Proximity Case Study — Root beer to Airports


Marriott's root beer stand

Marriott’s root beer stand

J. W. Marriott founded his company in 1927 as a root beer stand. Ten years later, he had a chain of 9 successful restaurants, which he planned to expand to 18 over the next 3 years. Then, on a regular tour of his chain, he found a surprise at restaurant number 8.

This restaurant was next to Hoover Airport in Washington, D.C. Passengers were stopping at the restaurant to stock up on food to carry onto the plane. This was not the kind of about it only by chance, when he went there. The store manager explained that the airplane trade was growing bigger each day.

Overnight, Marriott figured out what to do. The next day he went straight to Eastern Air Transport. Then and there he worked out an arrangement for the restaurant to deliver box lunches right to the planes, as part of ordinary flight preparation. The service grew quickly—to 22 flights a day in just a few months. Over the years it spread to more than a hundred airports. It led Marriott to look for other opportunities in food service beyond his original restaurants. The result was a major business that led to hotel food, and then to hotels themselves.

Hoover Airport

Hoover Airport

[In Built to Last,] Jim Collins and Jerry Porras praise Marriott for skipping a research and planning phase. He “could have bogged down in long meetings and strategic analyses to decide what to do.” Instead, “Marriott made an incremental shift in corporate strategy by quick, vigorous action taken to seize upon a stroke of unexpected good luck.” This is a clear case of von Clausewitz over Jomini (Swiss contemporary of Clausewitz). We can even pinpoint the night of Marriott’s coup d’oeil.

As Schumpeter says, you can explain a creative response ex post, but you can’t predict it ex ante. Collins and Porras seem to agree: “The step looks brilliant in retrospect, but in reality was simply the result of an opportunistic experiment that happened to work out.” Yet they also diminish Marriott’s achievement: It was not really brilliant at all. He was just lucky.

So again, as in the case of Johnson & Johnson, Collins and Porras suggest that success happens by chance. In expert intuition, it comes from skill and will, which Marriott showed in abundance.


The above is quoted from The Art of What Works by William Duggan.  Chapter 3, “The Art of Success:  Expert Intuition in Business, Page 53.

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