Arne Sorenson, the CEO of Marriott for the past nine years and only the third chief executive in the company’s history, died on Monday. He was 62 and had been battling pancreatic cancer for nearly two years.
The company announced on February 2 that Sorenson would be reducing his work schedule to receive further treatments.
Sorenson’s path to the head of the world’s largest hotel company wasn’t a typical one.
Born to a family of Lutheran preachers in Tokyo, it was expected he would follow the family footsteps into religion. When the family returned to the U.S., Sorenson studied business and religion at Iowa’s Luther College. He met his future wife, Ruth Christenson, while there and they went on to have four children.
But Sorenson eventually went to law school at the University of Minnesota.
It was while working at Latham & Watkins, a law firm in Washington, D.C., that Sorenson gained ties to Marriott. He represented the hotel company during its spinoff of its Host real estate division and began a friendship with J.W. “Bill” Marriott, the company’s executive chairman and chairman of the board.
“We were fired by our investment bank, if I remember right, not long after announcing the transaction,” Sorenson said at a Nasdaq speech in 2019. “It was a gift to me to be able to start to learn immediately from Bill Marriott.”
Sorenson eventually went in-house and began his tenure with Marriott in 1996, serving first as house counsel and later a variety of roles including chief operating officer. He became the first non-Marriott family member to serve as CEO in 2012.
His legal background may have been a selling point in his ascent to the chief executive position.
“The big advantage is you get used to being attacked as a lawyer. I tried cases, hostile-takeover cases, basically,” Sorenson said in a 2017 interview with Hotelier. “In that context, there are brilliant lawyers on the other side whose aim is to make you look bad, show that you don’t understand your facts or you don’t understand the law. You do that year after year for a while, you develop a certain toughness.”
Among his achievements, Sorenson oversaw the 2016 $13 billion acquisition of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, bringing the company’s portfolio to more than 30 brands and clearly establishing Marriott as the world’s largest hotel company.
But there were also the tough times. The company faced one of the largest cybersecurity failures of all time following the Starwood merger, labor disputes, and the rising threat of industry disruptions like Airbnb and online travel agencies.
Sorenson continued to face those difficult matters — as well as his own cancer battle for the last two years — while continuing to build Marriott’s development pipeline. Even with the worst year for travel, Marriott managed to flip to profitability by the third quarter of last year.
Picture Arne Sorenson with J.W. Marriott, the company’s chairman of the board and executive chairman, in Times Square.