When native Texan Brett Sundstrom visited Oklahoma City in 1989 to meet his future in-laws, the Skirvin Hotel, like much of downtown, was dark, vacant and boarded up.
Today, Sundstrom marvels in the fact that he serves as general manager of the iconic, historic and now award-winning Skirvin Hilton, which employs 170 and boasts 225 rooms and 20 suites.
In his 21 years in the hotel and restaurant industry, this is Sundstrom’s 15th move and, hopefully, his last, he said. “I see no need or desire to go anywhere else,” he said.
Sundstrom lived in Room 601 for three months, before temporarily moving in with his in-laws in southeast Edmond a few weeks ago. His family is due to move from Wisconsin here in late June.
Sundstrom, 43, sat down with The Oklahoman to talk about his career.
Among the many things he loves about working in the hotel and restaurant industry are the opportunities to make important decisions in real time and to serve people at some of their most memorable times, be it a wedding or important business meeting.
Here is an edited transcript:
Q: Tell us about your roots.
A: My paternal grandparents met on the boat over from Sweden. After earning a bachelor’s at USC and master’s at Brown, my grandfather worked as an engineer for Cessna, and helped develop the false horizon airplane. My mother’s father was a WWII vet and Pearl Harbor survivor. My parents met in the San Francisco Bay area, where my dad was stationed and my mom worked as a flight attendant for American Airlines.
Q: And your childhood?
A: I was a military brat, and our family moved a lot, mainly between San Antonio, Texas, and Gaithersburg, Md., settling in Texas the middle of my sixth-grade year. My father worked 30 years as an occupational therapist with the Army, retiring as a colonel, that is, after traveling the nation as a lumberjack and playing a little minor league baseball for the Cincinnati Reds. He used to joke that he was a first baseman, but got stuck behind somebody named Pete Rose. My mom stayed home with me and my brother, who’s two years younger, until I was in middle school. Then she became a Mary Kay cosmetics saleswoman, rising to director. She’d drive us to school in a pink Pontiac and later, a pink Cadillac. Today, they live in Philipsburg, Mont.; my brother, who’s a graphic artist, lives in Bismarck, N.D.
Q: Where did you go to college?
A: I started out at Texas Christian University, where I intended to play soccer and study accounting. But then I broke my ankle and toe, and wasn’t having any fun in my business courses. I was lost and at a crossroads. It was the first time since I was 5 that I wasn’t competing in soccer, and I decided I didn’t want to work as an accountant in a cubicle all my life. Looking back, I think it was God’s plan for me to go to TCU. I met my wife, Martha, who’s from Edmond, in freshman orientation, and we started dating a few days before Christmas break. After our freshman year, I transferred to OSU to pursue a degree in hotel and restaurant administration, to which career testing at TCU pointed me. Martha, who was studying elementary education, followed me to Stillwater after we got engaged.
Q: Did you have fun at OSU?
A: Yes, but mainly I worked and studied. My dad said he’d pay for only four years of college, so I had to get down to business. I worked as a cook at an Italian restaurant (My mother already had taught me and my brother to cook, clean and sew) and on the front desk two nights a week at the Best Western for two years. One of those semesters, I had an early speech class the mornings after I worked, and it was a challenge for me to stay awake from 6:30 a.m., when I got off, until class. My last semester, I had to get special permission from the dean to take 22 credit hours so I could graduate on time. Martha and I married a week after graduation.
Q: What were the highlights of your early career?
A: I worked as an assistant general manager for six years with Outrigger Hotels & Resorts, spending 10 months in San Antonio; then 13 months as a resident general manager in west Hollywood, Calif., during which the 6.7-magnitude Northridge earthquake struck (our bed felt like a trampoline); nearly two years in Sedona, Ariz.; and the last couple in San Antonio, where our son was born. Then I joined Adams Mark in San Antonio, where I worked two years before transferring to Denver a few days after our first daughter was born. I worked a year in Colorado and transferred back to Tulsa where I spent eight years as a general manager of two hotels; four years at what’s now the Hyatt and four years at the Doubletree Tulsa Warren. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of meeting Presidents George Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who were guests in the hotels I managed.
Q: When did you join your current employer, the Milwaukee, Wis.-based Marcus Hotels & Resorts?
A: In 2008. For about two and half years, I managed the 11-acre, 400-room Xona Resort Suites in Scottsdale, Ariz., that drew golfers worldwide. Then I transferred to Lake Geneva, Wis., to oversee the Grand Geneva, a one-of-a-kind 13-acre, 1,000-employee resort and spa with a ski hill, stables and two golf courses, where I worked three and half years before coming here.
Q: It must be rough being separated from your family until they join you in Oklahoma this summer. How do you cope?
A: It is. Between this six-month separation period, and six months where I preceded them in Scottsdale, I figure I’ll have missed a year of my kids’ lives. But technology helps. I used to tell my son to fax his homework. Now they can take a picture of their homework and send it to me on my iPhone, and we talk and visit via FaceTime.
•Position: The Skirvin Hilton, general manager
•Birth date and birthplace: April 18, 1970; San Pedro, Calif.
•Family: Martha McCormick Sundstrom, married 22 years; children Erik, 17; Karin, 15; and Sonja, 11.
•Education: Oklahoma State University, bachelor’s in hotel and restaurant administration with a minor in business.
•Professional contributions: Sundstrom recently was appointed to the board of directors for the Oklahoma Hotel and Lodging Association.
•Free time: Golf, church men’s group and volunteer opportunities, and watching his kids play sports.
•On the nightstand: “God is in Control” by Charles F. Stanley.
•Oscar-nominated films watched: “Gravity,” “Captain Phillips” and “American Hustle.”