J. Willard Marriott, Jr.: ‘A Time to Every Purpose’
October 1982

“J. Willard Marriott, Jr.: ‘A Time to Every Purpose’” Ensign, Oct. 1982, 26

J. Willard Marriott, Jr.:

“A Time to Every Purpose”

J. W. Marriott Jr.’s contest with time began at a young age—in a way, before he was even born. Five years earlier, his father, with pluckiness and a foresight common to his Latter-day Saint pioneer ancestry, opened a nine-seat ice-cold root beer stand during a humid Washington, D.C., summer. It was an instant success. With the help of his wife, Alice Sheets Marriott, the business added hot dishes for the winter and became “Hot Shoppes, Inc.,” which was grossing almost $1 million during the Depression of 1932, when Allie was to deliver their first child.

Sister Marriott’s obstetrician predicted she would deliver her baby on April 5—the same day, he thought, that one of her friends would have a child, and he booked adjoining rooms in the hospital. The Marriotts were startled, when rushing there early on March 25, to be passed by their friends’ car racing to the same place. Bill, Jr., was born eleven days ahead of schedule, competitively coming in first. Racing time and competing for first place became habits he was to nurture throughout his life.

Brother Marriott has been the president of Marriott Corporation for many years. It is nearing a $3 billion-a-year business with 100,000 employees, a responsibility that might threaten to swallow him up, were it not for his determination to reserve time for family and church—as much as is needed. The fact that he has done this rather successfully is an encouragement to other Church members, many of whom attend his stake seminars on time management.

He points out that everyone is forced to spend time at sixty minutes per hour. “We can’t manage time,” says Brother Marriott, “but we can manage ourselves.” The way to do this, he explains, is to set clear objectives, waste little time chit-chatting or on unimportant tasks, learn to delegate, avoid procrastination—and “do what needs to be done, not what you’d rather do.”

Bill Marriott has not always followed his own advice. True enough, he was a conscientious young student at St. Alban’s School, earning high grades, and he became an Eagle Scout by age thirteen. But later there was a powerful draw: speedboat racing.

He started racing at age sixteen during summer vacation on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. His mother, Allie, recalls watching him from their summer home on the lake as he “raced against older men who would try to get him in a wave and swamp his boat. That’s how I started getting my gray hairs.” Brother Marriott’s romance with speedboating is something he has never quite outgrown. A sampling of reading material on his den desk recently included the Marriott corporate report, Forbes, Church publications, Hemmings Motor News, and Powerboat.

This hobby probably comes as a surprise to anyone who is not friend or family. There is no hint of it in his character, except perhaps in an occasional mischievous smile, the deep infectious laugh that follows a well-told joke, or the wink to a companion over someone who has been particularly officious or obsequious to him. He is self-assured, easy-going, energetic, and moral, without any apparent rough edges.

“He has his head on good,” offers Roy E. Winegardner, chairman of the board of Holiday Inns, Inc. “He’s not up in the clouds or choked on his own ego.” Mr. Winegardner pauses mid-praise about wishing “all competitors were like Bill,” and recants. “It’d be tough to have such aggressive competitors.”

Bill Marriott didn’t just assume he’d take over his father’s business. Though he worked various Marriott jobs as a youngster, it was while he went to college that he learned to love the business. During his student days at the University of Utah, he arose at 4 A.M. most mornings to work at the Salt Lake City Hot Shoppe his father had opened in 1951, learning all the different jobs there, including restaurant manager. “I loved the restaurant business,” Brother Marriott says now. “It was fast, exciting, and different. Something was always happening.”

As a senior, young Bill thought it was time to concentrate on dating. Pretty Donna Garff, a freshman and the daughter of one of his professors, caught his eye at a bus stop one day. He learned her name from a friend and, though she was dating someone else, nominated her to be sweetheart of his fraternity. She didn’t win, but he did.

“He was so fun and friendly,” Donna remembers. “We got along well.” The Marriott name didn’t mean much to her at the time, but she discovered how well-known the family was when she visited Washington in Christmas 1954. She was “won over” by his parents who invited her—along with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, then-Secretary of Agriculture (Elder) Ezra Taft Benson, and others—to a sumptuous Christmas repast at the Marriott’s Fairfield Farm, tucked away at the base of Virginia’s Shenandoah Mountains. A trip to see Broadway plays with Allie capped the visit. “I really felt like Cinderella going to the ball,” Donna recalls.

Bill graduated from Navy ROTC and the University of Utah in 1954 with a degree in banking and finance, topped by scholastic honors. He and Donna were married 29 June 1955 in the Salt Lake Temple, after which Bill served as supply officer (essentially, the manager of a floating hotel) on board the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Randolph. In 1956 he left the Navy and went to work for Hot Shoppes, Inc.

Up to that point, his one major regret had been the fact that he had not been able to fill a mission. A college student during the Korean War, Bill enrolled in Navy ROTC so he would be drafted as an officer. The Church was calling few missionaries, and by the time the restrictions eased, Bill was already committed to the Navy.

Bill was first assigned to “special projects” for Hot Shoppes—a job which Donna describes as “sort of an errand boy.” But he soon carved out a more challenging specialty for himself, which was to become the company’s most profitable division: hotel management.

Hot Shoppes had acquired land in Arlington, Virginia, which seemed suitable for a hotel, so Bill, Sr., put his son in charge of completing the Twin Bridges Marriott Motor Hotel. It opened on time in 1957, but only after the Marriotts had been up past midnight hanging guest room pictures. The following year, because of his superb management of that hotel, Bill was elected, at the age of twenty-six, to be executive vice-president of the new hotel division.

Meanwhile, Bill confronted one of the greatest personal trials of his life. When their first child, a daughter, was born in 1957, he and Donna could scarcely contain their joy. Debbie’s bright-eyed innocence inspired wonder in her father, and a unique relationship quickly developed between the baby and the executive.

Two weeks after Debbie’s birth, doctors learned that she had a defective heart condition that needed to be surgically corrected. They advised the Marriotts to postpone the operation as long as possible, since the heart-lung equipment needed to keep a patient alive during open-heart surgery was not yet perfected, and the operation itself was risky. It was a race against time, and both he and Donna knew that without the Lord’s help, the race could be lost.

By the time she went to nursery school, Debbie’s health was deteriorating rapidly. Her blood was not getting enough oxygen. She was out of breath and getting very weak. Her father began carrying her when they went on outings to visit Washington museums. Brother and Sister Marriott spent many hours on their knees.

When Debbie turned five, the operation could no longer be delayed. Elder Harold B. Lee was visiting the East Coast on Church business and was asked by his friend, J. Willard Marriott, Sr., who had served as Washington D.C. Stake president for a decade, to give his granddaughter a blessing. At first tearful, Debbie became calm with Elder Lee’s hands on her head, and her parents joyfully heard the promise from a prophet of the Lord that she would survive and prosper.

The operation was scheduled for the fall of 1962 at the Mayo Clinic. During surgery, the doctor found many unforeseen problems with Debbie’s heart, but the operation was successful. Then, on the second night of recovery, Debbie nearly died. But she gradually improved and finally returned to her family.

Bill Marriott knew he had come close to losing his daughter, and also that the fasting and prayers he and Donna had offered had been accepted. It was a turning point in his life—a time for renewed dedication to his family and a greater consecration of time and talents to serving the Lord.

Without neglecting family or church, he excelled at his job. Brother Marriott had a keen business sense, made decisions quickly, and lived by them. His father came to depend on him, and Bill’s peers rarely questioned his ability to make the business a remarkable success. By a unanimous vote of the shareholders, Bill was elected president of the company in 1964. He was thirty-two.

In part, Brother Marriott may have become so successful because his father’s own legendary exploits as company founder and leader demanded it of him. Allie believes her son did have some challenges growing up “in the shadow of his father,” which pushed him to work doubly hard to prove himself. “I haven’t done everything,” avows Bill, Sr., who is still chairman of the board. “I gave my son a good foundation and he has built on it.”

One man who has been able to watch this growth is Jon Huntsman, who began his own business and built it up before becoming president of the Washington D.C. Mission. It takes an “entirely different kind of executive to move such a company along the economic cycles over the long pull—take it into its second and third phases, something Bill [Jr.]has done,” he avows. “The two Marriotts have been an [unbeatable] combination of personalities,” each doing certain things better than the other. “The amazing thing is that one family produced two geniuses in American business.”

Brother Marriott is aware that some people feel that to be a successful Latter-day Saint a person has to be a successful businessman. Bill rejected that idea long ago. He talks about the scriptures urging Christians to “have life more abundantly,” and elaborates: “How do we define a more abundant life? Most members of today’s society would describe it as having great wealth and material possessions. I can state without hesitation that material wealth has nothing to do with happiness, but is usually the cause of great unhappiness. Happiness comes from the inner peace and spiritual strength we can build up within us, from serving the Lord and obeying his commandments, from doing right, and from the love of our family. And it comes from serving and helping others.”

In 1973, Brother Marriott was surprised to receive a call to serve on the Washington D.C. Stake high council from then—President W. Donald Ladd, who is now a Regional Representative. Bill had previously served in the elders quorum presidency of the Chevy Chase Ward for nine years, six of them as president. Sunday School teaching and the presidency had followed.

The high council calling marked another spiritual milestone. “I called him because I thought he was underutilized,” Brother Ladd remembers. “People in the Church put him on the shelf because they thought he didn’t have the time. I thought he ought to make that decision.” Bill accepted the calling immediately.

But the most significant spiritual challenge for Brother Marriott was his three years as bishop of the Chevy Chase Ward, beginning in 1975. Although he had headed the complex Marriott Corporation for more than a decade, Bill Marriott was at first overwhelmed by his job as bishop, suddenly the “father” of 650 members. “The biggest problem I had as a bishop was feeling inadequate in getting to know all the members, in offering aid and assistance and activating them,” he says. Unlike his gregarious and outgoing father, Brother Marriott is essentially a shy and private man, so his challenge was to overcome that initial hesitancy.

Members of the ward might be surprised to learn of Bishop Marriott’s “limitations.” Those who worked with him tell of his prodigious efforts in all phases of ward leadership—and his personal touch in each. It took more than a year to locate one inactive sister, but finally they learned she was working in a local hospital. Bishop Marriott and another member of the bishopric visited her. She was aloof and uncomfortable until they began talking about linguistic skills she had developed, which uncovered her interest in music. Bishop Marriott called her to the ward choir and she began coming to church, gradually providing invaluable fellowship and medical help to others.

Brother Marriott said he was first inspired concerning reactivation by Elder LeGrand Richards, who came to the Chevy Chase Ward and left a challenge: “If you were to divide your ward and put all the active members in one ward and the inactives in another, and give me the inactive ones, within a year I would give you a run for your money.” Bill concluded: “I was sure he would, and I knew he would have the most fun at it.”

Admitting that his own “success record is less than ten percent of those contacted,” Brother Marriott adds, “What a great thrill and blessing it is to bring back just one.” In fact, he testified on one occasion, “Some of the happiest moments I ever had as a bishop were when a member came to me and said, ‘I want to come back. I’ve been outside the Church for many years and I have not found happiness. I know that the other way is not good. I want to return to the gospel.’” His enthusiasm for reactivation has followed Bill into his present calling as first counselor in the Washington D.C. Stake presidency.

Brother and Sister Marriott are also tireless missionaries for the Church. As a bishop, Bill first called each ward leader to invite one family to hear the first missionary discussion, then issued a similar challenge to the general ward membership. That year they led the region in convert baptisms. As part of a trial “Operation Friendship” program, administered by President Huntsman of the Washington D.C. Mission, the Marriotts have invited at least a half-dozen families into their home for discussions. “His success ratio is about 50 percent,” says President Huntsman, “and he’s been one of the most enthusiastic supporters among the stakes in the area.”

The Marriotts do not confine their missionary work to the Washington area. A Book of Mormon is placed in every Marriott Hotel room, which now number 50,000 throughout the United States and in Cairo, Egypt; Athens, Greece; Amman, Jordan; Kuwait; Acapulco, Mexico; Amsterdam; Panama; and Barbados. Guests are encouraged to keep those scriptures, and letters from grateful converts have been received at company headquarters.

Brother Marriott’s philosophy about home life has always been that if he must be out of town during the week inspecting Marriott facilities, opening new ones, or scouting locations for future hotels, then it is imperative to be home on the weekend with his family. One of those evenings is reserved for a “date” with his wife.

Saturdays have traditionally been the children’s days—now, mostly for David, who is 9. (Debbie is now 25; Stephen, 23; and John, 21.) All the children have fond memories of Saturdays and vacations spent together. Brother Marriott frequently took his young children to see the ships and naval facilities at Annapolis—and, of course, to any boat races on the nearby Potomac River. At Saturday movie matinees, other children knew Bill Marriott was there with his own children because his full laugh could always be heard above the giggles of the youngsters.

By his children’s accounts, Brother Marriott has been there for the times when they needed him the most. When Stephen was fourteen, his mother found he had a hearing problem. She had become used to his, “What’d you say?” but finally asked him one day, “Are you not hearing me or not listening?” Stephen hadn’t known his hearing was different, but a doctor confirmed the problem. Worries about wearing a hearing aid at school, together with the possibility that it was a degenerative condition, were often too much for Stephen, and he wept in his room more than once. “My dad put his arms around me, and he sometimes cried with me,” Stephen quietly recalls. “He also spent all day waiting with me at hospitals.”

Bill confesses that he has felt shortcomings as a father. He concedes that his wife, Donna, has necessarily been the consistent parental presence in the home. And by way of advising others, and himself, in church talks, he has said: “Too often I find that I am dictating to my children, telling them what to do instead of listening to them.” In another address he reflected: “I try to remember that as long as I’m talking, I can’t be learning about the problem, and if I don’t know about it, how can I help solve it?”

The den in which Bill works seems the most comfortable room in the house, and to the children it is open almost any time. There, he counsels, encourages, and disciplines. Daughter Debbie remembers, “He made us feel like we were the most important people in his life. He was my best friend and, next to my husband, still is.”

David, who came along later, is getting the same attention his older brothers and sister received. Sometimes it challenges his father. For David’s sixth birthday party, eight six-year-olds were trundled off to the local bowling alley in Bill’s charge. They took up three lanes and were unable to keep their own scores, much less roll the ball down the right alley. Asked this year to write an essay about his father, David penned: “My father has brown hair, brown eyes, and doesn’t drink or smoke. He is so nice to me. He was in the Navy. I like him because he goes to all of my soccer games.”

The Marriotts live in a five-bedroom home purchased when they were married, and kept, according to Donna, because Bill wanted his friends and fellow Church members to feel comfortable, not awed, in it. There is no tennis court or swimming pool; the yard isn’t big enough. As they were growing up, the children were given a strict allowance, rules to follow, and lessons on the value of hard work.

Perhaps Brother Marriott’s biggest handicap—and asset—is that he is driven to work. It is as if his innermost conviction is that the natural man is indolent; and when the lure of idleness begins to attract him, he resists it with all his might. Donna says there’s little that can be done about his compulsion. “His main hobby is work.”

“If you’re born with a silver spoon in your mouth, you can either work or loaf,” Brother Marriott explains. “There is no middle road. And I never met a happy playboy.”

Bill and his father are neither miserly, stingy, nor “soft touches.” Accounts of Marriott family generosity are legion, but the family members do not talk about these because they are intended to be private. Another reason is that some—including Latter-day Saints—have tried to take advantage of the Marriott generosity. The Marriott philanthropy has been accompanied by a philosophy that it is far more demeaning to any worker who tries to take advantage of him or the company, than it is harmful to Marriott himself. So shirkers are dismissed, and those who stay have made the corporation a people-built success.

This stance has given his company a firm reputation for integrity. Mary Harne, Marriott’s non-Mormon secretary, insists that if a junior executive were caught being underhanded in his dealings, her boss “would be horrified. I’ve been working for him since 1968. He has to be the most honest businessman I’ve known. I couldn’t imagine anyone more honest.”

So agrees Bishop Sterling Don Colton of the Washington D.C. Ward. As company lawyer, Bishop Colton says Bill has always complied with the law and never given him an uneasy moment. For himself, Brother Marriott says the idea of dishonesty in business is abhorrent to him. “No business deal is worth your reputation, your honor. Life’s too short. If you have to pay somebody off to do something, don’t do it.”

Most of his competitors and other businessmen seem to know that Brother Marriott is a Latter-day Saint, which he says has “never been a drawback. In every dealing, the fact that I’m a Mormon adds a degree of trust—and the fact that I try to practice my religion only helps.” It did cause him some uncomfortable moments during a trade mission for tourism in Russia. The Soviets seemed insulted when he refused to drink their vodka. He explained that he was a Mormon, but to no avail. Then he added, “It’s like being a Moslem.” Now they understood. It was a matter of religion. “So I was a Mormon Moslem in Moscow,” Bill laughs.

Because Bill doesn’t talk about it, it’s hard to fathom the kinds of pressures a multi-billion-dollar corporation can generate for its chief executive. But there are many. His is a race against the best in the country for business, and the stakes are incredibly high. Yet there is a certain calm matter-of-factness about Bill Marriott, stemming from his belief that hard work and righteous purposes ultimately will be rewarded.

Brother Marriott rarely seems discouraged about life, though he faces trials. One of the more recent episodes centered on his daughter, Debbie, pregnant with Bill’s first grandchild—twins, as it turned out. At six months she went into premature labor, and the babies’ lives were saved only after a priesthood blessing from her husband stopped the labor.

Debbie was checked into the hospital, and her parents flew from Germany to be with her in Provo, Utah. Donna was with her constantly, and as the pregnancy continued, her father telephoned “every single day.” Still, she grew depressed and anxious. Sensing this, Brother Marriott stayed with his daughter for one four-day stretch. “He just sat by my bed all day long, holding my hand, chatting with me,” she says gratefully.

The twins, Mark and Scott, were born by Caesarean section six weeks early, weighing only 4 1/2 pounds each. But they rapidly improved in health, and their grandpa couldn’t have been more proud. At the first opportunity, when they were eight months old, he brought them into an executive meeting in the corporation’s modern headquarters building in Maryland and placed them on the board table.

“My daughter listens to me,” he told the Marriott executives. “This is what I’ve been talking about: production and management. Two at one time.”

So far, Marriott has not suffered a major loss—in his church, his family, or his corporation. He has made mistakes, but logs them like the notches of success. And he has little to apologize about. He could have spent the rest of his life touring the world or racing speedboats, but he didn’t. He could have squandered his money, but he didn’t. He could have said that there weren’t enough hours to do his best at Church jobs, but he didn’t. He could have left the rearing of the children entirely to his wife, but he didn’t. In the ways that count, he is rich, for he has spent his time wisely.

The Bill Marriott story says that, regardless of professional and temporal demands, every member has the time to do whatever the Lord asks—and that, ultimately, “to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” (Eccl. 3:1.)

  • Dale Van Atta, associate with columnist Jack Anderson, teaches Sunday School in his Sterling, Virginia, ward.

Photography by Tourcotte Studios, Muskegon, MI

A Marriott family gathering.

Father and son: Brother Marriott with J. Willard Marriott, Sr.

Right: Brother Marriott participating in an executive food school. Middle: Brother and Sister Marriott; speedboat racing has been his life-long hobby. Far right: Brother Marriott in a stake presidency meeting with L. Ralph Mecham, left, and Daniel R. Lau. (Photography by Steven Spring.)