It’s not where you start—it’s where you finish. That could be the motto of the four people being inducted into the Washington Business Hall of Fame. They worked hard, capitalized on opportunities, and exceeded their own expectations.
Gracia Martore joined Gannett as assistant treasurer and rose to head the media giant. Hilton CEO Chris Nassetta’s introduction to the industry was a summer job at the Capitol Hill Holiday Inn. Mike Harreld was 60 and capping a career at PNC bank in Kentucky when he was asked to helm PNC’s expansion in Washington. Phil de Picciotto, founder and president of the sports-and-entertainment marketing company Octagon, says: “I ended up in a city and an area of law that was just developing. I never anticipated it would be a career.”
Thirty years ago, Washingtonian, the Greater Washington Board of Trade, and Junior Achievement of Greater Washington created the Washington Business Hall of Fame. The dinner and awards ceremony benefit Junior Achievement, whose programs teach entrepreneurship and financial literacy to local children. Last year, JA sent 6,011 volunteers to work with 66,256 students in 257 schools. More than 26,000 middle-schoolers went through JA’s Finance Parks. For more information about the dinner, contact Rachael Doss at 202-777-4486.
Phil de Picciotto
Title: Founder and president, Octagon Worldwide.
First job: Geologist in a gold mine.
Best advice: “You can’t plan everything. Sometimes you have to let the world come to you.”
A confluence of events led Phil de Picciotto to a new city and an area of law that was just developing.
An amateur tennis player with an interest in sports photography, he used to shoot events at the old Capital Centre in Largo. One of Washington’s leading sports-management law firms—Dell, Craighill, Fentress & Benton—was looking for pictures of tennis players, and de Picciotto could provide. That connection later helped him become a summer associate at the firm, cofounded by local tennis great Donald Dell.
Two years after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania law school, de Picciotto cofounded Advantage International, later rebranded as Octagon. It represents top athletes including Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, Stephen Curry, Felix Hernandez, and Elena Delle Donne. The firm is also involved with more than 13,000 events annually. Other divisions handle property ownership and sports-and-entertainment marketing.
Today, sports management is expanding exponentially, according to de Picciotto. Thanks to the tech revolution, athletes are known by more people in more places. “It’s allowed me to have a career that changes every five minutes,” he says.
Title: Retired regional president of Greater Washington PNC Bank.
First job: Lawyer—he didn’t like it and switched to banking.
Best advice: “You have no idea where you’re going to end up. The most important thing is intellectual nimbleness—the ability to adapt.”
Michael Harreld was established in the Kentucky banking community when the head of his bank, PNC, asked him to move to DC to run its newest acquisition. It wasn’t an offer he expected at age 60. “Why me?” he asked. Harreld was told: “You’re the only one here who’s run an independent bank.”
Harreld, who’d been president of Citizens Fidelity Corporation in Louisville before it was acquired by PNC, realized that the new member of the company’s family was no ordinary bank—it was a Washington institution: Riggs had financed the Mexican-American War and the purchase of Alaska.
By the time PNC acquired it in 2004, Riggs was in deep regulatory trouble. Harreld’s challenge was to respect the history while building a new organization. Upon his retirement, the Washington-area operation had tripled in size and assets.
When he came here, Harreld feared Washington might not accept outsiders remaking a local institution. But, he says, “I was stunned at how welcoming it was. This community makes business decisions on merit rather than on history.”
Title: Retired president and CEO, Tegna.
First job: Management trainee officer for Industrial National (which became Fleet Financial).
Best advice: Her first boss in banking said, “Never do anything you’d be ashamed to have your mother read in the Wall Street Journal.”
Gracia Martore’s background was in finance, but as a young banker considering her next position, she proved to be an excellent investigative reporter. “I started digging,” she recalls. “Gannett was a meritocracy. The board of directors was diverse, and there were lots of women in the leadership. That told me what the top of the company valued.”
It didn’t hurt that Gannett had decided to move its headquarters from Rochester, New York, to Rosslyn.
Martore joined Gannett in 1985 as assistant treasurer. She moved up from the finance side to CEO in 2011. Under her leadership, Gannett doubled its TV-station ownership and acquired full ownership of Cars.com. She recognized that print classified advertising would be swallowed up by the internet and diversified into digital and broadcasting assets. In 2015, the company split into Gannett and Tegna. Tegna owns or provides services to 46 TV stations nationwide.
Martore says coming up with the name Tegna wasn’t easy: “I told my employees that when Google started, nobody thought it was a fantastic name. Whether it’s a great name is dependent on how good the company is.”
Title: President and CEO, Hilton.
First job: Working in the engineering department at the Capitol Hill Holiday Inn. “I mostly plunged toilets.”
Best advice: “My dad told me, ‘Have humility. It’s not just about you.’ ”
In 2007, the private-equity firm Blackstone Group bought Hilton Hotels for $26 billion and hired Christopher Nassetta, then head of Host Hotels & Resorts, to run it. Nassetta had big plans to rebuild Hilton, which had slipped to the middle of the pack of hospitality companies. Then the recession hit. Other CEOs would have lost sleep—not Nassetta.
“We knew we were in a cyclical business,” he says. “We didn’t lose faith.” He man-aged to restructure Hilton’s enormous debt and pay off creditors before the loans were due.
Hilton has 5,000-plus hotels in 103 countries, including economy brands like Homewood Suites as well as New York’s Waldorf Astoria and other luxury names. Worldwide, it employs a staff of technicians, lawyers, guest-relations personnel, designers, builders, and more. Nassetta is proud that many of those who started at the bottom at Hilton now run hotels: “Most of the managers grew up in the industry.”
Despite his top job, Nassetta still thinks of himself as in the service business. Not long ago, a neighbor told him she always took the pens from Hilton hotel rooms. Now that she could no longer travel, she missed the pens and asked if he could get her one. Says Nassetta: “I sent her an entire box.”
This article appears in the November 2017 issue of Washingtonian.