University of Wisconsin-Stout

Nov. 4, 2011

Menomonie, Wis. — Stephen Marcus grew up during a bygone era in the hospitality industry. People used to write letters to hotels to get information about rates, he said. Hotel rooms didn’t have phones. Movie theaters had only one screen.

Marcus, 76, chairman of Marcus Corp., told University of Wisconsin-Stout students Friday that they are poised to take the reins of today’s “high-speed, worldwide economic system.”

“You don’t see people 65 starting technology companies. You’re the next generation of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. The world is ripe for that,” said Marcus, who graduated in 1957 from UW-Madison.

Marcus was at UW-Stout as the Cabot Executive in Residence, an annual College of Management program that features a corporate leader.

The hospitality industry has changed greatly, he said, during the last 20 years. Maids at some Marcus hotels now have an iPod Touch so they know the minute a room is ready to be cleaned. Marcus’ Big Screen Bistro movie houses have tableside service and chef-prepared menu items.

Technology has helped improve the customer experience, and that’s Marcus Corp’s. No. 1 goal, he said. “Taking care of our guests has a tremendous impact on their lives and on our companies. We want to leave them with great memories.”

Milwaukee-based Marcus Corp. is the sixth-largest movie theater company in the country. It also owns and manages 18 hotels and resorts and employs 6,200 people. Its stock is traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

Marcus’ father, Ben, emigrated to the U.S. and started the company with a single movie screen in Ripon 76 years ago. Marcus Corp. still owns that theater.

Marcus, named president in 1980, CEO in 1988 and chairman in 1991, cited two key moments in company history. With a law degree in hand and at his father’s behest, he joined the company in 1962 to help it save the iconic Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee; it was in a bankruptcy auction and in danger of being torn down.

“My father thought it would be a tragedy for the city,” he said. “Back then people weren’t renovating old hotels downtown. We were ahead of the times.”

Today, the Pfister is a Milwaukee landmark and a downtown anchor.

A highlight of his career, Marcus said, was when he saw a gap in the hotel market and created Budgetel, a groundbreaking chain of midpriced hotels. Eventually the chain changed its name to Baymont Inn and Suites, and Marcus Corp. sold it for $415 million.

Marcus admonished students to keep learning after they graduate and told them that if their measure of success is money then their success will be empty. He urged them to have a passion for excellence, have integrity, give back, have fun and “surround yourself with people you enjoy. It’s hard to soar with eagles if you’re working with turkeys.”

Marcus introduced two UW-Stout alumni who are company executives. Bill Otto, a 1978 graduate, is president of Marcus Hotels and Resorts. Karen Spindler, a 1986 graduate, is corporate director of human resources. “They’re two of the best examples of why Marcus Hotels is so highly regarded in the hospitality industry,” Marcus said.

Overall, Marcus Corp. employs 23 UW-Stout alumni. Many of them are managers, he said.

“We have one of the best hotel, restaurant and tourism programs in the world right here at UW-Stout,” Marcus said. “Your education here will teach you how to manage.”

Along with his address, Marcus met with Chancellor Charles W. Sorensen, leaders from student organizations and administrators from the College of Management and School of Hospitality Leadership. He also was featured at a dinner and reception Thursday night at a student-run restaurant in Heritage Hall; the food was prepared and served by hotel, restaurant and tourism management students.

Marcus was introduced by Scott Cabot, a 1978 UW-Stout graduate. The Cabot Executive in Residence program was established in 1984 in honor of Cabot’s father, Arthur R. Cabot, a successful pet products manufacturer.

Cabot praised Marcus Corp. for the way it gives back to the industry and community, citing nearly 93,000 hours of volunteer work by its employees in 2010 during the company’s 75th anniversary year. “This is a company that understands responsibility,” Cabot said.

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