A few months ago, I had an interesting conversation with Bill Marriott. As a prominent Mormon-controlled venture, his hotel company was an obvious target in 2008, when the church vigorously supported California’s now-overturned ban on gay marriage. The Marriott International (MAR) chairman has never tried to hide his deep faith, often referring to God in his writing and interviews.
In Marriott’s personal life, marriage is something reserved for a man and a woman. But he has long been reluctant to impose that view on the company his father founded. Not only could that crimp the company’s $12 billion in sales, it might demoralize employees working in more than 3,700 Marriott properties worldwide. With Mitt Romney’s presidential run and same-sex marriage in the headlines, we spoke about his stance as Mormon leaders were being held up for scrutiny again.
“This church helped me raise a family and has brought great joy and happiness to my life,” he told me. But that didn’t mean gay employees had any less status at Marriott. “We have to take care of our people, regardless of their sexual orientation or anything else,” he said. “We are an American Church. We have all the American values: the values of hard work, the values of integrity, the values of fairness and respect.” Marriott has both a deep faith and a deep understanding of his responsibility as a leader. Many of his shareholders, customers, and employees don’t belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Their values matter, too.
“Our church is very much opposed to alcohol and we’re probably one of the biggest sales engines of liquor in the United States. I don’t drink. We serve a lot of liquor. You’re in business. You’ve got to make money,” he said. “We have to appeal to the masses out there, no matter what their beliefs are.”
As a result, when his church actively campaigned against same-sex marriage in California, neither Marriott nor the hotel chain donated any money to the cause. Instead, he stepped into the drama by publicly reinforcing his company’s commitment to gay rights through domestic partners benefits and services aimed at gay couples.
Contrast that with the approach of Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy. His company is also committed to treating gay employees and customers at its 1,608 outlets with the same “honor, dignity, and respect” as everyone else gets. “Going forward,” the company says, “our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.”