Opinion - Leadership

Op-ed: It's not often a CEO touches you at your core, but Marriott's Arne Sorenson did just that

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Key Points
  • Longtime Marriott employees, and even his competitors, shared how CEO Arne Sorenson led with his heart.
  • As a journalist covering the company for several years, his warmth was evident.
  • Unlike other corporate heads who tend to stick to the script, Sorenson didn't hold back in interviews and hardly ever minced words.
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Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson dies from cancer at age 62

Following the news of his death after a nearly two year battle with pancreatic cancer, several current and former Marriott International employees shared how CEO Arne Sorenson led with his heart.

"I consider Arne's legacy to Marriott and the hospitality industry as immeasurable. Perhaps one of Arne's greatest legacies is his principled and gracious leadership, an 'esprit de corps,' that I feel has been ingrained by Marriott's global associates today and certainly for generations to come, said Gregory Miller, a former longtime Marriott employee and now a lodging analyst at Truist. 

Miller added that he was "gutted" when he heard the news.

Sorenson, who turned Marriott into the world's largest hotel chain after acquiring Starwood Hotels & Resorts in a $13 billion deal in 2016, died at the age of 62, the company announced Tuesday.

As a journalist covering the company for several years, Sorenson's warmth was evident.

Sorenson knew everyone's name at a conference. He would take the time to ask you about your family. He never shied away from answering tough questions around hotel workers' rights and politics. He exemplified what many executives try to do but often fail to do: Show compassion.

Unlike other corporate heads who tend to stick to the script, Sorenson didn't hold back in interviews and hardly ever minced words.

In an interview with CNBC in 2018, Sorenson said the U.S.-China trade war and rhetoric from the Trump administration around immigration was resulting in fewer foreign arrivals and issuances of new visas.

Earlier this year, Sorenson was one of the first CEOs to speak out and condemn the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

"I recognize that we have associates who have very different views on the results of this election and the direction of the United States ... but what we can't do is trample the Constitution," he said at the time.

Marriott — located in Bethesda, Maryland right outside Washington, D.C. — quickly followed Sorenson's statement by cutting off political donations to the Republicans that voted against Joe Biden's certification as president. Other companies responded similarly.

At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, when hundreds of Marriott employees were furloughed, Sorenson teared up in an address to employees in mid-March.

"I can tell you that I have never had a more difficult moment than this one," he said at the time. "There is simply nothing worse than telling highly valued associates, people who are the very heart of this company, that their roles are being impacted by events that are completely outside their control."

While competition has only heightened over the last five years, his longstanding friendship with one of his biggest rivals, Hilton CEO Chris Nassetta, was perhaps a great testament to the type of leader Sorenson was. Nassetta said, "I will miss him and the friendship we've built."

I will miss him and the friendship we've built.
Chris Nassetta
Hilton CEO

Sorenson's death invited an outpouring of support and tributes from CEOs, political leaders, and executives from various industries including Walmart CEO Doug McMillon and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

The timing of Sorenson's death comes as the hospitality industry is still reeling from the effects of Covid-19, while also gearing up for a potential recovery in the second half of this year.

A new 2021 trends report from Expedia found that 42% of respondents surveyed said recent news regarding coronavirus vaccines made them more hopeful about travel, or drove them to book an upcoming trip.

Marriott, which is betting on a big recovery and a return to larger venue properties like resorts, announced plans last week to more than double its portfolio of all-inclusive resorts with an additional 19 new properties, all of which are located across the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico.

"The appeal of inclusive resorts has been heightened during the pandemic, Tony Capuano, head of global development at Marriott, told CNBC in early February.

Capuano along with Stephanie Linnartz, group president of consumer operations, will continue to run day to day operations. While the hotel operator is unlikely to name a successor to Sorenson so soon, the company is said to be considering Capuano and Linnartz, as well as current CFO Leeny Oberg as potential CEO candidates.

Marriott also faces competition from rising competitor Airbnb which saw a meaningful jump in bookings last year as consumers fled big cities for more space and solace.

Expedia CEO Peter Kern said its vacation rental platform saw "strong growth," in the last quarter. In a CNBC interview last week, Kern dismissed the idea that travelers will not go back to hotels.

"[Home rentals] have been on a great tear, Airbnb has been an important part of what's going on there and we respect, obviously, what they have achieved. But I don't think this is a grand consumer shift of how we all want to travel. Many of us do want to go back to the spa or go to the hotel pool," said Kern on "Squawk on the Street" on Feb. 12.

Marriott reports earnings Thursday and the leadership transition will likely be a topic of discussion.