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Remarks by President John J. DeGioia

Honorary Degree Ceremony for J. Willard Marriott Jr.

Gaston Hall
December 9, 2009

By virtue of the authority vested in me by the Congress of the United States and the Board of Directors of Georgetown University, I officially confer upon J. Willard Marriott, Jr. the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa.

Mr. Marriott, honored guests, and members of the Georgetown community . . . welcome. As we enjoy the holiday season and its celebration of giving, it’s fitting that we gather to recognize a leader in the giving, and providing, of service, Bill Marriott.

There’s a dichotomy between leading and serving. Yet over the course of his career, Bill Marriott has cultivated and crafted a company that leads in service.

How has he done so? How did Bill Marriot take a family restaurant business and transform it into a leading lodging company with thousands of properties and hundreds of thousands of associates serving countless guests around the globe?

Bill’s business acumen is one reason. When he became President in 1964, Bill saw that personal and business travel would continue to accelerate along the still developing interstate highway system. Since then, he has consistently stayed ahead of hospitality trends, constantly developing innovations to meet them.

But Bill’s success may be due even more to the spirit of service he’s cultivated—a spirit that embraces his customers, his employees, and his community. Marriott hotels consistently place near the top of customer satisfaction surveys. Their average vacancy rates are among the lowest in the industry. Business travelers consistently rate it highly.

And while providing his customers—his guests—with extraordinary service, last month The Washingtonian magazine named Marriott one of Washington’s “50 Great Places to Work,” stating, “Many employees stay a long time. One reason: They’re proud of the company.”

So where does the pride come from?

After all, up to 90 percent of Marriott’s managers have started in the hourly ranks of the company, doing difficult, but important, jobs such as cooking and housekeeping. Yet those associates consistently, as we know, provide outstanding the spirit of service.

I suspect that one source of this spirit is the dignity of work. As Pope John Paul II wrote, “[Work] is not only good in the sense that it is useful or something to enjoy; it is also good as being something worthy . . . something that corresponds to man’s dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it.” (Encyclical letter Laborem exercens n. 9)

Bill also recognizes and—rewards—the dignity of work. That’s why he provides his associates with more than a paycheck. As you just heard in the Citation, he offers opportunities to grow and give…he cares about their welfare and well being…and he listens.

Bill’s father used to keep his senior managers twiddling their thumbs while he sat on a hotel sofa and listened to his more junior associates pour out their hearts about their families. Bill followed his example. When an 800-room Marriott hotel at the World Trade Center was destroyed on September 11th, the company kept its associates on the payroll and let them continue their health insurance.

When Hurricane Katrina affected 2,800 Marriott employees, each received financial support, and many were housed and fed in Marriott hotels. Bill is famous for his visits to nearly 200 Marriott hotels every year, talking to associates and guests, and coming home with index cards full of ideas.

But Bill’s spirit of service does not end at Marriott’s door, it also embraces his community.

One example is his foundation’s exceptional support of D.C.’s Hospitality High School. Students there learn the essential basics of reading, writing and math. But they are also offered courses in hotel management and culinary services, as well as the opportunity to apply those skills at hotels and restaurants. It’s been a great community success, since more than 80 percent of its graduates have gone to college. And every May, Marriott holds a Spirit To Serve Our Communities Day, in which company employees are given time off to volunteer in their communities.

Bill often spends those days at non-profit food agencies such as Atlanta’s Community Food Bank or Washington D.C.’s Central Kitchen. The Kitchen provides more than food. It gives the homeless the skills and confidence they need to enter the food service industry. As Bill blogged of his service there, “We hope one day some of these aspiring chefs will work in one of our Marriott hotels.”

Those that do will likely follow Bill, promoting dignity and leading in service. So today we’re pleased to recognize Bill for his spirit and accomplishments. We are proud to welcome him as a member of the Georgetown family. And now, it’s my pleasure to present our newest alumnus, Mr. Bill Marriott.


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