Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson during a meeting with tourism industry executives in Washington, DC, the US, March 17 2020. Picture: KEVIN DIETSCH/ BLOOMBERG
Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson during a meeting with tourism industry executives in Washington, DC, the US, March 17 2020. Picture: KEVIN DIETSCH/ BLOOMBERG

Arne Sorenson, the first non-family member to be CEO of Marriott International, the world’s largest hotel chain, has died. He was 62.

Sorenson died on February 15, the company said in a statement on Tuesday. He disclosed a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in May 2019, saying doctors had caught the disease early, and that he intended to continue working while undergoing treatments.

Earlier in February, Marriott said that Sorenson would limit his work schedule to undergo demanding cancer treatments.

Stephanie Linnartz, group president for the company’s consumer operations, technology and emerging businesses, and Tony Capuano, group president for global development, design and operations services, will continue to oversee day-to-day operations, the company said.

The board expects to appoint a new CEO within the next two weeks, according to the statement.

The new leader will take the reins during a critical time for the hotel giant, as the global hospitality industry seeks to recover from its worst year on record. Marriott has begun positioning itself for a rebound in leisure demand, adding resort hotels to its portfolio. But a full recovery will take years.

The company’s shares were up less than 1% in New York on Tuesday. The stock slipped 12.9% in 2020.

Senator Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican who was on Marriott’s board and has close ties to the hotel company’s founding family, called Sorenson a “leader of vision and achievement” in a statement released on Twitter.

“Arne was not only a brilliant executive, he was also a fundamentally good person,” Romney said.

Sorenson took over as CEO in 2012 from JW “Bill” Marriott Jr as only the third person to hold that title since the company was founded in 1927 by J. Willard Marriott. After leaving the practice of law in 1996, Sorenson worked for the Bethesda-based company the rest of his life.

In his biggest transaction, the former merger and acquisition lawyer managed the $14bn takeover in 2016 of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which included the Sheraton, W and Westin chains.

The deal made Marriott the industry’s largest player and pushing competitors such as Hilton Worldwide Holdings and Accor to add new brands in a bid to keep up.

‘Global Leader’

“He’s a global leader, a man with a conscience, a person who connects with his people,” Fred Hassan, former chair of Bausch & Lomb, said when he announced that CEO magazine had named Sorenson CEO of the year for 2019.

The Starwood acquisition gave Marriott a popular loyalty programme. Marriott also inherited a reservation database that was hacked. The cyberattack, which was discovered in 2018 and involved the data breach of hundreds of millions of customers, created a public-relations crisis for Sorenson, who took responsibility for it and instituted new security measures as he dealt with consumer lawsuits.

The year he took over as CEO, Sorenson told the Miami Herald that his biggest challenge was how to respond to global growth in the competitive hotel business. The purchase of Starwood was a response, but it brought with it hard work beyond shoring up the reservation system. Key among the tasks was how to rebrand the ageing Sheraton line of hotels, which made up about half the acquired company, while continuing its customer-friendly tradition.

Airbnb challenge

Sorenson also had to respond to the burgeoning home-rental business to compete with companies such as Airbnb, whose customers were attracted by lower prices. He instituted pilot home-rental programs in Europe and in 2019 in US resort cities.

Arne Morris Sorenson was born in October 1958 in Tokyo while his parents, Morris and Dorothy, were in Japan as Lutheran missionaries. He moved to the US at age seven, received a bachelor’s degree from Luther College in Iowa and earned a law degree from the University of Minnesota. After a judicial clerkship, he joined the Latham and Watkins law firm in Washington as an associate specialising in M&A deals.

He met Bill Marriot while advising the company on a legal case, and Marriott invited him to join Marriott in 1996. He was worked as senior vice-president of business development and was promoted to executive vice-president and CFO two years later.

He assumed the additional title of president of continental European lodging in January 2003. In 2009, he became president and COO. When he was named CEO, he retained the title of president.

He was married to Ruth Sorenson. They lived in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and had four children: Astri, Esther, Isaac and Lars.

Bloomberg

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