Marriott, J. Willard Marriott

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J. Willard Marriott

American executive J. Willard Marriott (1900-1985) founded the internationally successful Marriott hotel chain. He exerted strong influence on the development of both the food service and lodging industries in the United States.

The Marriott empire began in 1927 with a single A&W root beer stand, located in Washington, D.C. From there, Marriott's empire grew, gradually but consistenty, until by the end of the twentieth century the Marriott Corporation had become the thirteenth-largest employer in the United States. The secrets of the company's growth were simple: Marriott worked hard, he had a gift for developing clear and fair company procedures, and, from the beginning, he had a keen instinct for new business opportunities. President Ronald Reagan, quoted by Richard Papiernik in Nation's Restaurant News, called Marriott “a living example of the American dream.”

Worked on Sheep Ranch

The second of eight children, John Willard (Bill) Marriott was born on September 17, 1900, in Marriott, Utah, a town established by his great-grandfather. Marriott's father, Hyrum, was a farmer who raised sheep and sugar beets, and Marriott grew up as a real-life cowboy, riding a horse from age five, carrying a gun, and herding sheep. The family, adherents of the Mormon faith, stressed hard work but also independent thinking, and young Marriott was always encouraged to work out problems for himself. When he was 13, he planted lettuce on some unused land and turned a $2,000 profit, which he presented to his father. At 15, he handled the sale and transport to San Francisco of 3,000 Marriott sheep.

Marriott was, in short, ready to take over the family ranch. But he wanted to see more of the world, and the Mormon emphasis on missionary work gave him the opportunity. He spent two years as a missionary in New England before returning to Utah and enrolling at the University of Utah. He graduated in 1926, having met his future wife, Alice (Allie) Sheets, during his senior year. The two frequented a local A&W root beer stand. The following year, Marriott went to visit a friend, Hugh Colton, who was studying law at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He observed that the national capital's humid summer heat might make it an ideal location for an A&W stand. Back in Utah, he convinced A&W founder Roy Allen to open up a new Washington-area territory, to which he and Colton, who put up $3,000, would have franchise rights. Marriott's own $3,000 share consisted of $1,500 in savings and a $1,500 loan.

Marriott and Sheets married in 1927 and, for their honeymoon, drove from Salt Lake City to Washington in a Model T Ford. On May 20 they opened the doors to their nine-seat A&W shop at 3128 14th St. NW in Washington, treating their first customer to a mug of root beer on the house. The first day's business was strong, thanks to street celebrations marking the successful transatlantic flight of aviator Charles Lindbergh, and the pair earned $16,000 in gross receipts in their first year. Alice Marriott, then and for many years afterward, served as bookkeeper in addition to being chief cook. “We joked around that Mom had the sticky-nickel job,” J.W. Marriott, Jr. (born in 1932) told Papiernik. “That syrup would somehow always wind up on the coins. And there she would be, with $50 in nickels sticking together, trying to clean them up to get to the bank.”

Soon, in order to attract business year-round, Marriott, who waited tables, added hot foods like beef barbecue to the menu. He changed the name of the restaurant to Hot Shoppe. From the start, Marriott included Mexican standards like tacos and tamales among his offerings, using recipes obtained at the nearby Mexican embassy. He had become familiar with Mexican food in Utah, but he was among the first restaurateurs—the very first, according to Charles Bernstein of Nation's Restaurant News—to offer it in the northeastern United States. Another East Coast first was a drive-in Hot Shoppe, among Marriott's first operations. The unique operation presented logistical challenges. “There were no cuts in the curbs to allow cars to pull up for drive-in service,” Marriott Jr. told Papiernik, “and Dad had to go to the district council to get special approval. He got the first permits for off-street parking in Washington.” The Marriotts decided on new locations by personally staking out intersections and counting cars.

Opened Airline Catering Operation

The Hot Shoppes were successful from the start, thanks to such novel marketing techniques as hiring people to pass out coupons on street corners. They were air-conditioned, and in the sweltering Washington summer they drew customers in droves. By 1929 there were three restaurants, and Marriott had incorporated the business under the name Hot Shoppes Inc. Colton sold his original stake back to Marriott that year for the original amount he had paid. By 1932 the chain had grown to seven locations in Washington, plus one in Baltimore, Maryland. One location was near Hoover Field, an airport at the site of the present-day Pentagon.

The manager of that shop passed on word to Marriott that air passengers were buying takeout meals for their flights, and Marriott once again saw an opportunity. After negotiations with Eddie Rickenbacker, head of the Eastern Transport Co. (later Eastern Airlines), he signed a contract to cater in-flight meal service, and in 1937 the In-Flite Catering division of Hot Shoppes opened for business with Eastern, American, and Capital airlines as customers. In-Flite grew into the largest airline catering business in the world, and in 1945 it branched out into airline terminal food service with an operation at Miami International Airport.

New Hot Shoppes opened steadily through the 1930s, and the company scored another coup in 1939 with a contract to provide catering services to the U.S. Treasury building. The frenetic pace Marriott insisted on for himself—he reportedly worked 15-hour days—took its toll on his health, however. In 1931 he suffered from a bout with Hodgkins' disease, and in 1933 he was sidelined for six months with a lymph disease and had to rely on family members to keep operations going. In later years he suffered multiple heart attacks, a ruptured brain blood vessel, and a hepatitis infection, but he always refused to delegate anything more than he had to. Business slowed at the Hot Shoppes themselves during World War II, but the company was positioned well to prosper from its growing government catering operations, and after the war's end, growth began anew.

In 1948 Marriott became president of the National Restaurant Association, and by the early 1950s Hot Shoppes had reached annual sales of $20 million. Among Marriott's few non-business activities were spiritual ones: he became second counselor in the Mormon church's Washington Stake (a divisional entity broadly comparable to a diocese in the Catholic church), and he later became president of that body. Although he had always resisted turning over any aspect of the company to outsiders, Marriott realized that a stock sale was necessary if expansion was to continue. In January of 1953, Hot Shoppes Inc. publicly offered 229,880 shares of common stock at $10.25 a share, plus 18,000 more shares to company employees at $7.54 a share. The Marriott family still owned two-thirds of all the Hot Shoppes shares, and Marriott held the titles of chairman and president.

Persuaded to Open Hotel

The Hot Shoppes scored one more major coup: in 1957 they broke the dominance of archrival Howard Johnson over the lucrative food service operations on the New York State Thruway toll highway. Hot Shoppes remained a visible presence in the northeastern dining scene for several decades; the last one did not close until 1999, although by then both the Hot Shoppes and the original airline catering operation had been sold. The year 1957 also marked a major turn in the company's operations: the 365-room Twin Bridges Motor Hotel opened in Arlington, Virginia, near Washington National Airport. Marriott had originally purchased the land for a new corporate office. Ironically, he was skeptical about the plunge into the hotel business that would bear his name. Two decades earlier he had been vividly impressed by the mass failures of hotels during the Great Depression. He was persuaded to change his mind by his son Bill Jr., who spearheaded the development of the Marriott hotel chain as it is known today.

The first hotel specifically designated a Marriott was the Key Bridge Marriott, also in Arlington, which opened in 1959. The Marriott hotels offered a new kind of space for lodging and conferences that competed successfully with older downtown hotels; they catered to business travelers and tended to be located near airports and other transportation hubs. Marriott specifically preferred locations near bridges, reasoning that while highways and intersections might undergo extensive redesign, bridges generally stayed put. The company's emphasis on thorough training was especially visible in its hotel operations; housekeeping staff had a prescribed set of 66 operations that they had to complete before they could consider a room cleaned.

Marriott relinquished the role of president to Bill Jr. in 1964, remaining as chief executive officer. At that point the company was still known as Hot Shoppes Inc., but a name change to Marriott Corporation in 1967 confirmed the company's new direction. Bill Marriott, Jr. assumed the role of CEO as well in 1972, but the senior Marriott continued to keep close tabs on the company's day-to-day operations. He witnessed the company he had begun with a single root beer stand expand internationally with the opening of a Marriott hotel in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and extend its reach domestically with the creation or acquisition of several new restaurant chains, including Roy Rogers and one Big Boy entity.

In his later years, Marriott continued to be active in the Mormon church, with his annual tithe (or contribution of 10 percent of his income) establishing him as one of the church's major donors. A staunch Republican, he grew close to President Richard Nixon, serving as chairman of his inaugural committees after both the 1968 and 1972 elections. At Nixon's behest, he tried to counter the influence of the student counterculture by sponsoring an “Honor America Day” on July 4, 1970. Marriott died on August 13, 1985, in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, after suffering a heart attack at the family vacation home. Shortly before his death, he admitted to Dun's Business Month that he did have one regret. “My dad always told me to take time to smell the flowers,” he said, “but these days I just don't have the time.”


Business Leader Profiles for Students, Vol. 1, Gale Research, 1999.


Caterer & Hotelkeeper, May 23, 2002.

Dun's Business Month, December 1984.

Investor's Business Daily, February 15, 2000.

Nation's Restaurant News, August 26, 1985; September 16, 1985; October 7, 1985; February 1996.

Travel Weekly, August 22, 1985.


“The Marriott Timeline,” Marriott Corp, (January 30, 2008).

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