By Robert A. Nozar H&MM Editor-in-Chief
May 1998 - Nancy Johnson relaxes in her Southern California hotel room as she awaits the start of another work day, one in which she will accompany a new employee on sales calls.
As vice president of development for Country Inns & Suites by Carlson, Johnson is responsible for growth in the Americas of a worldwide chain that has 133 properties and 10,305 guestrooms. She's one of the U.S. hotel industry's highest-ranking women, working for a company whose president-Marilyn Carlson Nelson-acted as an inspiration and role model for Johnson.
However, Johnson is not very keen on hearing she-or any other woman, for that matter-did a good job or achieved a particular accomplishment "for a woman." She sees herself as a competitive person in a tough marketplace and asks for no special favors based on gender.
"The challenge in our industry is to learn how to become independent," Johnson said. "All the learning in the world doesn't compare to street smarts. "It isn't all that hard for a woman to make her own road. Don't men put up with a lot of crap, too?"
Johnson said she kind of lucked into her career. While attending St. Cloud (Minn.) State, she took a job as a cocktail waitress in a hotel. Divorced and with two pre-school children, Johnson knew she would have to work hard and commit herself to learning to make a living for her family. She worked her way through theranks at the independent property in St. Cloud, excelling in positions as a bartender, hostess, front-desk clerk and catering secretary.Eventually Johnson was named banquet manager and then assistant hotel manager, putting herself in the position of being a person in her early 20s who was managing a group of people much older than she.
"That was quite an experience," Johnson said. "It told me a lot about what I could do when offered opportunities."
Another opportunity soon came along in the form of a position as a hotel specialist with the Brutger Co., a Minnesota-based hotel developer. While Johnson was there, that company built 48 hotels. She helped put together the Thrifty Scot chain, but Johnson had an ambition that needed to be fulfilled-this Minnesota person wanted to work for one of the state's most prominent companies.
The Carlson Cos. weren't calling, so in 1989 she contacted Carlson.
"I saw the Country Inn in Burnsville, [Minn., which was one of the first
of that particular product] and I fell in love with the concept," Johnson
said. "I went
to see Frank Steed [who was the chain president at the time] and he hired me as a director of franchise sales."
For a person who didn't want her career to take her away from her home state, the position was a dream come true.
"I never thought it unusual that, as a woman, I was being hired for a job that, for the most part in the hotel industry, went to men," Johnson said. "I feel that in any hiring you hire the best person possible, and I was certain Carlson felt the same way. I would have been angry if I thought they hired me because I am a woman."
Still, there's no denying she was now in a company in which a woman was gradually working her way to the top. By watching Nelson, Johnson knew there was was a clear career path, with plenty of potential-regardless of race, gender or any other physical and personal characteristic-at Carlson. Johnson said in dealing with the franchisee community, she tries to find out what it is they really want and what they want to achieve.
"I love dealing with people who are straight forward," Johnson said.
"That's why when I was with Brutger and throughout my career, I liked dealing
with laborers. They always told you what was on their minds."
OK, so Johnson repudiates any disadvantage in being a woman. But, does she believe there are inherent advantages?
"The biggest advantage I have is the product I sell," Johnson said. "When you sleep in a lodging facility, you should feel safe, comfortable. That's what we offer the guest with Country Inns and Suites by Carlson. We give them a facility that does have residential touches. They like that." Johnson especially enjoys the negotiation process and working with Paul Kirwin, the chain's president, with whom she has an excellent working relationship, she said.
"It's also fun to disagree and negotiate with him," she said. "Sometimes
I need to be reined in." Johnson said she sees her role not so much as
a franchise seller as she does a development consultant. She said if another
product or no product would work better for a particular franchisee or
location, she and her team will say so. "We believe in fairness at Carlson,"
she said. "We do care, and when we find we have a problem with a franchisee,
we work it out."