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Arne Sorenson, first outsider leader of Marriott, dies at 62

A man jogs past a Marriott sign
The JW Marriott in Los Angeles. Marriott had begun positioning itself for a recovery from a difficult year for the global hospitality industry.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

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

Sorenson died Feb. 15, the company said in a statement 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 this month, Marriott said that Sorenson would limit his work schedule to undergo the demanding treatments.

Stephanie Linnartz, 52, group president for the company’s consumer operations, technology and emerging businesses, and Tony Capuano, 55, group president for global development, design and operations services, will continue to oversee day-to-day operations, the company said.

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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 crucial 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 rose 92 cents Tuesday to $130.40. The stock slipped 12.9% in 2020.

Sorenson took over as CEO in 2012 from J.W. “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, Md.-based company the rest of his life.

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

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

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

The Starwood acquisition gave Marriott a popular loyalty program. 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 hard work beyond shoring up the reservation system. Key among the tasks was how to rebrand the aging Sheraton line of hotels, which made up about half the acquired company, while continuing its customer-friendly tradition.

Sorenson also had to respond to the burgeoning home-rental business to compete with companies such as Airbnb Inc., whose customers were attracted by lower prices. He instituted pilot home-rental programs in Europe and in 2019 in U.S. 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 U.S. at age 7, 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 specializing in merger and acquisition deals.

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

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

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

Christine Maurus contributed to this report.


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