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Hotel Magnate Bill Marriott On Life's Lessons

In the 1920s, a man passing through Washington, D.C., noticed something about the city in September: It was sweltering, and there were few places to seek relief. He figured you could make a lot of money selling ice-cold drinks.

That first business venture set J.W. "Bill" Marriott Jr. on a road to riches.

The story of how it all happened is the subject of Marriott's latest book, Without Reservations: How a Family Root Beer Stand Grew Into a Global Hotel Company. The chairman of Marriott International sat down with NPR's Michel Martin to share how his family's drink stand became a chain of Hot Shoppes restaurants and eventually a Marriott hotel.

Marriott remembers his father building the family's first hotel just outside of Washington at the 14th Street bridge, between what's now Reagan National Airport and the Pentagon. But it wasn't an easy start. The elder Marriott knew little about running a hotel. His son was eager for a new opportunity, though.

"So I said, 'Nobody's running this hotel, why don't you let me have a crack at it?' He said, 'You don't know anything about the hotel business.' And I said, 'Well neither does anybody else around here.' "

Since then, Marriott International has expanded from places like Dubuque, Iowa, to Dubai and the United Arab Emirates. Marriott attributes a lot of his company's success to listening closely to all the employees.

"I think it's probably the most important thing a successful executive can do — is to listen and learn," he says.

It's something Marriott learned as a young man. He was home on leave from the Navy, shortly after graduating from college. Family friends, who happened to be President Eisenhower and the first lady, were visiting his family's farm and trying to decide whether to venture out hunting on a cold day.

"I was standing off in the corner, hiding, and the president looked at me and said, 'What do you want to do, Bill? What do you think we should do?' And I've never forgotten that."

"No wonder he could deal with Montgomery and Patton and all those people he dealt with in the second world war," he adds, "because he made them feel important. He showed respect for them. He showed interest in what their beliefs were, and he asked that very important question: 'What do you think?' "

Marriott is a leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He contributed to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, and Romney serves on Marriott's board.

Yet Marriott says he believes strongly in separating his personal beliefs from the ethos of his company. He says that his church has taught him "you can be in the world, but not of the world," meaning that personal beliefs and a company's values don't necessarily have to be in sync.

"We were one of the very first [companies] to come out with [domestic] partner benefits," he says. He tells Michel Martin the decision was a no-brainer. "Some of our most leading, talented people are in this community. So we recognize if we're going to have a successful company, we've got to have talent, and we draw talent from all over the place."

Marriott hopes advice in his book will be useful to those who are curious about the company's keys to success. "I've tried ... to explain why we've been successful, and how we've been successful. And it all comes back to listening and learning."

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