Mar­riott’s top Omelet man

Ce­cil Exum has been with the com­pany since be­fore it was a ho­tel. His ca­reer holds clues about loy­alty and longevity in an era where few work­ers stick with an em­ployer for very long. And no one makes a bet­ter break­fast.

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - BY ABHA BHATTARAI

Ce­cil Exum fig­ures he’s made 130 omelets by now, but hon­estly, he’s lost track. It’s five hours into his nine-hour shift, and he’s just re­al­ized he hasn’t had his morn­ing cof­fee. The crowds keep com­ing, ask­ing for omelets, fried eggs and waf­fles, so he keeps cooking.

Now three more omelets are siz­zling on the stove. He pats each one with a rub­ber spat­ula and flips them, with a slight flick of his wrist: One, two, three.

“For mercy’s sake!” says Sally McGin­nis, 58, a long­time cus­tomer from Clover, S.C., who’s lin­ger­ing by the omelet sta­tion. “Those flips, my gosh, they were per­fect.”

Exum, who will turn 80 in two weeks, has been cooking for Mar­riott since be­fore it was called Mar­riott. He was 19 when he left a share­crop­pers farm in North Carolina to take a job at Hot Shoppes, a root beer stand run by the Mar­riott fam­ily. He bused ta­bles, served so­das and made ba­nana splits.

The fol­low­ing year, the Mar­riotts opened their first ho­tel, Twin Bridges Mo­tor Ho­tel in Ar­ling­ton. Exum, a dish­washer, was among its first em­ploy­ees. He made about 75 cents an hour and took home $30 a week.

As Exum worked his way up from the kitchen to the front, and then to the cor­ner omelet sta­tion at the Crys­tal Gate­way Mar­riott, where he has been for 24 years, the busi­ness grew, too: from a chain of root beer stands to the world’s largest ho­tel chain, with $17 bil­lion in an­nual rev­enue.

“Mr. Ce­cil is a liv­ing his­tory of Mar­riott,” Robert Tate, the ho­tel’s di­rec­tor of hu­man re­sources, wrote in nom­i­nat­ing Exum for a Mar­riott Award of Ex­cel­lence ear­lier this year. “He has be­come a le­gend to our guests.”

Exum, his man­agers say, is the com­pany’s long­est-stand­ing em­ployee. That puts him in the com­pany of one other guy: J.W. “Bill” Mar­riott Jr., the ho­tel gi­ant’s 85-year-old chair­man,

who also be­gan work­ing there full time in 1956 and re­tired a few years ago as chief ex­ec­u­tive.

“We are so proud that Ce­cil is part of the Mar­riott fam­ily,” Mar­riott said. “He has been a shin­ing ex­am­ple of ‘putting peo­ple first.’ And I can tes­tify he makes won­der­ful omelets.”

Exum has stayed, he says, be­cause he likes his work and has good ben­e­fits: a re­tire­ment plan, profit-shar­ing pro­gram and “all the va­ca­tion time I could want.” Com­pany lore has it that in his 61 years, he’s never once called in sick.

In many ways, Exum rep­re­sents an­other era of Amer­i­can em­ploy­ment, when work­ers re­mained in one job — with one com­pany — for decades and were cel­e­brated for their loy­alty with plen­ti­ful pen­sions and maybe a gold watch.

But over the past gen­er­a­tion, much of that has di­min­ished. Em­ploy­ers, in an ever-fran­tic race to cut costs, have slashed pen­sions and pushed out older work­ers through down­siz­ing and buy­outs.

“Since the 1990s and through our re­cent pe­riod of eco­nomic malaise, com­pa­nies have been cut­ting, cut­ting, cut­ting,” said Aldy Keene, head of the Loy­alty Re­search Cen­ter, an In­di­anapo­lis-based con­sult­ing firm. “Their fo­cus has been on hold­ing on to the fewest work­ers: How can we get by? What’s the min­i­mum we can do?”

Decades ago, as Exum was en­ter­ing the work­force, it was a dif­fer­ent story. In the af­ter­math of the Great De­pres­sion, and es­pe­cially af­ter World War II, Amer­i­cans — and cor­po­ra­tions — sought a cer­tain sta­bil­ity. Em­ploy­ees wanted reli­able jobs, and em­ploy­ers wanted depend­able work­ers.

“For peo­ple like my par­ents, who lived through those things, that had a dra­matic im­pact on their de­sire for sta­bil­ity,” said Keene, 63. “Not only in their jobs but in other parts of their lives.”

And so it is for Exum, who was born as the decade-long De­pres­sion was end­ing and just be­fore the war be­gan. Job se­cu­rity is im­por­tant, he says, par­tic­u­larly in an in­dus­try known for its high turnover. The av­er­age Amer­i­can worker stays in a job for about four years, ac­cord­ing to the Bureau of La­bor Sta­tis­tics. Food ser­vice work­ers, though, have the short­est tenures, re­main­ing in one job for an av­er­age of 1.9 years.

Exum says he is tak­ing steps, how­ever small, to change that.

“When­ever some­one new starts here, I tell them two things: One, sign up for the re­tire­ment plan,” he said one morn­ing as he re­filled tubs of ched­dar cheese. “And two, don’t keep mov­ing job to job.”

At the omelet sta­tion, Exum is wait­ing on the next batch to cook through.

“When it gets slow, I check ev­ery­thing to see what I need for to­mor­row,” he says. It’s im­por­tant to keep mov­ing, he adds, “oth­er­wise, my mind would wan­der.”

A few yards away, McGin­nis is still there, gush­ing to other cus­tomers about the omelet she just ate. She turns to Exum.

“You think about re­tir­ing at all?” she asks.

“Some­times I do,” Exum says, sprin­kling jalapeños over an omelet. “Some­times I don’t.”

“Clearly you’re not think­ing about it all that hard,” McGin­nis says. “You’re still here.”

Not much for change

There was a time, in the 1970s, when Exum toyed with leav­ing Mar­riott. The de­tails are fuzzy he says, but “I was just get­ting tired of what I was do­ing. I wanted to make a change.”

But, he quickly re­al­ized, he isn’t a man who likes much change. He prefers fa­mil­iar­ity and or­der.

He wakes to gospel mu­sic at 3:30 each morn­ing in his fourbed­room house in Wal­dorf, Md., where he lives alone. He leaves for work at 4:15 a.m., driv­ing his new Toy­ota Prius (which he bought af­ter his 2001 Ford Ranger be­gan giv­ing him trou­ble) in the right­most lane the en­tire way. By 5 a.m., he’s at the ho­tel, pulling a striped apron over his head.

There are other con­stants in his life, too. He doesn’t drink or smoke. He goes to two church ser­vices each Sun­day, at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m., and af­ter­ward cooks him­self the same break­fast: Hun­gry Jack pan­cakes, which he likes steam­ing hot; grits, which he prenow, fers warm; and Jimmy Dean tur­key sausage pat­ties (no pork or beef ), which he eats warm or cold.

In the sum­mer, he goes fish­ing with his 73-year-old sis­ter, Clara, whom he calls “baby girl.” He takes a week off ev­ery July to drive to his fam­ily re­union, an elab­o­rate af­fair that draws hun­dreds. And ev­ery win­ter, he puts in the same va­ca­tion re­quest at work: two weeks off in De­cem­ber and two weeks off in Jan­uary to spend the hol­i­days with his ex­tended fam­ily.

He’s been able to set­tle into his rou­tine, he says, be­cause Mar­riott hasn’t pushed him out — and that feels like a lux­ury these days. The com­pany doesn’t have manda­tory re­tire­ment re­quire­ments, and Exum says he’s never felt pres­sured to leave. (Mar­riott’s board re­cently be­gan re­quir­ing that all di­rec­tors, with the ex­cep­tion of Mar­riott Jr., re­tire at 72.)

As a re­sult, Exum has be­come some­thing of a le­gend at the sprawl­ing, 697-room con­ven­tion ho­tel where he works.

“So many peo­ple have heard about him, and they are al­ways stop­ping to say hello,” said Mo­hammed Ka­malzadh, 64, who fills in for Exum. “They’ll say to me, ‘Are you Mr. Ce­cil?’ ”

He usu­ally says no, but at times, he can’t help him­self: “I don’t like to lie, but some­times I say yes,” Ka­malzadh said. “Peo­ple get so happy to meet some­one who’s worked here for so many years.”

As Exum cleans up, Ka­malzadh dumps plates of smoked salmon and ca­pers into the trash. The two have been cooking to­gether for 13 years, but they mostly work in si­lence. Some­times they share sto­ries about cus­tomers — Exum, for ex­am­ple, finds it puz­zling when cus­tomers re­quest egg whites, then load up on ba­con — but they never talk about their lives.

“I love fish­ing,” Ka­malzadh says. Exum does, too. But they’ve never swapped sto­ries. “Lately, he’s quiet,” Ka­malzadh says, dur­ing a mo­ment when Exum has gone into the kitchen. “He’s got a lot of sto­ries — he’s been here since Eisen­hower was pres­i­dent — but he’s not one to talk about him­self.”

At the M Club, Mar­riott’s mem­bers-only din­ing room with mar­ble-topped ta­bles, three women are com­par­ing notes. The topic: Exum’s omelets. One woman has been eat­ing them for at least 10 years. An­other dis­cov­ered them yes­ter­day and has had two since.

“The tex­ture of the eggs is per­fect: fluffy, not runny,” she says. “It’s like, I don’t even know how to ex­plain it, but I never imag­ined an omelet could be so per­fect.”

“He’s an artist, that’s all I have to say,” adds an­other. “An omelet artist. There’s no­body bet­ter.”

‘We all knew how to cook’

“To be hon­est with you, I’m not re­ally an omelet per­son,” Exum says af­ter work one day.

His mother taught him to cook, he says, as soon as he was tall enough to reach the stove-top.

“There were six of us: Three girls and three boys,” he said. “When we got old enough, we all knew how to cook. We took turns fix­ing din­ner: Col­lard greens, pota­toes, chicken, pork shoul­der.”

When his son, now 49, was grow­ing up, Exum taught him, too. It was a mat­ter of util­i­tar­i­an­ism, Exum says, of not hav­ing to rely on oth­ers. “I told him, ‘You should al­ways learn to cook so you don’t go hun­gry,’ ” Exum said. “That’s the main thing.”

His son, a se­cu­rity guard for the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion, and his daugh­ter-in-law, who works for Safe­way, live a half-hour drive away in Up­per Marl­boro. He sees them twice a month, he said. And his daugh­ter-in-law calls to check on him three times a week, or more when the weather is bad.

Lately, they’ve been ask­ing what he wants to do for his 80th birth­day next month. “They want to plan some­thing big,” Exum said. “But I told them I don’t want no big cel­e­bra­tion. All I want is to be alive, healthy and strong. I don’t make plans for noth­ing.”

‘When you’re re­tired … ’

Exum has been think­ing about re­tire­ment a lot lately. Ever since his sis­ter left her gov­ern­ment job a few years ago, he’s started to think maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to have some time to him­self, to work in his yard and travel to parts of the coun­try he’s never seen.

It wor­ries him, though, to give up the life he’s known since 1956, when he left his work on a live­stock farm to move to Wash­ing­ton for a job at Hot Shoppes.

Some­times he runs into the other man who joined the com­pany that year, the founder’s son. Their cir­cum­stances are dif­fer­ent, he says — Exum wouldn’t say how much he makes (although a hu­man re­sources di­rec­tor at the com­pany said the start­ing rate for an omelet-maker to­day is about $16 to $18 an hour); Bill Mar­riott, mean­while, was paid $3.66 mil­lion last year and has an es­ti­mated net worth of $2.2 bil­lion. Lately, though, it seems like the two of them are grap­pling with the same big ques­tions, toy­ing with re­tire­ment but also fright­ened by what it could bring.

“My dad will never stop work­ing,” Mar­riott’s daugh­ter, Deb­o­rah Mar­riott Har­ri­son, told The Wash­ing­ton Post in 2014. “He would prob­a­bly curl up in the fe­tal po­si­tion and die. This com­pany has been so much a part of his life.”

Exum can un­der­stand that. Many days, his job is what keeps him go­ing. When his arthritic knee is both­er­ing him, or when he’s just feel­ing down, Exum gets dressed and heads to work.

“Pretty soon, I’m mak­ing eggs, I’m so­cial­izat­ing, and I re­al­ize my pain has gone away,” he said. “As long as you’re work­ing, you’re ac­tive and your body stays ac­tive. But when you’re re­tired, your body slows down on you.”

Af­ter work each day, he props his 6-foot-2-inch frame on a pil­low and mas­sages his legs. Some­times, he takes a nap.

“When I’m fall­ing asleep, that’s when I let my mind wan­der a lit­tle bit,” he said. “What am I go­ing to do in my yard? When am I go­ing to go fish­ing? And then that big ques­tion: When am I go­ing to re­tire?”

PHO­TOS BY ASTRID RIECKEN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Ce­cil Exum, 79, pre­pares omelets at the Crys­tal Gate­way Mar­riott ho­tel in Ar­ling­ton. “I keep my work­sta­tion very clean,” says Exum, who has been em­ployed by the firm for more than 60 years. “It’s all about ap­pear­ance.”

MAR­RIOTT CORP.

TOP: Ce­cil Exum is Mar­riott’s long­est-stand­ing em­ployee. He com­mutes nearly an hour from Wal­dorf and re­port­edly hasn’t taken a sick day in 61 years. ABOVE: The first Mar­riott busi­ness was a root beer stand on 14th Street in the Dis­trict, with J. Wil­lard Mar­riott Sr. in the door­way.

ASTRID RIECKEN FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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