Ed Fuller's Career Comes Full Circle At Marriott

Monday, November 14, 2011

Fuller joined Marriott in 1972 after leaving the Army. The company was looking for a military salesperson. The 65-year-old has held no fewer than 10 titles with the Maryland-based company. During his tenure as head of Marriott's international lodging operations, the number of company properties outside the United States and Canada grew from 16 to 350.

Ed Fuller was thinking like a hotel developer long before he had any inkling he would spend the bulk of his career helping to build one of the world's most recognized hotel brands.

Serving as a captain in the U.S. Army, Fuller found himself looking at some of the most beautiful land on which he ever set foot. It was 1971, and he was sitting on a beach in Cam Ranh Bay, the deepwater port that has long served shipping and naval interests.

"I looked up, and without having any hotel background, thought, ‘Wouldn't it be great to have a casino up there and six hotels on the beach?'" he said. "Now we're building hotels in Vietnam … not on that same beach, but some that are just like it." The "we" to which Fuller refers is Marriott International, where he has worked since 1972—including the last 21 years as the president of its international lodging. Under his leadership, the international business platform has grown from 16 properties outside the United States and Canada to 350 hotels in 70 countries with another 175 hotels under construction. In Vietnam, the company has one hotel open—the Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon—and nine others in development during the next three years.

"I had my moments that went back to Vietnam with the idea of doing a hotel there," he said. "Vietnam has a natural beauty, and the people there have a natural feeling of hospitality." HotelNewsNow.com caught up with Fuller during the International Society of Hospitality Consultants annual conference in Istanbul, where he talked about his 40 years with Marriott and his upcoming retirement on 31 March 2012.

One bit of advice Fuller had for hotel-industry executives is to have some patience, even in this day of instant information.

"Everybody worries about the moment and forgets that hotels are long-term contracts and long-term investments," said Fuller, who is a self-described U.S. history buff. "Take the time to analyze the situation with the right tools and things will be OK." Fuller also believes that leading by example creates a solid workforce and foundation for growth. His book "You Can't Lead with Your Feet on the Desk: Building Relationships, Breaking Down Barriers and Delivering Profits" details how and why personal relationships are the real bedrock of long-term success in any business and any industry.

A good time for conversions It's somewhat ironic that Fuller's career bookends are marked by worldwide downturns. When he was hired as a management trainee at Marriott in 1972, the world was going into a recession. As he is counting down until his retirement, the world is coming out of one.

"Getting through cycles, especially those on the downside, can be the toughest thing," he said. "This last one was particularly tough. I never saw so many issues come up at the same time as they did this time around." But even tough circumstances produce opportunity. For Marriott, it's a good time for conversions. He said the company's extended-stay and select-service brands have unlimited growth potential because of the clear landscape around the globe.

Independent hotel owners are more often sold on the need for a brand as the economy continues to struggle, he said.

"Independent owners and small chains are coming to the reality that they need the skills and capabilities that the large branding companies like Marriott have," Fuller said.

He said Marriott's Edition brand is one that holds a lot of conversion promise around the world. "We are buying hotels right now and converting them to Editions," Fuller said.

He didn't want to have an in-depth discussion about the issues with the Edition brand—most notably the loss of an agreement in Hawaii. "Every company lost a hotel now and then," he said. "Way too much was made of it in the media. But that's the age we live in." Autograph, another lifestyle-oriented collection of hotels, also has been attracting independent hotel owners in search of the right conversion brand for a full-service conversion, according to Fuller.

"We worked very hard placing our branding in categories that complement each other," he said. "That strategy is also about geographic reach. Each one has to be evaluated on its own merits." A look back Fuller said there have been many defining moments since he joined Marriott after leaving the military.

"I started with the company because I was in the military and just left Vietnam. They needed a military salesperson," he said. "My goal was (to work for) airlines. I stayed with Marriott because of the culture and the dynamics Bill Marriott has brought to the company. Many people do stay with Marriott for that reason." Bill Marriott's style and his commitment to the industry as an operator have been significant, according to Fuller.

"He is virtually untouched by anyone else in the industry at his level," he said. "The business model Marriott has developed … is being followed by mega companies. The commitment to multiple brands that started with Courtyard and Residence Inn … has been followed by other companies. His commitment to community service and people has been significant for us." When Fuller started at Marriott, the company had 22 hotels in its portfolio. There are now close to 4,000. Fuller said the biggest reward for him has been the creation of more than 80,000 jobs at Marriott properties outside the U.S.

"That was my big ‘a-ha'," he said. "Helping to put that many people to work is a satisfying way of looking at one's career.' Fuller teaches at the University of California-Irvine and Boston University. He and a few partners have created a consultancy called Laguna Strategic Advisors.

And, at age 65, Fuller isn't ready to call it quits for good.

"I'll still be trotting," he said. "Trotting is a good thing because it's more at my own pace."

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