Pub. Note: All 50 current members of the MARKETING IMMORTALS pantheon are on the agency side of the marcomm business. Sue Brush is the first inductee in the new Corporate/Client category.
Sue Brush’s journey to Seattle and her career with Westin Hotels & Resorts began in Toledo, OH, where she was born. She attended Napoleon High School (inducted into its Hall of Fame) and Bowling Green State University (Outstanding Greek Woman and Outstanding Senior Woman, 1971), where she met her future husband, Ken.
After moving to Seattle in 1972, she launched what would become a 30-year hotel career at The Olympic in 1975 as public relations manager. She moved to the then Washington Plaza Hotel, now the Westin Seattle, in 1980 as director of advertising and public relations. While working and attending night classes, she received an MBA from the University of Puget Sound in 1981.
She left the hotel business for four years, shortly after her son was born in 1982. With partner Lynn Berry, she formed Berry & Brush Public Relations and landed the Washington State Centennial Celebration, chaired by former Secretary of State Ralph Munro and former First Lady Jean Gardner.
In 1989, she became director of corporate communications at Westin Hotels & Resorts, based in Seattle since 1930. Sue and a team of 10 managed the corporate advertising, public relations, sales collateral, photography and internal communications. In 1991, she was promoted to vice president. Westin was sold in 1995 to Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc. When the Seattle office closed in 1999, Sue moved to the new corporate office in White Plains, NY, as VP/marketing, Westin.
Sue was promoted to SVP, global brand leader in 2002. Responsibilities included quality and brand standards, marketing and strategic direction of the brand. Under Brush’s leadership, Westin became widely recognized as an industry innovator and lifestyle leader, focused on guest wellness and renewal. She was instrumental in the launch of the game-changing “Heavenly Bed” ® and numerous other industry “firsts,” including “Breathe by Westin” (the industry’s first smoke-free program), “Heavenly Bath,” “Westin WORKOUT”®, “SuerFoods RX” breakfast menu and “Heavenly Spa” by Westin, as well as a unique partnership with United Airlines to bring Westin’s Heavenly experience to the Friendly Skies.
Brush also is credited with being at the forefront of the hotel retail trend that began in earnest in 1999, when the hotel giant began selling its Heavenly Beds. And in 2004, Westin became the first hotel chain to sell its signature line of luxury bedding at a leading national retailer when it introduced the Heavenly Collection in Nordstrom stores throughout the United States.
During her career, Brush visited more than 300 hotels, 25 countries and 50 hotel openings and was an active partner with hotel developers and owners. During her tenure, the Westin brand grew from just over 50 hotels to nearly 170 properties around the world. Westin, considered in the hotel-development community as a “category killer,” even inspired a brand extension. Element Hotels by Westin is an extended-stay lifestyle brand that drew from Westin’s positioning to help smart, health-conscious travelers maintain balance away from home. The first Element hotel opened in 2008 and the brand has captured headlines with its eco-chic proposition, sustainable design and LEED-certified mandate for every hotel.
Brush often drew ideas from her own travel and life experiences. An avid runner and frequent business traveler, she discovered that running was an extraordinary way to explore an unfamiliar city. Fittingly, Brush and her team developed “runWESTIN,” a program that enables guests to learn about a destination while participating in three-mile morning runs, led by a Running Concierge.
Another Brush innovation: all Westin employees wear “passion” nametags, displaying their personal passion next to their name—which encourages personalized interaction. She also is known as an enthusiastic listener, who frequently gleans ideas from employees and guests. The Heavenly Bath, for example, was born after an employee mailed her a photo of a curved shower rod torn from a trade magazine.
Brush has been recognized by the Advertising Women of New York with a “Changing the Game Award,” been listed among Travel Agent magazines “Most Powerful Women in Travel” several times and named a leading innovator by Lodging Magazine.
She retired from Westin/Starwood in 2009 and returned home to Seattle. Husband Ken died in 2011 from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) Son Kevin lives in Brooklyn, NY.
My story is one of four major milestones and two heartbreaks. It all began with a non-marriage proposal. Ken and I met at Bowling Green State University (Ohio) near where we grew up with strong family values and work ethics, but with little aspirations toward or knowledge about Corporate America. Down on one knee, he passionately asked, “Will you move to Seattle with me?” He had fallen in love with the Northwest while in the Army at Fort Lewis. My response? “I’ve never been west of Chicago. Of course! Let’s go.” That was 1972.
We married and moved to Seattle with teaching degrees, but with no family, jobs or a place to live. We stayed at an aging friend’s apartment that first night, dined at Olympia Pizza on Queen Anne, bought a newspaper and discussed our plan. Three days later we were living in a West Seattle apartment with a stunning view….for $135/month. I live six blocks from there today — same view. Much higher price tag.
But guess what? In 1972, The Boeing Slump was raging and there were no teaching jobs. Too proud to apply for unemployment, we passed out tire brochures for $2/hour, lived on hot dogs and Kraft mac n cheese, and ran along Alki almost every day. An employment agency told me I was qualified for nothing, but eventually recognized I had a minor degree in Speech and placed me as a receptionist/bookkeeper at a company that made radio and TV commercials. I took it because the office manager was a woman and belonged to my sorority. What a mistake. From her, I learned how NOT to treat people and promised to be the best people manager possible if I ever got the chance. The good new is that I loved the advertising/production business from Day One. I learned so much, networked through the Seattle Ad Club and made some lifelong friends.
Ken and I started mapping out plans then and never stopped. Annual goals were written down and scrutinized regularly. We had goals for each other and eventually for our family.
- No debt other than a mortgage.
- Drive cars for ten years.
- Pay off credit cards each month and pay an extra $25 on the mortgage.
I have a framed copy of my 1982 goals and, with a sigh of relief, they are nearly complete.
My first break/milestone was a call in 1975 to apply for the PR Manager job at The Olympic Hotel (part of Western International Hotels, now Westin). The competition? Zero. Being 25 and shorter than the hiring general manager (GM) helped — the interview lasted 20 minutes and I started at $700/month. When I first met June Almquist, Lifestyle Editor for The Seattle Times, she declared in her booming voice, “You can’t possibly be qualified for this job.” She was right.
I gradually figured it out and hotels became my life for the next 35 years.
At The Olympic, I took on jobs no one else wanted to do. At 6:30 a.m. sessions, the GM tutored me on the business side of the hotel business. I worked my way onto the Executive Committee and never looked back. One of the best promotions we ever did was “Even Steven” — accepting Canadian currency at par value. We ran 100% occupancy every single day for a month.
We closed The Olympic in 1980 (Four Seasons re-opened it in 1982; today it’s managed by Fairmont). Then 72 of The Olympic employees marched up Fifth Avenue to work at the then Washington Plaza Hotel (now The Westin Seattle). I was Director of Advertising and Public Relations for five years. Cole & Weber was our agency. Special event successes included “The Last MASH Bash” when the M.A.S.H. TV series went off the air, Camp Westin for Father’s Day (parents in guest rooms; children in tents in the ballroom), and New Year’s Eve on East Coast time.
There were times I was the “first woman” doing something at the hotel and other times I knew I was being discriminated against. I chose my battles carefully — big enough to matter and small enough to win. Consequently, I never felt that I was denied promotions, etc. because of my gender and worked hard to build relationships and stand up for myself when necessary.
Ken and I decided MBAs would further our careers. Not wanting to quit the job I loved, I chose the Seattle campus of the University of Puget Sound in Pioneer Square. Three years of evening classes ended with that diploma in 1981. It paid off about ten years later when a Japanese company owner promoted me based on my education.
Products of the 1960s, Ken and I were dedicated DINKs, dual-incomes, no kids. But after ten years of marriage, MBAs and a trip to Europe, we changed our minds. That was milestone #2. Son Kevin, born in 1982, became the love our lives and is my pride and joy today.
Parenting led to another decision two years after Kevin was born. Conflicted with the new mother balancing act of home vs family, I chose to leave the hotel business after ten wonderful years. I did some networking to see what options I had in the corporate arena and didn’t get much encouragement. Everyone told me to stay put. I was 35 making $35,000/year. True friend Lynne Berry offered me a partnership in her firm which became Berry & Brush Public Relations. Our biggest client was the Washington State Centennial Commission, staging the state’s 100th birthday party. Lynne taught me a great deal and we’re still close friends today. From there I wanted to see how “the big boys did it” so spent two years at The Rockey Company. The legendary Jay Rockey became my mentor and life-long friend. He taught me to think of any challenge in 8-hour segments. What can you get done in the next eight hours? Do that well, go home, rest and come back ready for more.
Then the biggest break of my life came rushing in — Milestone #3. It was a call from Westin Hotels & Resorts inviting me to become its Director of Corporate Communications. I turned it down. How could I do that job and travel while our son was six years old? No way. Then I called my husband and our lives changed significantly. He encouraged me to take the job and pledged his full support at home. Without him, this story would be over. His real estate career offered the flexibility we needed to juggle two jobs, family and travel. It worked beautifully, thanks to him.
The corporate environment was the most challenging, fascinating and broadening experience of my life. We had 65 hotels in several countries by 1990. With a team of 7-10 (including ad director Ric Rosa), we managed the advertising, public relations, internal communications, sales collateral and visual library for this private hotel company based in Seattle since 1930. We thrived on making the company and its leaders look good through all forms of written communication, media events, speeches, etc. I loved to prepare the leaders, shove them on stage, stand back and watch them shine. Being the front person was never on my radar.
I travelled about 20 percent of the time to new hotel openings, agency meetings and conferences. My first international trip was a trilingual news conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil — announcing a new hotel that never end up opening. My family and I became travel junkies — vacations were spent at Westin hotels whenever possible. St. John VI, DisneyWorld and Maui were favorite destinations.
Then in 1995, the Japanese company that owned Westin sold it to a consortium including Starwood Capital, Goldman Sachs, The Edward Thomas Companies and Nomura Asset Management. The visual image of that takeover ceremony is as clear as ever — a 60+ year old, quiet, stoical Japanese man slowing walking onto the stage to say goodbye and bid a final “Must Do Better” challenge. Then silence. Then loud music as seven white guys bounded onto the stage and took over.
Barry Sternlicht was the leader of that consortium. He is the visionary that changed Westin and the hotel industry forever. He’s the one who engineered the agency move to DDB Needham, Chicago. in 1998, he also engineered the purchase of Sheraton Hotels & Resorts and spear headed the task of merging three companies — Starwood Capital, a real estate investment company; Sheraton, a huge, public company with over 400 hotels; and Westin, a small private company with 112 hotels.
The process was daunting and exilerating. My first boss was the Sheraton Senior Vice President (SVP) of Marketing who had never met me and didn’t like me being in Seattle when the new corporate office was in White Plains, N.Y. He said, “this will work as long as you like airplanes.” To prove his point, he promptly scheduled mandatory, bi-monthly staff meetings in New York at 10 a.m. on Mondays. I left home at noon every other Sunday, returned on Wednesday night and did it again ten days later. Lots of work got done on those plane rides and the Seattle staff carried on beautifully away from the disruptive chaos of the merger.
It worked quite well until 1999 when the Seattle office was closed. It felt like a kick in the gut. And the biggest crossroads of my career and family. Milestone #4. Would/could we possibly move to White Plains, N.Y.? Are you kidding me? Ask my husband and teenage son to pick up their lives and move to “the other” coast where people are always in a hurry, rude and who knew what else?
It was an agonizing call, but “my guys” agreed to give it a try. We had a plan, of course. Stay two years until Kevin graduated from high school and a maximum of five if we really liked it. Another surprise — we stayed for 10. Kevin chose high school in Westport, CT, a beautiful coastal city 29 miles from my office. Ken retired from Seattle real estate to pursue his passion for buying, renovating and selling houses. Twenty-five Westin colleagues moved East back then; one is still there today.
August 1, 1999 was my first day in the new office; August 30 was the day we launched the now famous Heavenly Bed(R), Barry Sternlicht’s vision for turning commercial hotels into residential oases. “Why have lumpy pillows and quilted bedspreads? Let’s go with all white.” I and many others told him he was crazy, but, of course, he was right and the results are legendary. Guest satisfaction shot up, PR was sensational and a retail program was launched that sold millions of dollars of bedding and bath products every year. DDB Needham came up with the award-winning ad campaign, “Who is she sleeping with?” quickly followed by “Who’s the best in Bed?” The answer of course, Westin.
Then the carousel of bosses began. Just when I was starting to like the Sheraton guy, he was gone. And replaced by a non-hotelier who was gone 14 months after that. Each time, I asked myself, “How do I prove myself to this one and what am I going to learn from HIM?” Yes, they were all men — Dave, Keith, Bob, John, Bob (a different one), Norman, Steve, Bob (again) Javier, John and Phil — 13 in 10 years! That’s a lot of CYA presentations, get-acquainted lunches and hang-wringing with the team. Honestly though, I really liked all my bosses (except one) and learned something from every single one. During my ten years in NY, there were three CEOs who all made tremendous contributions to the company and were perfect for the times in which they served — an impetuous innovator, a brand expert and a steady-state corporate leader.
Corporate America is all about change. And being part of a public company was all new to me, too. My ability to adapt to change was tested constantly with reorganizations, layoffs and budget reviews. “Embrace it or get out” became my personal motto. I almost quit once, but then grew to love the fast pace of change, shaking things up and heading to the airport on short notice. My travel time increased to 40 percent.
Laying people off is still the toughest corporate job of all. Especially for those who don’t see it coming. Layoffs after 9-1-1 were the worst. Picking up the pieces and carrying on with the staff that’s left is also tough, but your heart goes out to those who lose their livelihood and are asked to exit the building that day.
Besides bringing about personnel change, the merger also changed my corporate role. From VP Marketing to VP Operations to VP Standards to SVP Westin Global Brand Leader. Sometimes the reorganizations made sense and sometimes they were changed again before you figured out the one before. Each time, I consulted Ken, who was my best advisor. We discussed the pros and cons of each and how it fit into our overall plan. We eventually even planned the best time to exit. (More on that later).
The company focus was on three main constituents — guests (current and future), associates and owners of the hotels. Marketing plans and communications strategies were built upon this pyramid. If the associates didn’t embrace a new initiative, how could we sell it to our owners? If the owners wouldn’t pay for it, how could we provide guests with a new, enriched experience? And if it didn’t add value to guests, why bother?
Once the “heavenly” product movement got rolling, it was hard to stop. On Launch Day, Heavenly Beds lined Wall Street, sat atop the Seattle Space Needle and floated into St. John on a barge. Every hotel had an event on the same day USA Today covered it with a Business Section cover story. The “Who’s She Sleeping With? “ multi-media campaign followed. The entire PR and marketing campaign won “Best in Show” from the Hotel Sales & Marketing Association International (HSMAI) in 2000.
The next product launch, The Heavenly Bath, featured dual-headed shower heads, curved shower rods, new robes, towels and bath amenities. It debuted appropriately amid rain showers in NY’s Bryant Park, the same park we used a year later to create a Nordstrom stand-up store for the introduction of the Heavenly Retail Program.
There is even a Heavenly Dog Bed(sm) chosen by a dog. After lining a conference room with potential dog beds, we invited a colleague to bring her Shitzu named Casey to try out the beds and he selected the large square pillow that is featured in all hotels today along with dog bowls and other amenities.
The hardest product to implement was WestinWORKOUT(sm), the in-hotel fitness center. Fortunately, every hotel had a gym of some kind, but renovating every one around the world to strict brand design, equipment and other specs took several years.
The pace of corporate business was frantic; I was working and traveling so much it was hard to stop long enough to focus on myself. That came to an abrupt halt in 2003 when a routine mammogram read: Breast Cancer. Whoa! That’s a show stopper. It was Heartbreak #1. But fortunately for me, I only missed 18 days of work after recovery from the the mastectomy and eight chemo treatments. Family and friends rallied and, of course, I had time to pause and reflect on my values, career and future. During one sleepless night, I thought about stepping aside for a little while, but then made up my mind to take it a day at a time. No need to resign. No drama. Get back to work. The wig saved me hours of hair grooming time. What’s not to like about that?
Another momentous occasion occurred during a fly-fishing vacation to Montana with my family. A call came in from corporate — Oh, no! Am I out this time? What’s going on? Actually, they were calling to offer my dream job — SVP Westin Global Brand Leader. Fool that I was and so excited about the opportunity, I accepted and didn’t even negotiate a salary increase. I learned my lesson that time and made up for it later.
Once the “Heavenly” products were launched, we turned to branding work to clearly differentiate five of the Starwood brands. A team of 42 was selected from around the world and given 45 days to develop new positioning statements for each brand. I headed up the Westin Team that developed positioning around the concept of “personal renewal” and “feeling better when you leave a Westin than when you arrived.” It logically flowed since we already offered the best sleep experience, bath experience and workout. Four-legged creatures were even happy.
Our core values became: Personal. Instinctive. Renewal. This led to a “bible” of concepts for renewing colors, typestyles, photography, graphic design, interior design, uniforms, etc. We even changed the employee name tags to include their personal passion (sports, family, chocolate, etc.) to provide a conversation starter with guests. The lobby experience changed to include different music in different day parts, lighting, botanicals and the now-signature Westin white tea scent.
Coming up with the product ideas was the fun part. The hard part was getting them implemented into hotels around the world. My job was one of influence, not power. The general managers didn’t report to me. The owners felt they knew what was best for their hotel(s) and even corporate executives and operations people weren’t shy about sharing their feelings. I had a small team challenged with lots of responsibility, but little authority.
That left it up to the us, the Corporate Brand Team, to thoroughly understand our guests needs and wants, what they were willing to pay/trade for a new product or service, and how it would match up with the competition. We then had to build a strong business case and present it convincingly enough to get universal support. The final step was revising standards by which each hotel around the world was annually evaluated, including each general manager. Obviously, the success of the Heavenly Bed made subsequent product launches much easier. In fact, guests and owners started clamoring for more and associates embraced it with incredible pride.
We created a Guest Experience department (3 people) within the brand team (16 people) to do the research, test each concept thoroughly around the world and build the case. Then we all got involved as “influencers”. We held live webinars every two months to keep hotel teams informed of what we were working on and to get them involved. We gave countless presentations to individual owners and groups of owners. Every other year, we participated in a two-day Global Conference to share our ideas with an audience of 2000 corporate leaders, GMs and owners (Day 1) and 2400 sales people (Day 2.) Wouldn’t you know it that on Day 2 in 2006, just as I was addressing 2400 people, my lavaliere microphone went out! Panic. Step Back. Take the hand-held mic offered. And get on with the show
I’ll never forget the day a colleague came to my office and declared, “What our guests want most of all to feel “renewed” is clear air. Let’s give it to them by going smoke-free.” What a Pandora’s Box that opened! This was unheard of in the hotel industry. It may have worked for the airlines, but flights are of a specified duration. We’re talking about no smoking anywhere in the hotel 24/7— lobby, meeting rooms, guest rooms, etc. How could we possibly pull that off and be the first in the world to do it?
We put together a team of 20 that met every Friday morning for several weeks — it included representatives from sales, marketing, advertising, operations, legal, etc. First step was a survey of meeting planners. If they would pull meetings from our hotels and refuse to book future ones due to a no-smoking policy, we were done. It doesn’t seem a surprise now, but then it was — 74 percent said we’d get MORE business as a result. That was encouraging. Then we went to business and leisure travelers for their input. They supported it as well. The hotels really loved it as a cost-saving measure for not having to devote 10% of their inventory to smoking rooms and having to implement extra cleaning measures after every smoking guest left. As we worked through it, the CEO kept emailing me with questions and further challenges. One day the emails stopped. When I asked him about next steps, he replied, “What are you going to do?” Not, “What is your recommendation?” Oh, no. “What are YOU going to do?”
I brought the team together and collectively we declared “YES.”
The PR machine cranked out the goods and response was great. Page One in USA Today. I was flying high until the CEO called in a fury. Perplexed by his negative response, I asked what was wrong? He wisely replied, “You may have gotten Page One for going smoke-free, but that story does nothing to reinforce your positioning around personal renewal.” Ouch. We missed the big message. Is was our chance to reinforce our new positioning about personal renewal, guests being at their best. We blew it. He told me to fire the PR person. I refused and said he’d have to fire me first. Fortunately, no one was fired.
In 2008, as Ken and I were having our annual planning and goal-setting session, we looked at each other and said, “It’s getting time for us to go home to Seattle.” By that time, our son had not only graduated from high school, but also from Fordham University in NY and was living and working in London where we loved to visit.
In my performance review that year, I wrote that I wanted to retire in 2009 — 30 years with Westin, 10 of them in NY and I would be turning 60. That added up to 100 and seemed a logical time to say goodbye. My boss passed my comments along to the COO who asked what I feared most about retiring. It was the fear of stepping off this fast-moving locomotive one day and being cut off instantly and dramatically. He suggested that I ease into retirement as a consultant working from Seattle for the final six months. Wow! What could be better? Let the celebration begin! Ken and I took a cross-country road trip lasting 41 days and covering 7,635 miles. We were home in Seattle. Retirement was real. What a great corporate career. Great memories. Few regrets. Friends for life.
Editor’s Note 1: Larry Coffman is also a proud alumnus of Bowling Green State University.
Editor’s Note 2: Sadly, one year and two days after Sue’s retirement, the biggest heartbreak (#2) of all came when her beloved husband Ken died of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). She also lost both parents and her mother-in-law within 18 months. Sue is living back in West Seattle where the started journey began, traveling extensively and doing church and volunteer work she loves.