Hilton CEO Chris Nassetta said he’s glad he started his career in the hotel industry plunging toilets and replacing broken televisions at the Holiday Inn Capitol Hill.
MCLEAN, Virginia—Today, Chris Nassetta is the top executive at one of the largest companies in the hotel industry. His first experience in the industry, during the early 1980s, was considerably less lofty, but some would argue no less important.
Nassetta, 54, said he spent much of his teen years working odd jobs like lawn care and shoveling driveways, but his first regular job was in the engineering department at the Holiday Inn Capitol Hill.
“I was sort of interested in a lot of things, and I decided I wanted to try out (working in hotels),” Nassetta said. “So my dad helped with my introduction but said, ‘If you’re going to do anything, you should start at the bottom and learn from the bottom up.’ So, I started working in the hotel engineering department.”
Before college, Nassetta worked three summers in that role—full time for roughly three- to four-month stretches—starting in the summer of 1980. The work equated to responding to guest and staff maintenance requests. As the low man on the totem pole, he would typically get the least desirable jobs on any given day, which meant a considerable amount of time with a plunger in hand.
“I like to say my career started in a toilet,” he said. “But it was a pretty amazing experience.”
Life at the Holiday Inn Capitol Hill
The roughly 500-room property had plenty of maintenance needs, Nassetta said, which meant a lot of work and a lot of opportunities to get to know his co-workers.
Looking back on the experience, he often thinks of one member of the engineering department, in particular.
“The senior guy in the engineering department was from Vietnam,” he said. “He emigrated to the U.S. not speaking a word of English. He had been an engineer in Vietnam, but lacked opportunities (in his home country). He came to America with nothing—no money, friends or family. He had an education, but he got into (this business) at the lowest level and worked his way up.”
Nassetta said he was blown away by how welcoming and helpful that man was.
“I thought he was wonderful,” he said. “My first experience was super nice and super hospitable, and it struck me with the hospitable nature of the people and the immense opportunities created in our business.”
For all the toilets plunged or broken televisions and light bulbs replaced, Nassetta said the true reward was that his co-workers in the engineering department of the Holiday Inn Capitol Hill grew to treat him like family. At the end of his first summer working there, the crew—having known Nassetta for only a few months and unsure if he’d return after enrolling in at the University of Virginia—threw him a goodbye party that he remembers to this day.
“They were pretty sure I was coming back, but just in case they decided to give me a golden plunger,” he said. “They actually went out and bought a normal plunger and a can of gold spray paint. I still remember (grabbing it) and getting paint on my hand. … It was tongue-in-cheek, but it was heartfelt. I don’t know why they felt the need to celebrate some 17-year-old punk, but what it told me was these are really hospitable people. These are caring people. And that became part of my heart, because now I was part of their family.”
He said the experience overall gave him an outlook on the industry he never would have gotten otherwise.
“Until you’ve been behind those walls and lived and breathed (working in a hotel), you don’t really know how it all ticks and how difficult it is to bring these amazing experiences to life,” he said. “It was a fantastic way to learn and to get perspective. It’s what led me to be excited about the hotel business, ultimately.”
Passion for career development
Now the CEO of Hilton, Nassetta said it’s been one of his top goals from day one to enable all the employees at all of his company’s hotels to succeed to their highest potential. He said his memories of being a young person working in the hotel industry make him want to empower the young adults in the industry today.
“One of the things I love most about this business is the impact it has on young people,” he said. “That’s one of the things I’m most focused on.”
Nassetta, a father of six daughters, also serves on the board of the International Youth Foundation.
He said he recently gave one of his company’s interns career advice, which included finding some aspect of the work to be passionate about and taking pride in having “a great work ethic and humility.” He said one of the most important factors to foster young talent is to create a culture of support.
“You have to make sure whatever you’re doing, you find a place that is a nurturing, good environment from a cultural point of view,” he said. “It needs to be an environment where people invest in you, and where if you work hard and intelligently and work well as a part of your team, that organization and that company invest back in you. If you flub something in a great environment that invests in you, amazing things can happen.”
He said ultimately it’s about passing on goodwill to younger hoteliers.
“I’ve been exceptionally fortunate, and obviously I’ve had great mentors and good fortune,” Nassetta said. “One thing I love about our business and what we’re doing is giving that back and passing that along for another generation or two or three or four. I think it’s about making sure we as an industry and Hilton as a company continue to focus on giving to the next generation. If anything, I think my story is a good testimonial to the opportunities … and what’s really possible in this business and what I love about it.”
Holding on to lessons
Nassetta’s path in the hotel industry was far from a straight line from the Holiday Inn Capitol Hill to the top job at Hilton. After graduating from college, Nassetta worked in various roles focused broadly on real estate and development, including with a firm he co-founded in 1991 called Bailey Capital Corporation.
That eventually evolved into a role as EVP at Host Hotels & Resorts in 1995. Nassetta took over as CEO of that company in 1997 and held that position until he took over as chief executive at Hilton in 2007.
From the very beginning in his role at Hilton, Nassetta has made it a priority for senior staff members to get property-level experience on a regular basis. That led to the creation of an “immersion program.”
“All of our senior management have to work for a week in the back of house,” he said. “I kicked off that program. I didn’t get to go to the Holiday Inn, but I went to the Capital Hilton, which is not that far away, and I asked to be assigned to engineering. When I left, they gave me a golden plunger.”