J. Willard Marriott From Root Beer To Riches

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J. Willard Marriott
Founder of Marriott Corp.
Founded: 1927

"Success seems to be connected to action. Successful people keep moving. They make mistakes, but they never quit."-J. Willard Marriott

With a philosophy of hard work, clean living, and a sometimes obsessive commitment to perfection, J. Willard Marriott turned a nine-stool root beer stand into one of the fastest-growing, most diversified and most profitable companies in the highly competitive American food and lodging business.

Like many of the 20th century's early entrepreneurs, Marriott was born into poverty and went to work early in life. The son of a poor Mormon sheepherder, he began tending his father's flocks at the age of 8. By 14, he was taking sheep to market by rail from Ogden, Utah, to cities as far away as San Francisco and Omaha. Marriott may have remained on the ranch if not for the Mormon Church's requirement that all members perform missionary service.

At the age of 19, Marriott traveled east to preach the Gospel. For two years he wandered New England, finally ending up in Washington, DC. After experiencing the hot, humid Washington summer, he thought to himself that if he could find a nice cold drink to sell there, he could make a lot of money. But the idea would have to wait. When Marriott returned to Utah, he discovered that his father, along with most sheepherders, had gone bankrupt because of an economic downturn that had caused the price of sheep to plummet.

Having witnessed enough poverty and wanting to build a better future, Marriott, who never graduated high school, decided to complete his education. He talked his way into Weber State College, a community college that had recently been established in Ogden. Marriott cut a deal with the school's president (who just happened to be Marriott's former seventh-grade teacher), under which he would pay for his tuition by teaching theology classes. After two years at Weber, Marriott felt it was time for him to transfer to the University of Utah. To earn money for tuition, he took a job selling woolen underwear to lumberjacks in the Pacific Northwest. During Marriott's senior year at the University of Utah, an A&W root beer stand opened in Salt Lake City. Impressed by its success and remembering his experience as a missionary, Marriott purchased the Washington-area A&W franchise.

With $1,500 of his own money and a $1,500 loan, Marriott opened a nine-stool root beer stand on 14th Street in Washington, DC, on May 20, 1927. With the help of his new bride, Allie, Marriott ran the stand all summer with great success, but as winter approached, sales fell flat. Recognizing the seasonal nature of the soft-drink business, he got permission from A&W to add food service and opened his first Hot Shoppe. That winter, while Marriott waited on customers, his wife cooked chili, tamales and barbecue-beef sandwiches made according to recipes donated by the chef of the nearby Mexican Embassy. Employing shrewd promotional tactics-such as giving out free root beer coupons on street corners-and focusing on offering quality food at low prices, Marriott quickly expanded his operations by adding two more locations.

Always looking for new ways to improve his company, he bought the vacant lot next to one of his Hot Shoppes, removed the curb, and began offering the first drive-in service on the East Coast. Waiters, called "curbers," ran food to customers on a tray with a fold-up bracket that clamped to the top of a car door. Customers loved it, and soon all three Hot Shoppes offered drive-in service. The move fueled further expansion, and by 1932, Marriott had seven Hot Shoppes in the Washington area and was close to being a millionaire.

Marriott's next innovation came in 1937. At Hot Shoppe No. 8, which sat near Hoover National Airport (the current site of the Pentagon), Marriott noticed that airline passengers would stop off at the Hot Shoppe to pick up a box lunch to eat aboard the plane. A genius at finding a need and filling it, Marriott decided to pre-box meals and sell them directly to the airlines, giving birth to the in-flight catering industry. Within a year, he was servicing 20 daily flights out of Hoover.

As America readied for war in 1942, Marriott juggled 24 Hot Shoppes in Washington, DC, Philadelphia and Baltimore. While World War II caused Hot Shoppe revenue to drop, it also presented a new opportunity. Marriott began managing cafeterias in government office buildings and war-production factories. When WWII ended, prosperity returned and customers flooded the Hot Shoppes. By 1953, Marriott's nine-stool root beer stand had grown to 56 restaurants, serving a total of 30 million customers per year.

After 30 years in the food business, Marriott took the biggest gamble of his career. He opened his first motor hotel, The Twin Bridges, near the Washington National Airport, just a stone's throw from Hot Shoppe No. 8, on eight acres of land he purchased three years earlier. In 1953, travel was on the rise, and airline experts accurately predicted that passenger jets would soon be flying in and out of National Airport. It became obvious to Marriott that the land he had purchased would be an ideal spot for a motor hotel, and that such a hotel would represent "the logical extension of Hot Shoppes' traditional concern for the American family on wheels," he later recalled. With a $7 million price tag, the 370-bed Twin Bridges was the largest motel in the world.

By 1963, more than 35 years of virtual nonstop work were beginning to take their toll, and Marriott was ready for a change. He decided the time had come for a handpicked, hand-trained Marriott to run the company, and he tapped his eldest son, Bill Jr., for the job. One year later, the company changed its name to Marriott Hot Shoppes Inc., and Bill Jr. was named president.

In 1967, the company name changed again, to Marriott Corp., and in 1968, was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. That same year, Marriott acquired the Big Boy Restaurants, and a year later, developed the Roy Rogers chain to compete with McDonald's. The company further diversified with the launch of Sun Line Cruise Ships and Marriott World Travel, then spent $250 million on three Great America theme parks.

Bill Jr. succeeded his father as CEO in 1972. Throughout the 1970s and '80s, Marriott Corp. continued to expand its hotel business, concentrating primarily on business travelers. Marriott remained chairman of the board, but left day-to-day operations to his son.

On August 13, 1985, J. Willard Marriott died of heart failure. He left behind a hotel chain, several restaurant chains and flight kitchens serving 150 airlines. His empire was worth more than $3.5 billion. By 1999, Marriott International had become the 13th-largest employer in the United States, the second-largest lodging company in the world, and was operating or franchising more than 1,900 hotels.

Willard Wisdom
  • On Management: "Take care of your people and they will take care of your customers."
  • On Innovation: "Great companies are built by people who never stop thinking about ways to improve the business."
  • On work: "No person can get very far in life working 40 hours a week."
  • On success: "It's the little things that make big things possible. Only close attention to the fine details of any operation makes the operation first class."
  • On entrepreneurship: "I have always felt that America is the land of unlimited opportunities for those who will 'pay the price.' "

The Skivvy Challenge
J. Willard Marriott experienced his first business success selling woolen underwear to lumberjacks in the Pacific Northwest. His sales technique was ingenious: He picked out the two biggest, meanest-looking lumberjacks he could find and challenged them to tear a pair of his underwear apart. If they could, he gave them a free pair. If they couldn't, they had to buy a pair. Invariably, the lumberjacks accepted his challenge, and, invariably, they lost.

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