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Legends: John Willard Marriott

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American Dream poster boy John Willard Marriott went from Farmer’s son to one of the most successful entrepreneurs of the 20th century. Marriott International is the world’s largest hotel chain, encompassing brands like St. Regis, Sheraton, Starwood, and Le Méridien.

The mind behind this hospitality empire was John Willard Marriott, a self-made man and tireless hands-on manager who started from nothing and created a company like no other. “Marriott breathed, ate, lived, and dreamed about his business,” the Marriott International website says today. All his life, he dreamed of growing his company into something truly huge, and that dream came true: By his death on August 13, 1985, there were 1400 restaurants and 143 hotels under his brand. Back in the America of the 1930s, Marriott showed everyone what “making a career” really meant.

A self-made man

Born in Ogden, Utah, into a farming family, he had to start taking responsibility and helping out at a young age. “He always told me what needed to be done,” Marriott once said of his father, “but he never told me how to do it. He left it to me to figure that out.” Those early experiences prepared him well for everything that came later.

He married Alice Sheets in June 1927, the day after he graduated from the University of Utah, and then the young couple invested in franchising rights to A&W Root Beer, which was popular throughout the US and Canada even then. From the beginning, he spent a great deal of time learning about what made a business successful—he wanted to do things right, no matter what. He and a partner opened their first A&W (which was really just a small room with a counter and nine barstools) in Washington, D.C., on May 20, 1927. They soon expanded it into a popular family restaurant and began serving Mexican food along with the root beer… and thus, “The Hot Shoppe” was born.

From there, the businessman’s star just kept on rising. Bit by bit, he expanded his company, opening additional restaurants, making deals to provide food service at various government buildings, and then branching into school, university, and airline catering. Taking the company public in 1953 was one of the great milestones in Marriott’s life, as was breaking into the hotel business by opening his first motel, the Twin Bridges Motor Lodge in Arlington, Virginia.

His personal motto: “I want to do everything to make people feel at home even when they’re not at home.” That simple principle was the guiding force behind everything Marriott did.

A rapid rise

What started as Hot Shoppes, Inc., in 1929 became Marriott International in 1967; even the 67-year-old Marriott probably had no idea that the entire world would soon know that name. The company kept its operations focused on the US until the 1970s, when it expanded to Europe. As it happened, the year of the company’s fiftieth anniversary was also the first year that the ambitious entrepreneur crossed the billion-dollar revenue threshold.

In 1972, Marriott handed the reins to John Willard Junior, but even after retirement, Marriott Sr. was as tireless and driven as ever, and regularly visited company locations.

John Willard Junior is still at the helm of Marriott International, which now employs over 220,000 people and brings in around $17 billion (€15 billion) annually, making it one of the largest and most successful enterprises in the world… all thanks to John Willard Marriott’s ambition, dedication, and desire to succeed.

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