Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott International died Monday after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer. He was 62.
One of the best-known and well-respected chief executives in American business, Sorenson was the first non-family member to serve as CEO of the global hotel chain and only the third in its history. He led the company through a period of vast expansion, including the $13 billion purchase of Starwood Hotels & Resorts.
But Sorenson is as likely to be remembered for his leadership in helping rethink the role of the CEO in public life at a time of deep social division and growing cynicism in America. Sorenson’s style, a combination of empathy, personal warmth and iron principle attracted deep admiration throughout the corporate world and beyond — and served as a model for other leaders trying to navigate this tumultuous period. In 2019 he was named Chief Executive of the Year by his peer CEOs.
“Arne was an exceptional executive — but more than that — he was an exceptional human being,” said J.W. Marriott, Jr., Executive Chairman and Chairman of the Board said in a statement released this morning by the company. “Arne loved every aspect of this business and relished time spent touring our hotels and meeting associates around the world. He had an uncanny ability to anticipate where the hospitality industry was headed and position Marriott for growth. But the roles he relished the most were as husband, father, brother and friend.”
Trained as a lawyer, Sorenson had an unusual path to the corner office. He was personally recruited into the company in 1996 by Bill Marriott (our 1988 CEO of the Year) after representing Marriott in a lawsuit a few years earlier. By 1998, he’d been named CFO (“a risky move even in a pre-Sarbanes-Oxley world,” he told Chief Executive) and was named CEO in 2012.
As the Covid pandemic struck hard at the company and its employees, Sorenson earned universal praise for a video message to his workforce, a unique combination of straight talk, compassion and authentic emotion which humanized the business response to the global pandemic amid widening economic fear and chaos.
The son of a Lutheran minister, he was born in Japan and raised in Minnesota. That upbringing shaped his worldview, he told Chief Executive in a 2020 interview. “Every single hand in a hotel, I will shake. Kitchens, housekeeping, wait staff, front desk, and half the time I think they are looking at me like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’,” he said. “Overwhelmingly people will say, ‘You know, he looked me in the eye and shook my hand, and I’m a housekeeper.’ If you treat people like they deserve to be treated, as human beings with the same kind of dignity that you would treat senior people, it will flow through the organization.”
In accepting his CEO of the Year honor, Sorenson talked at length about his team, his family, his work, and what he saw as the purpose of being a leader:
“We think we have about 730,000 people that wear our name badge every day. What we aspire to is that every one of those associates, no matter how senior or junior their job is, deserves to be treated with the kind of dignity that every human being deserves. They deserve to be able to grow in their job if they want to grow in their job. They deserve to be able to take pride in their work. If they take pride in their work, they’re going to deliver something that’s even better for our guests and customers….
“We are in a time in which we are untrusting of each other. We are cynical about things. In too many parts of our society, we can see that our self-interest will be enhanced if we are driving conflict as opposed to driving people together. And we want very much to be an example of something different, where everybody is welcome to our company to be an associate with us. Everybody is welcome to be a guest in our hotels. If we can be an example of genuine hospitality and create opportunities for folks, it is obviously something that is important and a one powerful reason why I love this job so much.”