Washington Post

After 16 years at Marriott International, Norman Jenkins is walking away from what appears to be a secure corporate job and stepping out on his own at a time of high economic turbulence.

"I'm a contrarian, and I think it's a good time," says Jenkins, who announced last week that on Jan. 1 he will leave his job as senior vice president of North American lodging development and champion of Marriott's hotel ownership initiative. He is launching Capstone Development, which will work with partners to develop hotel properties primarily in the mid-Atlantic and in urban markets.

Jenkins in large part led Bethesda-based Marriott's efforts to create opportunities for women and minorities to become hotel owners. Three years ago, the company set a goal to have 500 minority-owned or minority-franchised hotels around the globe and to spend $1 billion with minority suppliers by 2010. It has largely accomplished that, hitting the 500-hotel mark. Though its 2008 numbers are not final, buying with suppliers is also on track, Jenkins said.

Capital and connections have traditionally been the barriers to entry for many minorities in business. Jenkins chipped away on both fronts, connecting minority businesspeople with hotel development opportunities. He helped put together deals including a minority-held hotel at National Harbor, a $42 million Residence Inn owned by California real estate businessman Ken Fearn and a diverse group of Washington-area investors.

Jenkins also was one of the Marriott executives who cultivated the company's relationship with billionaire Robert L. Johnson, whose RLJ Cos. have done about $1.7 billion in deals with the hotel company over the past several years. Jenkins was a key player in negotiations with the District and the Washington Convention Center Authority that led to a deal for a Marriott Marquis near the convention center. The project is scheduled to break ground next year and open in 2011. Though it eventually backed out, RLJ was a part of that project.

Thomas J. Baltimore Jr., president of RLJ Development, first did business with Jenkins years ago, when Baltimore was working on developing Hilton properties. Baltimore points to Jenkins's understanding of the complexities of politics, business and finance.

"Norm is no pussycat," Baltimore said, referring to Jenkins's skills as a negotiator. In the convention center project, Jenkins "is due significant credit for where it is today. It is an immensely complicated and challenging project."

Jenkins said the money for Capstone is coming from private equity and other investors, though he declined to say who or how much. In addition to developing new properties, he hopes to buy existing ones that may be struggling in the current economy.

"You're seeing a lot of coattails that are going to be under pressure to sell and or refinance within the next, say, nine to 24 months," Jenkins said. "As these assets come online, I think there's going to be some great buy opportunities, and the debt situation will not stay the way it is now."

While Marriott is not yet a partner with Capstone, "We look forward to working with Norm on development agreements in the near future," chief executive J.W. "Bill" Marriott Jr. said in a statement.

Given his deep contacts in a lot of hotel markets, Jenkins said, "I think we'll be in position to bring on a lot of public/private development projects in the next couple of years."