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Hilton CEO Says the Key Leadership Lesson in the Hotel’s Turnaround: “We Kept a Steady Hand on the Wheel”

January 31, 2019, 8:09 PM UTC

If you want to know how to fix up a company in deep trouble, ask Christopher Nassetta. He’s the man who turned around Hilton (HLT). He became CEO of the struggling hotel chain just after Blackstone Group bought it for an astounding $26 billion in the biggest private equity deal ever. But it was 2007 and that blockbuster deal took place just before the global financial crisis and America’s Great Recession .

“It was daunting,” Nassetta now says. “At times I’d wake up and say ‘I don’t know how we’re going to do it.’ I’m reading the papers too and this is crazy. How am I going to keep people’s spirits up?”

Before joining Hilton, Nassetta was CEO of Host Hotels & Resorts and had a reputation for building hotel brands and restructuring troubled companies. At Hilton he identified the company’s problem right away. “We had lost our way and we didn’t have a purpose,” he says.

Nassetta came up with the vision and mission for the turnaround after visiting all of the company’s hotels and talking with employees in small groups to big town halls. “It wasn’t easy, but we found that True North,” Nassetta says. But getting there also meant huge cost cuts, layoffs and moving the corporate headquarters from Beverly Hills, California to McLean, Virginia.

It was not an overnight fix. It took six difficult years. In 2018 Blackstone sold its stake in Hilton reaping what Nassetta claims is the best private equity profit ever made on record. Hilton is now a public company and ranked on the Fortune 500 list of America’s biggest companies.

“We made it because all of us,” says Nassetta, “kept a steady hand on the wheel.”

Watch the video above for more of my interview with Nassetta.