CEO Profile: Starwood, Van Paasschen both on the move

He regularly studies GDP rates for different countries in the Economist magazine, speaks five languages and is currently learning Czech with his chauffeur each morning, says his wife, Laura di Bonaventura. He learned Italian just four years ago, when — despite the demands of his Nike job — he squeezed in a starter Italian-language course so that he could converse with his Italian colleagues in a less formal way, she says.

A paper boy and a ditch digger

Van Paasschen and his older sister were raised in Seattle by Dutch immigrants, and they visited the Netherlands each summer. His father was a pediatrician and his mother was a biomedical researcher who specialized in kidney dialysis. The family lived modestly, so he started delivering the Seattle Times at age 12 to pay for his interest in skiing.

"What I learned is to work hard, treat everyone well and listen," he says. "It's more about effort than ability. We all know brilliant people who haven't had a very successful life."

In the fifth grade, he started running regularly to strengthen his soccer game. He wanted to "get faster and better," says di Bonaventura, who likes to tease him about his oddly mature goals as a youth.

"That's been a constant theme in his life," she says. "Clearly he's ambitious, but it's more than a drive to achieve. It's a drive for personal growth."

He dug ditches for landscapers and worked as a janitor in his father's office to put money toward his undergraduate degree at Amherst College in Massachusetts. There, he majored in economics and biology, unsure whether he wanted to attend medical school or become an economist.

He chose a different path entirely after reading an article in Harper'sMagazine about the exciting lives of young consultants. It sounded like a good fit for his energy level and analytical skills, and he landed a job at the Boston Consulting Group. He later returned to school, earning his MBA at Harvard Business School.

He'd already lined up consulting jobs in Munich and Amsterdam when he met di Bonaventura, a fellow student who had a consulting job offer in Boston. A whirlwind romance ensued, and they arranged to work together at McKinsey Consulting in Los Angeles.

"Forty days before the end of school, when all the students have jobs lined up and their lives completely organized, both of us threw caution to the wind," she says.

They got married in 1990. Van Paasschen spent six years at McKinsey in Los Angeles and Amsterdam, but decided to leave the hectic lifestyle as they were about to have the first of their three children.

"I wanted a little more balance and to put family first," he says.

Di Bonaventura says her husband still puts family first. He eats breakfast and dinner with them, and if he needs to work, does so near them instead of shutting himself in a home office. He speaks only Dutch to the children — ages 13, 11 and 7 — so they can be bilingual, and engages them "on their own terms," she says. The family recently moved from Denver into a home in Connecticut. After his first child was born in 1995, van Paasschen joined Disney's consumer products division to gain more global experience. He established Disney's retail stores in Japan and crafted a strategy to open new markets in countries such as Poland.

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