John Willard Marriott was born at Marriott Settlement, Utah, on September 17, 1900, the second of eight children of Hyrum Willard Marriott and Ellen Morris Marriott.
As a youngster, J. Willard – “Bill” – pitched in to raise sugar beets and sheep on the family’s small farmstead. He quickly learned to rely on his own judgment and initiative. “My father gave me the responsibility of a man,” said Marriott many years later. “He would tell me what he wanted done, but never said much about how to do it. It was up to me to find out for myself.”
At age 13, Marriott went into business for himself, enlisting his younger siblings to help raise lettuce on a few fallow acres on the farm. The harvest at summer’s end brought $2,000, which Marriott immediately presented to his father. The next year, Hyrum entrusted his eldest son with the sale of a herd of 3,000 sheep, sending the boy and his woolly charges without escort by rail to San Francisco.
As much as Bill loved the open spaces and grandeur of the Rockies, he dreamed of a life beyond the family farm. Without an education, however, his prospects were limited. After completing a two-year mission for the Mormon Church in New England, Marriott returned to Utah in 1921 to pursue a college degree, graduating first from Weber Junior College and then the University of Utah. Tuition money came from assorted jobs, including a regular summer stint selling woolen underwear to lumberjacks in the Pacific Northwest.
While finishing up at the university, Marriott hatched plans for starting a business of his own, thousands of miles away, in the nation’s capital. Bill had passed through hot, muggy Washington, D.C., at the end of his mission and recognized a tailor-made market for A&W Root Beer. He secured the A&W franchise for Washington, D.C. – plus Baltimore and Richmond – and headed east in the spring of 1927. Marriott and partner Hugh Colton pooled $6,000 to buy equipment and rent space for their tiny operation. On May 20, 1927 – the day aviator Charles Lindbergh began his historic transatlantic solo flight – the duo opened their nine-stool root beer stand at 3128 14th Street, NW.
His fledgling business launched, Marriott raced back to Utah just two weeks later to attend another event that promised to change his life: his wedding to Alice Sheets. On June 9, 1927, one day after Alice graduated from the University of Utah, the pair married in Salt Lake City. The couple’s honeymoon consisted of a long, hot, bumpy drive back to Washington, D.C., in Bill’s Model T Ford.
For the next 58 years – until his death in August 1985 – J. Willard Marriott rarely rested. Whether adding locations, perfecting procedures or expanding into new enterprises, Marriott breathed, ate, lived, and dreamed about his business. Even when his older son, J. Willard “Bill” Marriott, Jr., took over most major responsibilities after being named the company’s CEO in 1972, the founder could not bring himself to retire. A true hands-on manager, he thoroughly enjoyed visiting Marriott’s increasingly far-flung locations, as well as spending time with the ever-growing ranks of associates who – in his eyes – were the secret of his company’s success. “Take care of your employees and they’ll take care of your customers,” he constantly advised Marriott’s managers, voicing a deeply held belief that remains the keystone of the company’s culture.
The founder’s concern for others also extended to church, charity, and country. In addition to tithing and holding leadership positions in the Mormon Church, Bill gave both time and money to support causes dear to his heart, with a special emphasis on education. He also chaired two presidential inaugural committees and organized a special “Honor America Day” in 1970 at the request of then President Richard M. Nixon.
Sometime before his death at his New Hampshire vacation home on August 13, 1985, J. Willard Marriott summed up the personal philosophy that drove him his entire life: “A man should keep on being constructive, and do constructive things. He should take part in the things that go on in this wonderful world. He should be someone to be reckoned with. He should live life and make every day count, to the very end. Sometimes it’s tough. But that’s what I’m going to do.”