From dishwasher to GM: Executive recalls rise from streets to suites

WASHINGTON (NNPA)—When it comes to people of color who run hotels in major urban centers, Thomas Penny is like a raisin in a bowl of milk, if you let him describe it. Except, this raisin has no wrinkles.

Thomas Penny, general manager, Courtyard by Marriott Washington Convention Center

At 34, Penny has the appearance of a fresh-faced executive who is still waiting on his MBA degree to be mailed to him by his school but the title on his business card says otherwise—“Thomas Penny, General Manager, Courtyard by Marriott Washington Convention Center.”


It’s rare to find African-Americans working at the upper-echelon of the management level at any major hotel let alone meet a Black executive manager who is only four birthdays over 30. Yet, Penny is running an 188-room Marriott Courtyard hotel property that sits in the center of one of the most heavily trafficked areas of our nation’s capitol—downtown Washington, D.C.

Penny is one of the most successful African-Americans under 40 in the country but everything about the hospitality industry leader wasn’t always shining lights of positivity. He has a questionable past. He used to rob people as a teenager.

“I considered myself to be a conscience thief,” Penny says jokingly of his Robin Hood morality. “I didn’t want to steal from those in my neighborhood. I wanted to rob those in Georgetown who were doing better than those in my neighborhood.”

He says that they would go to Georgetown and pull guns on unsuspecting victims on weekend nights.

“We would get money, watches and other things and then go have a good time,” Penny says. His friends got arrested and sent away to prison for years for the robberies. Penny got lucky, he was never caught. He decided to turn his life around.

In a very short time, Penny has come a long way from robbing people in Georgetown. He is now overseeing a hotel that brings in $13 million in business annually.

His hotel commands some of the highest rates of any Courtyard property. Today, they sit in the top 2 percent.

The Washington native got his start in the hotel business in 1992 as a high school senior. His parents demanded that he find a job to pay for his car insurance and so he got a job as a dishwasher at a local Holiday Inn.

His brother, Derrick Penny, who was two years older, was somebody who helped spur Penny’s drive to be successful.

“If there was anyone who played the biggest part in mentoring me it was my brother because if I was either playing sports or going to college. A ‘B’ was never good enough, and scoring 25 or 35 points in a game was never good enough,” he remembers.

But Penny’s life would forever change on the day he turned 18. After going out with his brother and some friends to celebrate his birthday, Thomas decided to go home early because he had to work early the next morning. That would be the last time he would ever see Derrick alive.

“I get home and jumped in bed,” Penny laments. “At two o’clock in the morning, two state police officers knocked on the door. We go to the door and the police officers inform us that my only brother had just died in a car accident. Again, this is on my 18th birthday.”

And so, it was a torturous way to be introduced into adulthood.

“It was the lowest point in my life,” Penny says. “I could’ve lost both of my parents and it wouldn’t have hurt as much as losing my brother.”

Penny was determined to make his brother proud. He went back to work two weeks after Derrick’s funeral and went into overdrive with his work ethic. Over the subsequent 18 months, the dishwasher fast-tracked his way up the company ladder going from busting soaps and suds to restaurant server then to van driver, and then to front desk clerk to front desk supervisor to restaurant supervisor and, finally, to food and beverage director and assistant general manager of the hotel itself, where he remained until 2008.

“It was the inspiration that came from his passing that allowed for me to work harder, to work smarter, to be more dedicated to the job.”

At 20 years old, Penny became largely responsible for a 151-room hotel where he was being reported to by the same chef who had hired him two years earlier.

At the same time Penny was juggling a demanding work and University of Maryland school schedule that consisted of classes and 50-hour work weeks. Somehow, he made it through.

In May 2008, Penny was tapped by the ownership group that owns the Holiday Inn he worked at for years to lead their downtown Washington Marriott Courtyard hotel.

Under Penny’s direction, all of the hotel’s department heads and managers are minorities, with the exception of one and she’s from Turkey.

Now, he’s looking to own.

Penny has begun to ask his existing ownership group to show him how they look at deals. They have allowed him to be present and to learn how to know whether deals are good or bad. He says that he has received some invitations to partner with some African-American hotel owners to do multiple hotel deals inside of the next nine to 12 months.

“It’s closer than what we think,” he says excitedly. “After being a general manager, the natural progression would be to be an owner.”

According to Penny, Black-owned hotels make up less than one percent of the over 50,000 hotels in the country. There are currently about 490 Black-owned hotels across the nation.

In NAACP’s 2008 Economic Reciprocity Initiative, the civil rights organization gave the lodging industry a grade of D- for their lacking efforts to increase African-American property ownership.

The biggest Black hotel owner in the country is BET founder Bob Johnson, who reportedly owns more than 120 hotels, but Penny says that the billionaire is not doing anything to give back to the community.

“These guys are super smart from a business standpoint, however, I believe that even though they have been able to enjoy some level of success in business that success has disconnected them from the struggles of other minorities,” Penny says.

He says what will be important into his transition into ownership will be not only to enjoy the fruits of being a Black hotel owner but also to stay connected to the community.

“Bob Johnson is the largest Black hotel owner in the country and the second largest Marriott franchisee in the country. That’s of any race, but despite that, he hasn’t given a penny to our high school. It’s the only 100 percent Black hospitality high school in the country. We went to him several times and haven’t gotten a penny from him,” Penny argues, referring to Hospitality High School in Washington, a hospitality-centric secondary school where Penny serves as vice chair of the school’s board.

So while he aspires to have the same level of business success as they have, he says that he wants to be much more conscience than they have shown themselves to be.

Penny is very politically active. He serves on the board of eight organizations, some of which are nonprofit. He’s the only African-American officer and youngest person on the board of the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C., which is an organization that lobbies on behalf most of the hotels in the city.

“What inspires me is the opportunity to shape the lives of what I consider to be ‘the least, the last and the lost’,” he said. “For example, I want to have the opportunity to positively affect that young kid who lives in a community that is struggling. And so I try to align myself with organizations that allow me to work with as many young people as possible.”

He has hired 20 kids from the Hospitality High School in Washington, and another 15 from the Bridges Marriott Foundation, an organization that finds employment for disabled minorities. He serves on the board and was recognized as “Employer of the Year” by Richard Marriott for his work in creating opportunities for underprivileged youths.

Penny said, “Having grown up in Washington, D.C., I feel a sense of responsibility to make certain that other kids get the same opportunities I got.”

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