45 - Alice Marriott and Her American Dream

With her soft-spoken, but no-nonsense style Alice Sheets Marriott helped build what’s now known as the biggest hotel operator in the world, worth over a staggering 40 billion dollars.

At just 12 years old, Alice Sheets Marriott lost her father unexpectantly to the flu epidemic and her mother suddenly became a widow. Although her mother was able to keep the family together and supported, Alice quickly realized it was time to apply herself and help her family in any way she could. At the age of just 16, Alice finished high school early and entered the University of Utah where she joined the Xi Alpha chapter of Chi Omega.

J. Willard & Alice Marriott, 1950

It was during her junior year when Alice caught the eye of J. Willard Marriott, a graduating senior. After a date arranged by a mutual friend, the pair dated for more than a year. But, in true “scholarship before social obligation” fashion, the two delayed marriage until Alice finished school. In June of 1927, the two were married just a day after her graduation, but Alice’s personal accomplishment of graduating from college with honors at the age of just 19 is one that should not go unnoted.

Immediately following the wedding the honeymooners drove across the country in the new groom’s Model-T Ford to Washington D.C., where two weeks earlier J. Willard had opened a tiny, nine-stool A&W Root Beer stand.

The A&W Root Beer Stand

Alice initially expected to have little to do with her husband’s new business, but she quickly found herself pulled into almost every aspect of its operations. Alice served as bookkeeper for the business, taking the day’s receipts, often in the form of nickels sticky from root beer, to the bank.

She also was skilled in developing new recipes and strategies. Looking for ways to attract customers when the weather cooled in the fall and winter, she added spicy chili and hot tamales to their menu and renamed the root beer stand The Hot Shoppe.

The business quickly grew to 65 restaurants.

The Hot Shoppe
J. Willard and Alice Sheets Marriott, early 1930s

Although the birth of her two sons, J. Willard, Jr., 1932, and Richard, 1939, took Alice away from the day-to-day operations of the company, she remained a vital force behind major decisions and events.

“My mother was a true partner to my father in the early days of the business,” said J.W. Marriott, Jr.

Her poised and analysis-driven approach gave her a knack for sizing up people and deciphering business concepts. As the company grew, she proved to be an invaluable resource. Her long tenure on the board of directors gave Alice a perspective and an understanding of the business that only J. Willard could match.

Family photo in car, clockwise: J. Willard, Alice, Richard, Duke, and Bill 1945

In 1957 the company’s first hotel, the Twin Bridges Motor Hotel in Washington D.C., opened. True to her determined nature, Alice was up for most of the night before it opened helping to hang pictures in each of the 365 guest rooms herself. Her attention to detail and calm, reserved demeanor allowed her to perform under pressure well.

When her older son Bill, Jr., was ready to more heavily steer the company toward the hotel business in the 1960s, he had Alice’s full support. Then, in 1972, when J. Willard was struggling with the decision to hand off his role as CEO to his son, Alice’s soft-spoken but no-nonsense style helped her husband come to terms with passing the company onto the next generation.

Alice and her husband personified the American Dream, growing their small root beer stand into one of the world’s leading hospitality companies, today boasting the name of Marriott International, which includes Ramada and Ritz-Carlton, and has over 2,000 operating sites in the US and 57 other countries and territories.

Marriott Family, 1973, left to right, back: Bill, Debbie, John, Alice, J. Willard, Richard, left to right, front: Stephen, Donna, David, Karen, Sandy, Nancy, Mary Alice, & Julieanne

In 1965 the J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation was established, and in 1985, shortly after the passing of Alice’s husband, the Foundation began actively making grants, led by Alice herself. The foundation is dedicated to supporting “exceptional nonprofit organizations that provide civic and human services, foster educational achievement, expand opportunities for youth and adults, develop the next generation of hospitality leaders and lead innovation in health and medicine.”

J. Willard & Alice Sheets Marriott at Fairfield Farm, 1978

In 1990 Chi Omega named Alice a recipient of the Malinda Jolley Morton Woman of Achievement award in recognition of her irreplicable business skills and her lifelong dedication to hard work, perseverance, and innovation.

In addition to her corporate and family responsibilities, Alice devoted time to a number of civic, charitable, and cultural institutions, and causes. She held several high-ranking roles in the Republican party, including treasurer of the national conventions in 1964, 1968, and 1972.

Alice was also a trustee of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and served two ten-year terms on its board, executive, and finance committees. She served as a member of the National Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases Advisory Council, as well as on the board of the Metropolitan Washington chapter of the Arthritis Foundation, winning their first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award.

Alice gave her time and talent to the National Symphony Orchestra, National Ballet Society, and Goodwill Industries Guild. Her personal philosophy of volunteerism is remembered in the Alice S. Marriott Award for Community Service, an honor given annually to a Marriott business unit that exemplifies the volunteer spirit.

Alice Sheets Marriott

Widowed by J. Willard Marriott’s death in August 1985, Alice joined Omega chapter on April 17, 2000, at the age of 92, the mother of two, grandmother of eight, and great-grandmother of twenty-three. Her legacy of hard work, volunteerism, and determination live on in her business, her family, and within our Sisterhood.

Photos courtesy of Marriott.com