Starwood's CEO takes an idea and runs with it

If you want to get to know Starwood CEO Frits van Paasschen, grab your running shoes.

His version of a power breakfast is a strenuous, 10-mile run at 6 a.m. He runs every day and has run 12 marathons.

Van Paasschen — who prefers to be called "Frits" and rarely wears a tie — took the helm at the $6-billion-a-year hotel company last September after Starwood's board ousted former CEO Steve Heyer. The board, chaired by Bruce Duncan, spent five months searching for a new CEO. About 60 candidates were interviewed, but van Paasschen was their unanimous choice.

Duncan says that van Paasschen, (pronounced "van passion") 47, stood out because of his "intellectual firepower," success shaping global strategies for consumer products at Disney, Nike and Coors, his likable personality and the aggressive way he promised to tackle the job. Because he lacked hotel experience, he vowed to immerse himself in the industry. Since joining, he's visited 132 hotels in 20 countries and 45 cities.

Van Paasschen's passion for running didn't hurt, either.

"That shows someone who's tenacious, someone who has a plan and gets it done," Duncan says. "It shows he'll do whatever it takes."

Van Paasschen credits running with much of his management style. Business, he says, is about conquering personal fears, setting high goals for yourself and breaking barriers, which in many ways meshes with Starwood's culture.

A decade ago, the company's W brand revolutionized the hotel industry by creating the "living room," or open lobby space where younger generations mingle with laptops, cocktails and friends. Most chains today are adopting the concept in one form or another.

Starwood hot, based in White Plains, N.Y., reported a $32 million profit, or 44 cents a share, for the first quarter. It was less than last year's first-quarter results due to a one-time tax charge, but it beat analysts' estimates. For the year overall, the company expects to make more money than last year. Starwood shares are trading at about a third of what they were a year ago (they closed Friday at $44.44), but the entire sector's generally down.

Worldly CEO targets global growth

Well versed in the nuances of opening new foreign markets, van Paasschen plans to continue Starwood's strategy of transforming itself from a U.S.-based company into an international powerhouse. He's determined to set the pace for hotel development as rivals such as Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt also sprint into emerging cities.

Starwood currently operates 900 hotels in 100 countries under nine, mostly upscale brands, including St. Regis, Sheraton, Westin and The Luxury Collection. About half are outside the USA. But van Paasschen plans to push more future growth in emerging markets. Half of the 600 hotels slated for construction within the next four years will open in countries such as China, India and Qatar.

"It is an extraordinary time for us," he said during an interview at the W New York. "When you see Macau or Shanghai or Qatar and see the amount of construction going on, you get a much more visceral feel for just how extraordinary this phenomena in development and wealth creation is."

Steering international growth is clearly fun for this worldly CEO. Born in the Netherlands, van Paasschen maintains duel citizenship and has a love for all things international.

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