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 back 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 local root beer stands to the world’s largest hotel company, 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.
The first Marriott business, a root beer stand at 3128 14th St. in Washington. J. Willard Marriott Sr. is in the doorway; his first employee is in the window. (Courtesy of Marriott )
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.To pass the time, he scribbles a shopping list on a napkin. He wipes the counters, then opens the refrigerator to count eggs.
“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 now, 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.
Exum wakes to gospel music at 3:30 each morning in his four-bedroom 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 right-most 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 prefers 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.)