The Marriott Foundation’s Bridges – from School to Work program is celebrating its 25th anniversary. The famous hotel chain’s altruistic wing was inspired, in part, by the late Stephen Garth Marriott, the founder’s grandson. He was diagnosed with a terminal degenerative disease as a teenager, yet went on to enjoy a successful career.
The Bridges program has helped more than 18,000 young people around the country acquire skills and find real world jobs. At a recent awards dinner for the program, ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and Lia Martirosyan met with Richard E. Marriott, chairman of the board of Marriott’s Host Hotels and Resorts, and president of its Foundation for People with Disabilities.
Chet Cooper: When we were first introduced, you had a huge map of the world covering your office wall.
Marriott: It’s still there.
Cooper: And you had all these dots on it, and I remember saying: “It looks like you’re taking over the world.” And you said, “One day.”
You’ve talked about a family connection to Bridges, which I didn’t know about before.
Marriott: Stephen Garth Marriott is my brother’s son. He was 54 years old when he passed away from a degenerative mitochondrial disease earlier this year. The cell structure in his body began to deteriorate, a condition first identified when he was only 14 years old, so he had it for 40 years. First it took his sight, then his hearing, and finally his mobility. Then he had a fall that brought on his demise. But he never complained. He went to work every day, where he was a terrific leader and master teacher, instructing thousands of Marriott sales associates down through the years, and this was after he was totally blind.
He would get up and give a fabulous talk, and he had an incredible memory. He could reel off 50 names, he won awards and had a very positive attitude. He was on our board for the Bridges Foundation for almost 20 years. Tad Asbury, our executive director, worked with him directly; Stephen would report to him on the Bridges program’s progress every quarter. Stephen was always interested in Bridges, always expecting us to do more and more and more. And of course, the more disabled he got, the more he appreciated what Bridges was doing. He was a great mentor and a great role model for Bridges. His sister, Debbie Harrison, my niece, recently took over his role as the person in charge of culture for Marriott; she now goes around to talk about how important it is to take care of people, and give them the opportunity to do meaningful work. We have stressed that in our company and in our family through the years.
Lia Martirosyan: I noticed that I. King Jordan is on your board of directors.
Marriott: He was the president of Gallaudet University; one of the few universities in the US strictly for people who are deaf. He was their first deaf president, an incredible guy. He’s been on our board for 15 or 20 years. He’s a terrific fundraiser, and a real celebrity in the disability community. He’s been a loyal supporter of Bridges throughout the years.
Cooper: How does Bridges work with a company and/or students from high school?
Marriott: As you know, Bridges doesn’t have anything to do with the Marriott corporation itself; it’s a separate foundation under the Marriott Foundation for People with Disabilities. Bridges from School to Work has employer representatives in eight cities, and we’ll soon add a ninth—Baltimore, MD. These employer representatives work with special education and vocational rehabilitation groups in these cities. They identify students who are possible Bridges candidates. Our employer representatives work with these young men and women to train them to apply for a job, perform well in an interview, do the work required, and accept responsibility. Then we identify employers and talk to them about what the Bridges program has to offer. A lot of companies have never hired anybody with a disability; they’re afraid and don’t know what to do with this population.
We explain that usually there’s really no extra accommodation needed for most people with disabilities, unless they have a severe physical condition and they need to provide moderate facilities. The most important thing is identifying a job that the young person can do, and getting the right fit. We’ve found that once a company gets involved with a program and hires their first person, they discover that it’s a win-win situation for the company, the youth and the community.
Cooper: That’s a win-win-win!
Marriott: (laughs) Everybody wins! For instance, there was this sweet young lady named Maria in Dallas. She was hired by Bank of America, and they’d never hired anybody out of the program. She has spina bifida and can barely walk. She said, “People don’t think I can do anything because I can’t walk straight.” But the company hired her and she is a sensation. She’s had three promotions. She was so darn good that they’ve hired 32 people since from the Bridges program.
To get companies and employers to sign up, it’s got to be to their benefit. We’re all in business to make a profit and be successful. When you hire a young person with a disability, you expect them to perform. And they do. That’s what employers are finding out. These kids can really make contributions. They can help with morale, the bottom line, and participation in their community. It’s a terrific opportunity for them to bring these young people along.
Martirosyan: You also talked recently about a student who got a job through UPS. I guess he had to have a certain class driver’s license that allowed him to drive a truck?
Marriott: This young man had a severe learning disability, but he could get a driver’s license. He’d passed the written part of the test, but required five driving tests before he passed that part. We’re working with these kids to give them the self-confidence to say, “Go ahead and apply for a job and get the necessary requirements done.”
So many times they’re from dysfunctional families or tough inner-city areas where they get no opportunity to do this. We give ‘em a little nudge, a little help, a little self-confidence that allows them to do things they wouldn’t have been able to do on their own. And this young man, who joined UPS 16 years ago, is now making $70,000 a year as a driver, supporting his family with three kids. He’s got a future. It’s fabulous.
Cooper: So what age group does the Bridges program work with?
Marriott: It’s basically working with kids in special education groups in high school and seniors in high school. That’s the target group. Every now and then somebody will come in who’s a little different, but typically that’s where most of the kids come from.
Cooper: At this point, they don’t have a résumé yet because they’re coming right out of high school?
Marriott: Some of them have had a little previous work experience. There was a person I talked to recently who said, “One of the most important things about getting a job is to have work experience.” What we try to do is get them a 90-day internship. They’ll get paid. It’s tentative and depends on how well they perform as to whether they’ll be offered a full-time job. Seventy percent of the kids who get internships get offered a full-time job. That’s a heck of a lot better than the typical kids out there who don’t have disabilities.
Cooper: How do you find the students?
Marriott: Every city has a whole department of people who help people with disabilities. They help us identify kids in special ed classes they think would be appropriate for work outside. We talk to them, work with them, go to the schools and get the young people jobs.
Martirosyan: Do you mentor the companies?
Marriott: We’ve dealt with 4,800 different employers down through the years. We’ve educated them on how to work with people with disabilities and to be comfortable with them. In fact, increasing the comfort level is the single most important thing we do. We show them how they can best apply their individual talents. AMC movie theaters is our Employer of the Year here in Los Angeles, so we celebrated that recently. They hire lots of these kids to take tickets and sell concessions; the young people are a tremendous asset to them, and they’re a tremendous asset to these young people.
These kids are great for a company’s morale. People who work with them say they’re truly excited about their jobs. They show up, they work hard, they’re happy. They’re excited to be there and to be performing a useful service. When you go through the line at the supermarket, these kids are working the cash registers, doing the bagging, they smile, they laugh, they’re happy to see you. It makes you feel good. It makes everybody feel good. They’re great. There are so many different levels of disability that you can find something for virtually everybody to do.
Cooper: You have the eight cities now, are you looking to expand outside the US?
Marriott: No, we have our hands full with the cities here in the States. We’re concentrated in cities that have a lot of Marriott operations. We’re just going up to Baltimore, which is really part of the Washington, DC, metropolitan area—our home base. We’ll start a program in Baltimore and probably another one in Salt Lake City.
Marriott: I’m the chairman of a company called Host Hotels and Resorts; it’s a real estate investment trust. We have about 145 hotels. Half of them are Marriotts, but we own Hiltons, Hyatts, Best Westerns and other hotels, as well. We own the Hyatt right down the street from here.
Cooper: I had no idea.
Marriott: I just visited it today. But over 50 percent of our revenue comes from Marriott hotels. We originated by splitting off from that division and taking all the hotels and all the debt and creating this real estate investment trust. I’m also chairman of the Marriott Foundation, which really contributes a great deal to the Bridges program, yet most of its funding comes from either federal grants or school grants within cities. In Baltimore, we’ve got a private foundation that’s helping us fund that operation. We can’t just go anywhere we’d like; we need funding.
Cooper: There’s a group in Long Beach that might want to be an affiliate and find some funding. They’re already dealing with adults and youths with disabilities. It’s called ASD, Arts Services for People with Disabilities. They’re looking to expand their operations. They have several offices in Orange County, and they do a good job at writing grants.
Marriott: Tad Asbury is the man to talk to about that; he’s the king of the program. Bridges does so well because a lot of companies like AMC, Bank of America, Mitsubishi and others see the value of hiring people with disabilities. We’re kind of a farm team. We go out and find the kids who would be appropriate and help the company choose the slot where the young person can be successful. We talk to Marriott, but we have just as much influence with AMC and other large companies that hire a lot, such as Walmart and other big operations. There are a lot of them. And they’ve all figured out the value of hiring people with disabilities, so you can go to any of these folks. The important thing is getting the kids trained, so they can actually apply for a job, and then make sure they’re successful when they’re there.
Cooper: If you’re looking at your own life—
Marriott: I’ve forgotten most of it…
Cooper: —is there any advice you’d pass on to young people about starting out, whether they’re working for a company or for their family?
Marriott: First of all, get out there and get a job. So many people are sitting around saying, “That job isn’t quite exactly what I want. I want something else.” And all of a sudden it’s three years later and they still aren’t working. Hey, if it means cooking hamburgers at McDonald’s, get a job. Get out there and get some experience. If you can, get a mentor who can show you the ropes and help you out. Get all the help you can get. But go after it, get to work.
That was one thing my father taught me, and even beat into me from the time I was a little kid: “Nobody ever makes a great success out of life workin’ 40 hours a week. Don’t think you’re gonna be able to just go in and work 9 to 5 and be successful. You’ve got to be willing to commit 100 percent to the job you’re doing and get it done right.” He was very, very I guess you’d say—
Marriott: Yes, and a perfectionist. He wanted everything to be done right and as quickly as possible. And that’s why he was so successful in the restaurant business.
Cooper: And he had enough time for family life?
Marriott: He had a little bit at night. My family activity with my father was visiting restaurants. He’d go out and inspect them and I’d get to eat all the food. He was a terrific guy, very active in the church, very active in the community. He was a great father and a great example to me.
Cooper: And your brother’s the same way? You both have that genetic make up of doing things the right way?
Marriott: My brother’s been terrific. He’s really the one who built the hotel business. He was the general manager of our first hotel. If my father had his way, he’d have just stuck with restaurants. My father loved the restaurant business and when he got into hotels, he loved that, too. He enjoyed going around, meeting people and checking up on everybody to make sure everything was done right.
He was taught how to work when he was a kid, and he used to say: “My father gave me the responsibility of an adult when I was a child.” When he was 14 and a half years old, his father sent him to Omaha, NE, with a whole trainload of sheep to sell. By himself. Fourteen-and-a-half-years old! That’s when my father got his first pair of long pants. He went and sold all the sheep and came home. My father said of his father: “He told me what to do. He never told me how to do it.”
Cooper: But he could sleep well at night, because he had all those sheep to count… Sorry, baa’d joke.
Marriott: (laughs) He herded sheep all through high school and through his first year of college. His father didn’t trust the Basque sheepherders who worked for him, and he had my father out with the sheep. My father never graduated from high school. He never went to school in the spring, because he was always out on the range with the sheep.
Cooper: This is in Utah?
Marriott: Utah and Wyoming, down by Elco, WY, and all through the Utah valleys around Ogden, he would be out with the sheep.
Cooper: I thought that was cattle country.
Marriott: They had sheep and cattle. They had some cattle, but mostly sheep. You don’t see that many sheep out there now, but that was big business years ago, back in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Sheep were huge down there.
Marriott: Yes! He was a master salesman. When he was in college, he was earning $2,000 a summer selling long underwear to loggers up in the Northwest. He was incredible. And he worked four jobs simultaneously through Weaver High School and Weaver College in Ogden. He accomplished huge things and had a great personality; he was great with people. That’s what sold my mother on him.
She was seven years younger than he was and she thought he was an old man.
Cooper: (laughs) Because he was weathered or was it age itself?
Marriott: She was 18 and he was 25. Seven years is a big spread when you’re 18. She graduated high school at 15 and college at 19. She was a very smart, very beautiful girl. They ran the business together for many years, and she did all the accounting and took care of the books.
Cooper: Even back then, were they members of the Mormon church?
Marriott: Oh, yeah, that’s what got him off of sheep herding. The Mormons called him on a mission. If it hadn’t been for the mission, he would never have started a restaurant business back East. On his way back from his mission, he went through Washington, DC, and saw how hot and miserable it was in the summer and thought, “This’d be a good place for a nice cold root beer.”
Cooper: So they bought the A&W franchise? And they only sold root beer?
Marriott: At first, and then he became the first one ever to sell food in an A&W.
Cooper: Why do I feel like you had something to do with Bob’s Big Boy?
Marriott: Yeah, we bought Bob’s Big Boy. I ran it. I was out here every month for five or six years running all the restaurants in the company.
Cooper: And you didn’t call me?
Marriott: (laughs) You didn’t call me! I was up there in Glendale, on the main road; corporate headquarters were in Glendale.
Martirosyan: It was there for a while, but they sold it a couple years ago. I loved it.
Marriott: We had Bob’s Big Boy; we had Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlours, Roy Rogers Restaurants, we were a franchisee of Popeye’s Fried Chicken, and we bought Gino’s restaurants. We also bought Howard Johnson’s, and converted all of them to Big Boys.
Cooper: You did so much in business, it boggles my mind, but it means that you had to have hired really good people.
Marriott: The hospitality business is far and away the most labor-intensive business on earth. There’s nothing that can compare to it.
Cooper: While you haven’t taken over the world as of yet, I see you’re thriving, and that Bridges is still going strong.
Marriott: I will do the Bridges program as long as I’m alive.
Find out more at bridgestowork.org.