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Is this the world’s fittest CEO?

FRITS van Paasschen is standing with his bike on the edge of Central Park. It’s a brisk autumn morning. The city has yet to fully wake but he’s eager to ride.

The CEO of Starwood Hotels & Resorts – best known for brands like Sheraton, Westin, St. Regis and W – exercises six days a week no matter where he is in the world. These are not light workouts. Van Paasschen, 52, just completed his first Ironman triathlon – 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling, and a 26.2-mile run. It took 12 hours and 44 minutes.

Since taking over as CEO in September 2007, van Paasschen – who is vegan – has injected parts of his lifestyle into Starwood’s hotels. He’s changed menus to make them healthier, for instance, and made it easier for road warriors to work out.

Given his penchant for exercise, I suggested a bike ride as a way to learn more about him and the company.

Which brings us to a chilly October morning two weeks ago.

Dressed in back spandex biking shorts and cycling jerseys, we head out for laps through the park. I am not a triathlete, so van Paasschen promises to take it easy.

“So have you done this before?” he asks. No. Most of my reporting is stationary. “Yeah, I can’t say I’ve been interviewed on a bike either.”

His love of fitness started at age 7 while watching the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics on TV.

“I thought, OK, I’m going to go out and be in the Olympics and I started running,” van Paasschen says. “I realised after a few years there was no way I was going to go to the Olympics, let alone even compete at a high level. But I also just kind of, I just fell in love with doing it.”

Biking came later, when a junior high school gym teacher on Mercer Island, Wash., would take van Paasschen’s class out for long rides at the end of the day.

Starwood guests can see those influences today.

Westin hotels loan guests running shoes and clothing. New menus have been crafted around foods thought to improve well-being and longevity such as green tea, honey, blueberries and kiwis. And the company’s newest brand, Element, offers bicycles.

“The whole idea is that you’ll feel better after your stay,” van Paasschen says as we speed past some joggers. It doesn’t matter that nearly three times as many guests use Sheraton’s free lobby computers than use the hotel gym. It’s important that the gym is available. “It strikes me that more people have the intention of working out than not.”

The number of Starwood hotels has grown 28 per cent during van Paasschen’s tenure to 1,150 today and is expected to hit 1,500 by the end of 2018. His company isn’t the largest; Holiday Inn owner Intercontinental Hotels Group holds that title with 4,600 properties worldwide. But Starwood is trying to position itself as the biggest luxury hotel group. One out of every seven hotels that Starwood has planned is a luxury property.

“People are surprised to hear how fast the luxury segment is growing,” van Paasschen says. “Our three luxury brands – W, Luxury Collection and St. Regis – have essentially doubled their footprint in the last six years, even with the financial crisis.”

Most of that growth is overseas.

Starwood, based in Stamford, Conn., opened 67 new hotels in the past 12 months. Only a third of them were in the United States. The focus for van Paasschen has been on China, the United Arab Emirates, India and Latin America.

“The hotel business grows alongside economic growth,” he says. “So as you can imagine, wherever there’s the kind of massive growth and urbanisation we’re seeing in so many markets around the world, that’s where the majority of new hotels are being built.”

It seems to be working. In the last 12 months, Starwood has earned $649 million, up about 12 per cent from the prior year. Its revenue per available room – a combination of occupancy levels and room rate – is up 4.2 per cent system-wide this year and an impressive 8.5 per cent at its luxury properties.

Prior to arriving at Starwood, van Paasschen was CEO of Coors Brewing Co. and before that, he held several positions with Nike, ultimately overseeing its business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He was previously a vice president in finance at Disney Consumer Products and began his career as a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey & Co.

While at Nike, it was routine to have meetings while jogging, giving van Paasschen an informal chance to give updates to his boss. Now, at Starwood, when van Paasschen travels, somebody on the hotel staff usually invites him on a run or a bike ride.

“A run in the morning is sometimes the best way to see a place right, particularly if the rest of your day is booked,” he says. “You end up in some places you wouldn’t expect.”

Managers who work for van Paasschen know that feeling. He moved the company’s entire leadership team to Shanghai for a month in 2011 and to Dubai for a month earlier this year. He plans another month overseas in 2015. He wants his staff to better understand the cultures they are opening hotels in.

“One of the best ways to draw attention to something is to go there,” he says, adding that staff back at headquarters in Connecticut had to adjust to doing business across several time zones. “My focus was to reinforce the notion of a global mindset.”

“There’s just something different about actually seeing entire cities being built in one stroke,” he adds.

We near Central Park’s Great Hill and I ask if he minds peddling up the steep incline or wants to take a flat shortcut. Van Paasschen says that “climbing is really my great weak spot in cycling.” But then he flies up the hill, answering questions the whole time.

That shouldn’t have been a surprise. Last year, he did a four-day charity bike ride that covered 350 miles from Chamonix, France, through the Alps, to Monaco. It included some of the most challenging, high-altitude climbs from the Tour de France. This year, he rode from Salzburg, Austria to Munich.

“What I’ve learned is on those climbs, I’m going my own speed and it’s a lot slower than most everybody else’s,” he says.

So, I wonder, is van Paasschen one of the most fit CEOs in America?

“I’m not competing against other CEOs,” he says. “It’s really a kind of a personal goal setting thing.”

Photo: AP

Updated: May 19, 2014 — 5:43 pm

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