Female representation in hotel industry finance roles isn’t widespread, but Marriott International EVP and CFO Leeny Oberg began her career in finance and shared the opportunities that helped develop her skill set and leadership qualities. She also shared her take on the company’s expansion, loyalty integration and more.
BETHESDA, Maryland—For Leeny Oberg, a role in finance was something she knew she wanted to pursue.
Now, she’s in her third year as EVP and CFO of Marriott International. However, a female in a finance role of that stature isn’t a widespread trend in the hotel industry.
According to data from the Castell Project, there is one woman to roughly three men in the EVP or SVP level in hotel company accounting and finance roles and one woman to roughly five men in the C-suite level. Peggy Berg, founder of Highland Group and director of Castell Project, told Hotel News Now in an interview for a March article that there seems to be a disconnect “between what is happening with women moving into leadership and what makes sense.”
Berg said what makes sense is that people who are really good at working with money, finances and numbers should be moving up the ladder into leadership roles. But what she found is that women are perceived as not being good at finances and numbers in a business setting, but skilled in other aspects of their lives such as balancing their household income.
While Oberg faced some personal obstacles to get to the point she is at in her career, there were many opportunities, relationships and experiences she’s built along the way to reach a top role at Marriott, she said.
How her career began
While in college, Oberg took an introductory finance course, and ever since that point it was clear that a path in business was one she wanted to take.
“What I think I liked particularly about finance is really the combination of building successful business strategies and understanding the capital that’s needed to fund those strategies,” she said.
Oberg started her career in the banking world, then found her way into the finance side of the hotel industry. From 2008 to 2013, she was the SVP of corporate and development finance at Marriott. In 2013, she served as CFO for Marriott’s Ritz-Carlton brand prior to returning to Marriott and assuming the role of CFO in January 2016.
The hospitality industry was an attractive industry to her because it’s always evolving and there’s so much opportunity for growth, Oberg said. It also had the people component she was looking for.
“The fact that it is the business that is incredibly people-oriented, I definitely realized pretty quickly that this was the industry that I would stay in for the rest of my career,” she said.
The most important element in propelling her career was having the opportunity to do so many different things, she said. While depth in a subject is very important, breadth is just as important.
“What ultimately was a critical part of putting me … in a position to even compete for the position was the opportunity to do things in a variety of different parts of the company,” she said.
Some of her experiences included corporate finance work, investor relations, project finance and an international assignment where she served in London as Marriott’s SVP of international project finance and asset management for Europe and the Middle East and Africa from 2006 to 2008.
All of those opportunities not only helped her hone her skills in different areas of the company, but it also allowed her to build relationships, she said.
The Marriott EVP and CFO said she’s very fortunate to be at the company.
“Both (Bill) Marriott’s history of his leadership as well as (President and CEO) Arne Sorenson’s, I think has been really consistent about always just wanting the best talent that they can get,” no matter what the employee’s background, ethnicity or gender is, she said.
“It was really clear to me when I got there, and I have felt that environment throughout. I do think it makes a difference to have the message from the top being a strong one that doesn’t just voice it but acts, and really lives it in the day-to-day life of the company in terms of listening to diverse points of view, having it clear in roles in the company that there are opportunities for all kinds of people to grow and develop and take on big roles,” she said.
Roughly half of Sorenson’s direct reports are women, she added.
On a personal side, however, Oberg admitted that like a lot of other people, she had to figure out how to balance her career and family life.
“I learned pretty early on … you can’t do it all,” she said. “You have to pick your spots. … (My family) tried really hard to kind of (be flexible) with things as we went. And in some cases just realized we’re just not going to be able to do it all.”
Importance of diversity, female representation in companies
Oberg said there’s nothing like having a diverse set of opinions to help a group get to the best answer for a business challenge.
She said a company is far better off having people with different backgrounds, skills, experiences and points of view, and she keeps that in mind when hiring for her team.
“I think my group will only be much, much stronger from having a group of folks who have diverse backgrounds and diverse experiences and diverse capabilities to help us be better leaders,” she said.
Ultimately, she wants everyone to come to Marriott-branded hotels and having a diverse staff is the best way to give customers better experiences.
“Having a full range of all those kinds of people absolutely makes us a better company,” she said.
When it comes to female representation in roles with in the C-suite, Oberg said there’s no doubt that if you look at how many CFOs are women now compared to 15 years ago, “it’s a dramatic improvement, not just in our industry but quite frankly across companies big and small.”
Giving women visibility at industry conferences is also important, she noted.
“The first is making sure that as leaders we are giving people opportunities to attend, and then helping them to understand what are the great benefits of those conferences,” she said. “Opportunities to meet people to network, to hear how other companies are doing things and building relationships in the hospitality industry is important; it’s a people business.”
She said making sure the companies are working hard to give younger leaders opportunities to learn different parts of the company and industry is crucial.
What Marriott has planned
Recently, Marriott has announced its robust expansion plans, and hopes to execute some major development milestones by 2023. Oberg said the company wants to be the world’s No. 1 travel partner.
“We are on the path with our existing 1.3 million rooms and 30 brands (in) 130 countries,” she said. “We are well on our way, but we do believe there’s lots more contributions to be made in terms of building greater ways for us to communicate (and) add value to our customers. We’ve got a pipeline of 478,000 rooms.”
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The company also announced in January that Marriott Rewards, Ritz-Carlton Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest would retire and integrate as one loyalty program named Marriott Bonvoy, which launched on 13 February.
“When you think of taking two powerful loyalty programs that both had some unique strengths and both had, frankly, great power and terrific groups of customers and combining them to be able to keep the best and then even add more to it in terms of value to the program, we do think it provides a distinctive, competitive advantage,” she said. “That is really exciting as we move forward.”
Having such size and scale now gives Marriott the ability to invest in Bonvoy and build on those relationships with customers in a stronger way, she added.
“We are thrilled to be where we are with successfully integrating the companies across all dimensions of the company and … just see tremendous opportunity going forward,” she said.
With opportunities also come challenges. Oberg said Marriott is addressing the data security breach of the legacy Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide guest reservation database on 8 September, which company officials confirmed publicly on 30 November. Marriott believes that the number of “potentially involved guests” was approximately fewer than 383 million guests.
“We went after it very fast, making sure that we would be able to No. 1 take care of our customers, first and foremost, put together a response to it that allowed us to help our customers understand and then feel comfortable that they were being taken care of through the customer-engagement centers that we put forward,” Oberg said. “Then, obviously, it’s all about making sure that we’ve got the systems in place that protect the company.”
Marriott accelerated the shutdown of the Starwood reservation system so it could remove the area that hadn’t been affected by the security incident and make it unusable, she said. The company has also fast-tracked some investments to make sure that the company puts itself in a position to prevent this from happening again, she added.
“Going forward, this is an area in the whole world, quite frankly, that every company is dealing with and it requires a tremendous amount of effort to make sure that we are keeping up with all that is out there and doing the investments needed to keep our customers’ information safe all the time,” she said.
All in all, Oberg said she’s excited about the opportunities ahead for Marriott. It’s been a very busy past couple of years getting the companies integrated, she said, and working to drive successful results at its hotels as well as adding to its portfolio.