Debbie Marriott Harrison tells this wonderful story about how her grandmother knocked on the door of the Embassy of Mexico and convinced the chef there to teach her how to make tacos and tamales.

Harrison is the third generation of Marriotts in the hospitality business. Her grandparents started their empire in Washington, DC, with a single A&W Root Beer Stand that sold cold drinks and ice cream. So what do you do when fall arrives? (Answer: Serve hot food.)

The Marriotts went on to found Hot Shoppes and dabble in the fast food business (they owned Big Boy Restaurants for a while) on their way to building a global hotel management company.

Bob's Big Boy

Harrison spoke to a small group of Cornell University alumnae recently about her company’s history and the core values by which it operates.

Put people first.

Any company’s number one asset is its people, and Marriott boasts low turnover rates in an industry where employees tend to come and go. Harrison talked about how the company recognizes its staff, including promoting from within and a peer-nominated awards process.

Pursue excellence.

Harrison said that the company “hires friendly, trains technically.” In other words, if you have the right people on hand, you can give them the skills to do their jobs. She told the story of Joshie the giraffe’s excellent adventure at one of their properties. It’s fun, but it’s also an example of going above and beyond to create a great customer experience.

Embrace change.

The Marriotts started with restaurants and then purchased their first hotel in 1957. In other words, their business model evolved to stay relevant and take advantage of new opportunities. Harrison talked about her company’s commitment to non-stop innovation and reinvention. There’s a design lab within the company’s headquarters, and an innovation week to solicit and spark ideas from across the organization.

Act with integrity.

This one’s worthy of a duh, and yet a lot of organizations undervalue the importance of reputation. My business doesn’t have formal core values, but ethics and integrity are key to how I operate. And integrity is a core value at Marriott for a reason too. It’s not about never making a mistake; it’s about pattern and practice, and how much space you have to make it right.

Give back.

ROI of Corporate Social Responsibility

A recent consumer survey shows that corporate social responsibility matters. Marriott clearly gets this. Harrison talked about the company’s commitment to giving back. For example, Marriott has purchased one million acres of rainforest in the Amazon in an effort to offset its carbon footprint. It buys honey from Chinese villagers in order to preserve an industry and protect the Yangtze River. It holds community service days in the communities where it operates.

Marriott’s core values aren’t rocket science, but they’ve guided the company through changing business landscapes and helped it to anticipate, pivot, and/or respond to shifts in the consumer marketplace. More important, they’ve helped the company stay relevant for almost 100 years.

Bob’s Big Boy by Naystin (Flickr).