How a 13-Year-Old Made His $25 Billion Empire from Selling Soda



 The Marriott is the world’s largest hotel chain. Before it became a living example of the American dream, it was a failing A&W root beer stand. It all started when a sheepherder was forced to take on the burden of his father’s bankruptcy. In 1900, Bill Marriott was born in Marriott, Utah — a town founded by his great-grandfather. His parents were poor sheepherders who raised Bill and his seven siblings on their tiny farm. When Bill was just eight years old, he started to help his parents raise their flock. The experience quickly taught him to work hard and take responsibility. “My father gave me the responsibility of a man. He would tell me what he wanted done, but never said much about how to do it. It was up to me to find out for myself.” By the time he was 13-years-old, he felt confident enough to start his own business. He found a few acres of unused land and planted lettuce. While the business was profitable, he had to call it quits after just one year. Bill’s father asked him to take 3,000 sheep and travel by rail to San Francisco. There, Bill was tasked with the responsibility of completing a major sale. From then on, Bill took on so many responsibilities that he was forced to drop out of high school. Afterwards, he traveled east to complete a missionary service. On his way back home, he stopped by Washington. There, he discovered a new popular hangout spot: root beer stands. Many would wait in lines around the block for a cold glass of root beer. Bill was inspired by what he saw. But like his first venture, his plans would have to wait. Pause for a few extra seconds here When he returned home, he discovered that his father had gone bankrupt. The economic downturn caused the price of sheep to plummet. The devastating news was a wake-up call to Bill. He became more eager to build a better future and further his education. He started by completing the work needed to graduate high school and asked his seventh-grade teacher for help. Later, his teacher became the president of Weber State College. Bill was keen on attending but had no money for tuition. So he asked his teacher if he could teach theology to cover his tuition. Fortunately, his teacher agreed. Two years later, Bill transferred to the University of Utah. To cover tuition, he sold woolen underwear to lumberjacks. While they were expensive, Bill came up with a genius selling strategy. He would ask two of the meanest-looking lumberjacks he could find and challenge them. “Each of you take a leg of this pair of underwear. If you can pull it apart, I’ll give you a free pair. If you can’t, you have to buy it.” The lumberjacks would have a tug-of-war but could never tear the underwear apart. It helped Bill make a huge profit and become the best salesman in the company. While Bill faced many hardships early in life, it encouraged him to create opportunities for himself and later turn a failing business into an empire. In Bill’s final year of college, he fell for another student named Alice Sheets. For their first date, he took Alice to an A&W root beer stand. He was surprised to discover so many people line up around the block as he saw in Washington. Not long after, Bill decided to jump on the opportunity and hopped on a train to Sacramento. There, he tracked down the owner of A&W: Roy Allen. Bill managed to convince Roy to give him a license to sell A&W root beer in the Washington area. He knew summers were considered hot and miserable and that the product would be in demand. After returning to Utah and graduating from college, Bill married Alice. They pooled their savings together and partnered with an old friend, Hugh Colton, to open their first root beer stand. Together, they found a small spot on 14th Street that could fit nine-stools. In May 1927, their root beer stand was officially open for business. Locals were hooked, and the business did well. But as winter approached, sales fell flat. Nobody wanted ice-cold root beer when it was cold and rainy. “You better get something hot in here to eat, or you’re going to be out of business,” customers warned. Fortunately, Alice came up with a brilliant idea. She walked to the nearby Mexican embassy and asked the chef if he could teach her how to make a few hot dishes. He not only said yes but gave Alice his secret recipes. Aftwards, Bill got permission from A&W to serve hot food. Alice would cook chili and hot tamales in their tiny apartment and then carry them over. Later, they expanded the menu by adding hamburgers and hot dogs and changed the business name to “Hot Shoppe.” Only one year later, Bill, Alice, and Hugh opened two more Hot Shoppes. For their third location, Bill betted on the future of the industry. With more Americans driving automobiles, he recognized the need for a drive-in restaurant. So he bought a vacant lot, removed the curb, and offered the first drive-in service on the East Coast. By then, Hugh realized the business wasn’t big enough to support two families and sold his half. Afterwards, Bill and Alice had no choice but to work late at the restaurant — often until 2 a.m. It was then that he had another wake-up call. This time it led to discovering a simple key to success that expanded his future empire internationally. One day, Bill’s cook never showed up for their shift. Bill realized that hiring supervisors alone wasn't enough to retain employees. So he made more of an effort to get to know each one and started a health care program. "Take care of your people, and they will take care of your customers," he often said. A few years later, Bill’s new focus helped to open eight more restaurants. He and his family would decide on new locations by staking out intersections and counting each passing car. Bill had finally built a better future for himself as he hoped for as a teen. But just one year later, he was forced to take a step back. He was diagnosed with a blood cancer called Hodgkin's disease. “How long do I have?” Bill asked his doctor. “Six months — a year at most.” Bill’s doctor warned that he needed to take a break from the business and suggested a long vacation. “You might be able to live longer.” Bill took his advice and went on a road trip with Alice and his newborn son, Bill Jr. They managed to make it all the way up to the Eastern seaboard. When they returned home, Bill felt a strong need to seek guidance from his church. So he invited two members to his home and asked for a blessing. A few weeks later, the unimaginable happened. Bill’s lymphatic swellings went down and then slowly vanished altogether. Months later, Bill’s doctors delivered surprising news. They couldn’t find the faintest trace of Hodgkin's disease. Later, Bill returned to work. And just a few years later, he discovered a new opportunity that gave him a lucky break. One of his managers shared that people were bringing their meals onto their flights. So Bill made takeout boxes for them and then took it a step further. He met with several airline companies and pitched the idea of delivering pre-boxed meals — a first for the industry. The airlines agreed without hesitation. Within a year, Hot Shoppes was servicing 20 daily flights for the Washington-Hoover airport. And by the early 1940s, Bill and Alice were juggling 24 Hot Shoppe restaurants. Many Americans considered it a big deal to take their family to one. Business continued to grow — up until America prepared for the Second World War. Instead of being discouraged, Bill pivoted by managing cafeterias in government office buildings and war-production factories. When the war ended, business returned to normal. But not long after, it was threatened by its biggest competitor: McDonald's. McDonald’s could make a hamburger in two minutes for 15 cents. Meanwhile, it took Hot Shoppe 15 minutes and cost 50 cents. It was around then that Bill decided to raise money by taking the company public. On the day of the company’s IPO, its stock sold out in just two hours. Afterwards, Bill decided it was time to gamble on a new venture — one that would make or break his career and legacy. In the early 1950s, travel was on the rise. Experts predicted that passenger jets would be flying in and out of the Washington National Airport. It was obvious to Bill that travellers would want to stay somewhere close by. And he had just the perfect location in mind. Just a stone's throw away from the airport was eight acres of land that he bought three years earlier. While risky, Bill believed now was the time to build his first motel. He considered it a logical extension of Hot Shoppe's care for families on the go. Since Bill, Alice, and their son knew nothing about the industry, they often stayed up all night, redecorating and repainting the motel as it was being built. In 1957, the motel was officially open for business. It was called the Twin Bridges. With over 300 beds, it was the largest motel in the world. The business did well. But just like Bill's root beer stand, it went downhill as winter approached. It became so bad that Bill could only afford to keep one elevator running. "I don't know what to do with this motel," Bill said to his son, Bill. Jr. "Why don't you let me run it, and I'll learn?" "You don't know anything about the motel business." "Well, neither does anybody else around there." "Fine, go ahead." Equipped with a degree in finance and banking, Bill Jr. was eager to succeed. He started working for the family business when he was 14-years-old and didn't hesitate to take up any task — including cooking burgers and mopping floors. Under Bill Jr.'s management, the motel became more profitable by introducing competitive services. These services included a reservation system, restaurant, meeting rooms, and even an ice-skating rink. Two years later, Bill Jr. opened a second motel called the Key Bridge. Later, his father changed the business name to Marriott. Proud of his son's progress, he made Bill Jr. the president and later the CEO. While Bill was nervous and admitted he was scared to death, he forged ahead with transforming the family business. He started by pivoting towards hotels and then property management and franchising. Today, the Marriott is a billion-dollar, international empire that owns dozens of luxury brands — including the Ritz-Carlton, W Hotels, St. Regis, Sheraton, and many more. In an interview, Bill shared his definition of success and what it takes to build a legacy. "Successful people keep moving. They make mistakes, but they never quit." This is the story of how a sheepherder and his son pivoted their business during uncertain times and built the world’s largest hotel chain. 


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