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Marriott's Way
By J.W. Marriott Jr. and Kathi Ann Brown
HarperBusiness 216pp $25

Any company that began as a root-beer stand in 1927 with $6,000 in seed money and now pulls in $12 billion as a global hotelier with 1,500 properties must have done something right. In The Spirit to Serve, J.W. Marriott Jr., chairman of Marriott International Inc., and co-author Kathi Ann Brown deliver folksy lessons about the enduring values underlying the successful company founded as Hot Shoppes in downtown Washington. A quick read, the slim volume provides inspiration for execs who want to connect with the basics.

Filled with business-world homilies, such as the need to ''maintain order AND embrace change simultaneously,'' the book can seem corny and old-fashioned. But like Ronald Reagan's speeches, it's also somehow appealing, especially in its use of self-deprecating anecdotes.

Marriott and Brown offer one easy-to-remember concept in each chapter--such as the benefits of hands-on management, consistent quality, and respect for employees. We learn that Marriott's parents stayed up half the night hanging pictures before the 1957 opening of their first hotel, the Twin Bridges in Arlington, Va. J.W. Jr. handled room service at their second hotel, and today, he travels 150,000 miles a year, inspecting various Marriott sites. The company has a manual detailing 66 steps to clean a room, a procedure to ensure that every Marriott upholds its standards. And Marriott prides itself on taking care of its workers--offering help with everything from immigration to child-care woes--so that employees, in turn, will go the extra mile to take care of guests.

With such hallmarks of Marriott operational prowess, the company enjoyed 20% growth with a 20% return on equity every year from 1979 until 1990. But the authors willingly point out its stumbles as well. The most serious: a 1980s foray into real estate dealmaking. That nearly plunged the company into disaster when the real estate crash hit in 1990. Chief Financial Officer Steve Bollenbach pulled it back from the brink by splitting the company in two: Host Marriott Corp., to hold the unsold properties, and Marriott International, a pure hotel-management company. The ploy saved the company, but it invited a spate of bondholder lawsuits.

That experience persuaded Marriott to return to founding principles. During the 1980s, the authors conclude, company execs fell prey to arrogance born of success--thinking Marriott invulnerable to downturns. Only through a deeply ingrained sense of teamwork did it recover. Top managers accepted a one-year salary freeze, and few jumped ship.

In the end, Marriott and Brown exhort companies to ''preserve order amid change'' and to ''preserve change amid order''--that is, to stay grounded in one's corporate culture while adapting to a changing market. By extolling the fundamental values of the company--humility, hard work, and respect for others--they succeed in imparting simple corporate folk wisdom, not rocket science. Plenty of execs could benefit from the reminder.



PHOTO: Cover, ``The Spirit to Serve''

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Updated Sept. 18, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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