GREENBELT, MD—Coakley & Williams Hotel Management Company’s origin story starts with two men—Neil Coakley and Fred Williams—beside their parked cars on a rainy day in 1961. One handshake agreement later, and the construction company—as it was in those days—was in business, building warehouses, office buildings, churches, and—finally—in 1971, hotels.
That first property—a Ramada in Maryland—was followed by a dozen others. Of those original properties, three—a Holiday Inn; a Hilton in Springfield, VA; and a Days Inn in Washington, DC—are still in the company’s portfolio.
The company took on several focus areas over the years—construction, brokerage, etc.—but in 1996, Williams’ son, Gary, bought the management company. “We’ve been 100% debt free, privately owned, since,” said Mark Williams, the company’s CEO and the third generation of the family to helm the business. “Since then, our focus has been on third-party management—we’ve gotten involved in golf courses, natural attractions, restaurants, various brands and franchises all over the country, so it’s been exciting to be a part of all of that.”
The top executive has been with the company for 12 years—learning the ropes from his father, whom Williams called a great mentor—and in his current position for two. But while CEO may stand for chief executive officer, Williams said, “I tell people I feel like my title is chief encouragement officer.”
It’s a role he takes seriously, as the company’s culture is all about people. “It’s about honoring God and people through hospitality, and doing that through quality, integrity, caring, service and safety,” he said. As such, the company recently formed the James Hagerty Jr. Foundation for Team Member Assistance, named for the former VP of operations who passed away last year.
“It’s all about helping people going through difficult times,” Williams said. “We’ve already had people start utilizing that. We have a committee we established to help with inquiries when they come in. We just had someone ask to assist with funeral expenses, so the committee meets and decides how much to allocate toward that… We really want to put people first and have that mentality.”
With 33 hotels in 12 states—many located along the Eastern Seaboard, but also in areas like Nevada, Texas and Pennsylvania—the company has a healthy portfolio—and room to grow. “Washington, DC, was down last year, less international business, [but]I think it’s going to continue to be a strong destination and market in our nation; we manage five or six properties in the Washington/Baltimore area, and we still feel good about that, and we want to continue to grow in the Washington metro area, for sure,” Williams said.
While the company is based in Maryland, Williams is located in Raleigh, NC—and he sees a lot of potential there. “There’s a lot of opportunity in this area, though we don’t have much of a presence here. My director of development, who is also my brother-in-law, came on board a few years ago, and us being here, we feel there’s a good opportunity to grow here,” he said.
“Our business is such where we’re actively looking for new business opportunities, and connecting with individuals looking to acquire, or maybe they want a change of management,” he said. “We’re trying to find individuals who have a need. We’re in business to solve challenges and deal with problems. We make things that are broken better.”
Where is the company seeing more opportunity now—in management contracts for new-build developments or existing assets? “It’s a mix of both,” Williams said. “We just got an assignment for the preopening and management of a new Hilton Garden Inn in Winter Park, FL. There’s only one hotel right now—an independent property—in Winter Park. It’s going to be a phenomenal location, and it’s going to get a lot of attention, given its proximity to I-4 and Orlando; there’s nothing there right now of this caliber and product, so it’s really exciting. What we’re going to be doing there with ownership in terms of F&B, meeting space, it’s going to be really amazing.”
The company is also working on a project in Lexington, KY. “It’s closed right now—it was run into the ground by the previous owner/operator, and so this investment group is bringing us in to help revitalize it,” he said. “It needs a lot of TLC.”
Demonstrating the range of projects the company has, Williams pointed to a DoubleTree in Pikesville, MD, just north of Baltimore. “That hotel is going through a large, major renovation—expansion of the ballroom, renovating the facilities. It’s going to be a beautiful hotel when it’s done, and we’re looking to do more with that ownership group,” he said.
Looking at the overall hotel industry landscape, Williams noted that it’s a solid business to be in, but good management companies have to be vigilant about expenses. “It’s something we operators need to watch and be mindful of, with minimum wage increases, utility costs increasing, construction costs, limited workforces—but it’s a great business to be in, and people will keep traveling and utilizing guestrooms for overnight stays and F&B experiences,” he said.
How does Coakley & Williams plan to attract and retain talent? “It starts with great leadership at the property in key supervisory positions,” he said. “They can interview and hire effectively in their local areas or maybe bring people from where they were before.”
And starting with the top starts with him. “I try to have a one-on-one dialogue with all our managers on a monthly basis. That’s 33 or so conversations I have; I don’t know how many other CEOs do that, but it’s important to have communication. That’s true of any relationship,” he said. HB