All things being equal, there were a lot of travel industry stalwarts hoping that the world's largest hotel chain, Marriott International, would tap a woman as CEO in a signature statement at this juncture in history.
Two weeks before Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson’s death, when he decided to reduce his workload, the hotel chain assigned two leading executives, Stephanie Linnartz and Tony Capuano, to run the show as acting bosses.
At a time in history when diversity and inclusion have momentum — or should across business sectors — Marriott would soon select the guy to succeed Sorenson — Capuano.
What was behind the decision?
A handful of industry sources, men and women, argued that gender had nothing to do with the selection — or at least they hoped it didn’t.
A Marriott spokeswoman declined to comment for this story.
“Although I would have loved to see a woman take the helm, if you look at background and experience, Tony has strong development and ops experience, while Stephanie has far more commercial expertise,” said hospitality and technology consultant Flo Lugli, a former executive vice president of Wyndham Hotels & Resorts. “Splitting Arne’s role between the two looks like they are leveraging their individual strengths in the right way.”
After all, Capuano served as group president, global development, design and operations services, and Linnartz was group president, consumer operations, technology and emerging businesses.
Under the new leadership structure, Capuano will serve as CEO and Linnartz as group president, a position that hasn’t existed as a standalone title since 2012. Sorenson served as Marriott’s president and chief operating officer from 2009 to 2012, and took on the dual president and CEO role later that year.
“At the end of the day, Marriott’s success is based upon unit growth, which is Tony’s background, and brand value, which is Stephanie’s,” Lugli said. “It looks like a good fit.”
One source closed to Marriott concurred with Lugli’s perspective on the CEO decision.
“I can only guess that Tony’s experience on the hotel development side of the business, which drives the unit growth and is how Wall Street values the company, gave Tony the edge,” the longtime hotel executive said. “Marriott had this structure of CEO and president back when Bill Marriott was CEO and Bill Shaw was president, so it’s a structure that the company has good experience with.”
As group president, Linnartz will get the unit development leadership experience that would round out her resume, the source said.
All of the sources, both within Marriott and outside the company, said Linnartz was certainly qualified to have grabbed the top spot.
“They may have really wanted to appoint a woman, and Stephanie is absolutely brilliant,” the longtime hotel executive said. “I suspect in the end it may have been a choice between consumer services and unit growth experience, not gender.”
It’s unclear whether the Marriott board looked beyond its co-CEOs in its candidate search. But what’s certain is that the process was speedy. CEO searches can sometimes take months, but in announcing Sorenson’s death February 16, Marriott said it would make the choice on his successor within two weeks.
Marriott announced its CEO choice of Capuano seven days later.
One former Marriott-Starwood executive said the succession plan was likely all but decided prior to Sorenson’s death.
“But I’m sure they had a plan in mind long ago,” the former Marriott-Starwood executive said. “The passing was sudden and swift, but I’m sure they have known for a long time what the plan was. It’s the Marriott way. They are methodical in everything they do.”
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Photo credit: The pool at Turnberry Isle Resort, part of Marriott's Autograph Collection in Miami, Florida, as seen on May 11, 2014. Hotel development experience was seen as a strong factor in Marriott's selection of Tony Capuano as CEO. Thank You (20.5 millions+) / Flickr.com