Remembering Marriott’s Arne Sorenson, the man behind the world’s largest hotel chain

Feb 17, 2021

At TPG, we focus on points, miles and making your next holiday better. We don’t normally write obituaries.

But today, I wanted to look back at Arne M. Sorenson, the president and CEO of Marriott International who died on Monday 15 February after losing his fight with pancreatic cancer. He was 62.

I first met Sorenson a decade ago, when he was president and chief operating officer of Marriott. There had only been two CEOs of Marriott since its founding in 1927: John Willard Marriott and his son, J.W. Marriott, Jr., who is known as Bill.

Posing with Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson before a Q&A at a journalism conference in 2016.

Sorenson was a lawyer who joined Marriott in 1996 as an associate general counsel, after working for a law firm for 12 years. But he quickly climbed the ranks, becoming the hotel company’s chief financial officer and then chief operating officer. By the time I met him, he was the clear frontrunner to become the next CEO.

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Though Marriott is a publicly-traded company, it’s very much a family-run operation. When Bill Marriott was preparing to retire in March of 2012, I had the privilege of interviewing him at the company’s Bethesda, Maryland headquarters. Sitting in his office, decorated in a Western motif, we talked about his time leading the hotel company and expanding it into a global behemoth.

Then the topic turned to succession. I mentioned that Sorenson was about to become the third CEO in the company’s then 85-year history and the first who wasn’t named Marriott.

Bill Marriott has several children and grandchildren, but he was still about to hand over the company to someone outside the family.

“He came to work here 15 years ago and he’s done everything,” Marriott said of Sorenson. “He’s a very good person, a great family guy and very capable. He understands the culture, accepts it and buys into it.”

Sure, one day it would be great to have a Marriott running the company again. But for now, he said, it was Sorenson’s turn. “It’s very important that our employees feel good about the job, feel good about the boss and feel good about the company.”

As far as I could tell, Sorenson always had that respect from Marriott’s thousands of employees around the world.

During his tenure, he led the company to become the first American hotel chain back in Cuba. He helped launch new brands, pushed the company further on environmental sustainability, diversity and increased awareness around human trafficking.

He will probably be best remembered for orchestrating the acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, a $13 billion deal that made Marriott the world’s largest hotel chain with more than 30 brands.

When the deal finally closed in September of 2016, we did an eight-minute live interview in Times Square (see below).

Sorenson was wearing a lapel pin from W Hotels, a Starwood brand, to show Marriott’s path forward. He had a big task, trying to merge hotels like St. Regis and Sheraton with Courtyard and The Ritz-Carlton.

For him, the message that day was about guest choice. Overnight, he was now controlling one out of every 15 rooms around the world.

Starwood loyalists hated that their beloved SPG programme was now part of Marriott, a programme that eventually became known as Bonvoy. But the larger Marriott base found themselves with access to The Luxury Collection and St. Regis, among other brands.

Most importantly, Sorenson was a CEO who realized that corporate leaders need to do more for our community than just get a profit for shareholders.

He was an outspoken critic of North Carolina’s HB2, a bill that essentially allowed LGBTQ discrimination across that state. He also pleaded with former President Donald Trump not to deport undocumented immigrants.

TPG’s founder, Brian Kelly, and I were discussing Sorenson’s passing this morning and he said so aptly, “He stood up for what was right for his employees and customers.”

And maybe it is that, in this time of such divisiveness, that Sorenson will be best remembered for. Sure, he helped lead Marriott forward, transforming it into the world’s largest hotel company. But he also joined a small group of CEOs in understanding that it was incumbent upon corporate leaders to look beyond the bottom line and set an example for society.

Feature photo by Nora Tam/South China Morning Post via Getty Images.

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