Carl Berquist, Retiring as Marriott CFO, Reflects on Two Careers

After 28 years with Arthur Andersen and 14 with Marriott, the acquisition of Starwood Hotels serves as a resounding last hurrah.
David McCannJanuary 12, 2016
Carl Berquist, Retiring as Marriott CFO, Reflects on Two Careers

It’s the dawn of a new day for Carl Berquist, who retired on Dec. 31 from his post as CFO of Marriott International.

Carl Berquist

Carl Berquist

The hotel company’s finance chief since 2009, he came aboard in 2002 as chief accounting officer after 28 years with Arthur Andersen, where his roles included global head of real estate and hospitality and managing partner of the Mid-Atlantic region.

For Berquist, retirement won’t mean “sitting around on the front porch,” he says. Already a board member of Hertz Global Holdings, he’s looking to add a second public-company board seat, increase his work with a local not-for-profit organization he’s been involved with for many years, and continue his activities at Penn State University, where he’s an adviser to both the Smeal School of Business and the School of Hospitality Management.

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Berquist, who will remain with Marriott as a special adviser through March 31, has witnessed many profound changes in the hotel industry through the years. One of them has been industry consolidation, a trend he’s played a notable part in shaping, having overseen several major acquisitions during his CFO years. Capping his career, Marriott announced in November that it would acquire Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, a deal that will create the world’s largest hotel company.

There’s also been a significant expansion of the “asset-light” business model for lodging companies, a long-evolving trend triggered by Marriott in the 1970s, in which a number of major hotel companies sold most of the properties they owned and now generate revenue through franchise fees and management contracts.

Those trends were among the topics Berquist discussed while reflecting on his career, just days after passing the finance-chief post to Leeny Kelly Oberg, who had been CFO of a Marriott subsidiary, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. An edited transcript of the discussion follows.

Why is now the time to retire?

The clock caught up with me. I’m going to be 65 [soon]. I’d been talking with [Marriott CEO] Arne [Sorenson] for awhile about that being my target date. I’m a very lucky guy. I’ve had two fantastic careers. A lot of people go through life and don’t have even one.

Do you have any thoughts on the value of staying at a company for a long time and getting to know that business very well, versus changing jobs every few years and getting more diverse experience?

For me it worked out great, staying with [both of my employers] for long periods of time.

I was with Andersen for 28 years. Every day was a learning experience, and I wouldn’t trade a moment of it. At Marriott it was very different work with different challenges, but it had the same flavor of continued growth and learning. I think anyone who’s at a company where they continue to be challenged and to grow should [consider staying] there.

The hotel industry is known for its cyclicality, with boom times followed by torturous down times. What was your approach to handling the latter?

Yes, the cycles are dramatic. The 2008-2009 recession probably was about equal to the savings and loan crisis in the early 1990s, in terms of what how far RevPAR [revenue per available room, a key metric in the lodging field] dropped. The key is keeping your team disciplined. Now, you can’t over-react, because you can destroy value doing that. But if you’re disciplined, you’re positioned to take advantage of the market when it moves forward.

Our asset-light model really helped us in going through those cycles. It was a lot easier to manage through them as an operator than it would have been as a real estate owner. Our incentive fees fell way off, of course, but the base franchise fees were such a big part of that.

Marriott has 19 different brands, and now you’re adding 11 more by acquiring Starwood. That seems like a lot — can that many brands possibly have identities that don’t significantly overlap?

Only at the edges, and we already had that with our brands. I could walk you through all of Starwood’s brands, and each one of them complements or adds power [to what Marriott has]. For example, Starwood’s Element is a lifestyle extended-stay brand. We’ve owned the extended-stay space with Residence Inn, but that’s not a lifestyle brand.

I give Starwood kudos for being a first mover in the lifestyle lodging space. Millennials want a lifestyle type of experience when they travel. We were already moving into that space as well, with our new Edition brand at the high end and Moxy at the low end. It’s a very dramatic chance since 2002 when I joined Marriott, in terms of who the customers are and how you acquire them.

Does having 30 brands mean we’ll never buy another one? I learned a long time ago never to say never. Because of technology today, travelers can find exactly what they want much more easily than they could just 10 years ago. And with products like TripAdvisor, they can find out what their peers like. So you’ve got to have product that serves all their various needs.

The good news is that the number of people traveling internationally is rising. In 2014 people took a billion trips outside their country of origin, and that’s expected to be two billion by 2020. India, China, and Africa have rapidly growing middle classes.

But what about, say, a major U.S. city where there’s one of your core Marriott hotels downtown, and also a Sheraton, which is a Starwood brand. The two hotels might be somewhat similar. Is there anything awkward about that?

Obviously some of our hotels will compete against each other, especially when a city slows down. But that’s no different from, for example, Marriott and Renaissance [another Marriott brand] today in downtown Washington, D.C.

What the deal will do, we hope, is enable us to drive more customers to those hotels because of the additional marketing dollars. You’ve got to have a long reach today, because people are coming from far away and they’ve got to know who you are. That means you have to have a bigger pot of marketing dollars.

People think of Sheraton in the United States, but it’s actually an extremely powerful brand in India, the Middle East, and Indonesia.

Aside from consolidation and the asset-light trend, what other big changes in the lodging industry have you seen since joining Marriott?

The other big one is social media, which is playing out in a lot of different ways. Some of them, like Expedia, we call “frenemies,” because they bring customers to us, some of whom may travel only once a year, but it’s an expensive channel. In 2002 Expedia was nothing, and Priceline was just getting started. Now Expedia is spending something like $1 billion on marketing alone.

How has the changing lodging landscape required you to think or act any differently as a CFO?

What you have to do is stay current on what’s going on and continue to invest. People think of investment as “ bricks and sticks,” but the investment you need to make when you’re asset-light is even more expensive. It’s in technology, people, processes, and making sure you’re always leading edge.

You don’t have to be the first guy out there with something, but you have to put it out there on a mass scale, and it has to work every time. If we offer keyless entry to rooms, and tell you to use a phone app to unlock your door, and it doesn’t work, you’re disappointed. If it works every time, we’ve got an advantage. It costs money to do that.

You were promoted to CFO in 2009. Is there anything notable to mention with regard to how you had to adjust to that new role?

Yeah. I think it was the day I became CFO that our stock hit an all-time low. As we started to come out of the recession, we really looked at fine-tuning our capital strategy. With interest rates as low as they were and construction starts basically at zero, because no banks were lending to hotels, we had an opportunity to borrow even more in the commercial paper markets. We were borrowing at next to nothing in order to keep our BBB credit rating and provide the capital to continue to grow.

We acquired AC Hotels in Spain, and now we’ve got about 65 ACs in the pipeline, the majority of them in the United States. We bought Protea Hotels in South Africa, before which we had no presence at all in sub-Saharan Africa. And more recently we added Delta Hotels and Resorts in Canada, where we’re now No. 1. Other than our acquisition of Gaylord Hotels, which was very opportunistic, all of our acquisitions were very strategic, designed to fill out a footprint or get a brand that we could grow.

You talked about your continued professional growth. After your long career, can you identify a business lesson you learned after you became CFO?

Oh, sure. It was when we spun off our timeshare operation in 2011. If you’re ever involved in spinning off an entity from a public company into another public company, you know you learn a lot of lessons. One thing you learn is how integrated you are. How are you going to pull them apart? There are so many things you hadn’t thought about.

It was just as important to set that ship a-sail successfully as it was to spin it off so that the remaining company, Marriott, was a pure-play lodging company. The new company, Marriott Vacations Worldwide, was going to be one of our largest franchisees, so it had to be successful on Day 1. So many decisions had to be made. What kind of debt do you put on the company you’re spinning off? How do you deal with the loyalty programs?

Do you have what you consider to be a career highlight?

I think my highlight at Andersen was becoming the global head of real estate and hospitality and running the mid-Atlantic region as managing partner. I had a great group of 2,500 people working for me. Unfortunately, we had to wind that down and shut five offices, but I’ll say this: We found jobs for every single one of those people. It’s what we focused on the last few months. None of the partners were thinking about themselves. We only thought about the people. I feel pretty good about that.

At Marriott, I couldn’t pick out one thing. There have been a million highlights. Some of them I might tell you about, you might think they sound kind of boring. I’ve given a lot of people the opportunity to stretch, and I’ve seen them grow.

You know, if you find great people to work for you, all you have to do is protect them from their weaknesses. Everybody has them. If you do that, you can grow the organization so it’s bigger than the sum of its parts.

We have a philosophy not to “bayonet the dead.” In other words, when something goes wrong it doesn’t have to be somebody’s fault. You fix it and move on. You don’t spend any time figuring out whose fault it was. That’s a very inefficient use of time, it doesn’t accomplish anything, and it causes divisiveness between people.

Looking back, is there anything you’d do differently, given the chance?

I don’t think so. I don’t really look back. I figure I can’t change anything anyhow. I’ve been fortunate — married for 42 years, I have two great kids who are doing well, and I’ve had two great careers. And I’m excited about what I’m going to be doing going forward.

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