straight-talkers. Wicked smart.
Sorenson's co-workers, as well as journalists and Wall Street, respected him because of his clarity and candor. Shelves of books are written about business leadership, but those two essential ingredients came naturally to Sorenson.
I interviewed him about a dozen times, beginning when he was CFO. I met him at a Ritz-Carlton lunch at the World Travel & Tourism Council Global Summit in Beijing in 2010; he was sitting by himself at a table, and I joined him. It was our first conversation and, though it was two years before he was to be named CEO, his 360-degree view of the company was impressive. We discussed the company's plans for China, including a mid-tier brand Marriott was considering developing.
Marriott International has made decisions over the years that have rankled the travel agency community. Most recently, in early 2018, the company reduced group and meetings commissions from 10% to 7%, which created a storm of outrage among corporate agents and meetings planners. Their anger was only amplified when competitors adopted similar policies.
Shortly afterwards, Sorenson and I were both speakers at the NYC & Company annual meeting. He acknowledged that "there's not an intermediary that loves what we've done" by cutting pay but defended the move by saying that commissions had sextupled in the preceding 10 years, endangering the viability of hotel owners.
With this still fresh in the minds of our travel agent readers, Marriott International nonetheless was once again voted Best Hotel Chain Overall in the Travel Weekly Readers Choice Awards that year. It also picked up best in Hawaii/South Pacific, best in luxury (for Ritz-Carlton), best resort (for the St. Regis Bora Bora) and, perhaps most importantly, best in sales and service to travel advisors.
This speaks volumes about the standards and professionalism of both Marriott International and the travel advisor community. That advisors could put aside the pain of a commission cut and still acknowledge that Marriott delivers an outstanding product demonstrated both that Sorenson kept his eye on quality experiences and that agents put their clients' interests above even their own pocketbooks.
Consistency has always been regarded as the key to Marriott's success. It was seldom the first company to jump on a trend, but once a trend was established, it rolled out an excellent product reflecting it. But I'd suggest it was the yin yang of Bill Marriott and Arne Sorenson that brought the company to its greatest heights as the undisputed largest hotel company in the world.
At that NYC & Company meeting, Sorenson also stressed that it was a mistake to make assumptions about customers on the basis of demographics alone. "I'm going to be 60 this year," he said, "but I don't necessarily want to be pampered in a luxury hotel. I'd just as soon have a bit more chaos."
It's that "bit more chaos" that Sorenson brought into the company that complemented Bill Marriott's drive for consistent delivery. It led to the creation of Moxy Hotels and the purchase of Gaylord, Protea and Delta Hotels. But the boldest move on Sorenson's watch was the acquisition of Starwood, an effort that required going eyeball to eyeball against a deep-pocketed Chinese suitor and many difficult -- sometimes chaotic -- years of integration.
Sorenson's final year -- battling both pancreatic cancer and a pandemic that threatened all that he and the Marriotts had built -- could be regarded as a tragic denouement for a person who had built an admirable career. But to the end, he showed the character and leadership that made him a beloved colleague, partner and even competitor (the tributes from rival hoteliers ring true).
Perhaps his own words, sincere and emotional, are his best elegy. His honest, heartfelt message to his employees at the beginning of the pandemic speaks volumes about what type of person and leader he was. It was posted with a fitting title: "Authentic Communication."