Tom Baltimore: A Darden Alum’s Journey From Humble Beginnings to Corporate CEO
By McGregor McCance
The seventh-floor conference room at the corporate headquarters of Park Hotels & Resorts in Tysons provides a panorama of a wide expanse of the Washington area. This room is a space where Thomas J. Baltimore Jr. (MBA ’91) helps shape the direction and focus of Park, a public company that owns 49 hotels and resorts across the country.
Baltimore, a 1985 graduate of the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce and 1991 graduate of UVA’s Darden Graduate School of Business, serves as chair, president and CEO of Park Hotels, which spun off as a public real estate investment trust from Hilton Worldwide in 2017. Baltimore was formerly president and CEO at RLJ Lodging Trust, another publicly held real estate investment trust that he launched with BET co-founder Robert L. Johnson in 2000, first as a private company, then taking it public in 2011. He has also served on many public company boards, currently including Prudential Financial and American Express, in addition to chairing Park Hotels.
In short, he’s achieved remarkable success in the business and finance world.
Outside the conference room windows, somewhere near the horizon in one direction or another, lies the former world of Tom Baltimore. It’s the one where his parents, who attended segregated schools in Warrenton, had him when they were just 17 and 18. And it’s the one where they raised Baltimore and his four siblings in seven rental properties in Montgomery County, Maryland, never owning a home but practically insisting that all five kids graduate from college. (They did.)
The physical distance from that childhood to his current office isn’t far at all, but it’s a long, long way from being raised in poverty to having your hands on the rudder of a publicly traded company. I wondered what kept Baltimore moving forward in his experiences, what motivated him, the values he holds, his approach to work – and, of course, how the University of Virginia fits into everything.
Early Work Ethic
Baltimore worked through school – delivering papers, washing dishes, landscaping. “I can’t remember a period when I wasn’t working,” he said.
It ran in the family. His mother, Geraldine, spent her days raising the family, and worked nights, answering after-hours calls for doctor offices and the like. His dad, the Rev. Thomas J. Baltimore Sr., held a variety of jobs, but what he really wanted to do was start a church and minister to a congregation. At 33, he gave up a steady if uninspiring job to pursue that dream, founding a Baptist church in Montgomery County when his eldest son was 15. He took a step back – at least in terms of earnings – but knew the opportunity ahead ultimately would be more rewarding.
“It was a very challenging period because he went from making a very modest salary to no salary,” Baltimore recalled. “He was an incredible servant, an incredible speaker. And he loved his work. It was his true passion and calling.”
His parents died young. Geraldine was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer around age 45 and died seven years later. Tom Sr., suffering from a series of ailments, died at age 58 after building and leading his large church and congregation for 25 years. But they cemented in their children the ethic of hard work, and the emphasis on education as a way to a better life. Though they moved relatively often, the family always seemed to end up in a good public school district.
“She would point at our school and say, ‘That’s your school. Do your best. Don’t embarrass me.’ She had that sixth sense that this is the key,” Baltimore Jr. said of his mother.
The lessons weren’t lost on him.
“As a minority kid growing up and wanting to get ahead, I knew I had to be as good, if not better than others. I had to work harder,” he said. “I didn’t complain about that. I just accepted it.”
Later, as a Darden student who was then beginning to climb the ladder of success in business, Baltimore heard a phrase that would stick. It motivated him in future years, but at the same time reminded him of what he was feeling as a kid, full of ambition but lacking experience.
“If you want to change something, your level of dissatisfaction has to be greater than the cost of change,” he remembered. “I grew up in a very humble background. I just made up my mind I was going to live differently. Once I accepted that, I was prepared to work harder.” It is widely known that Baltimore works six days a week. You can usually find him in the office on Sundays.
Athlete to Accounting
Rev. Baltimore realized his dream to become a Baptist minister. His son, meanwhile, had his own dream at the time. It turned out the younger Baltimore was a pretty solid basketball player in high school. In an era marked by the emergence of superstars such as Michael Jordan at the University of North Carolina, Johnny Dawkins at Duke University, and Len Bias at the University of Maryland, an inspired Tom Baltimore was eager to play college ball. He landed at Baldwin Wallace College, a Division III school, now a university, in Ohio – passing up an offer of admission at UVA (“but not to play basketball,” he laughed).
“The basketball was good. I enjoyed it,” he said, chuckling at the hectic memory of playing and studying and working at the same time. “But I got it out of my system, and I learned quickly that I had a much better chance in life through academics than I ever would in basketball.”
Though he didn’t enter UVA as a first-year, Baltimore had friends who did, and he visited them occasionally, which only stoked his growing interest in coming to Grounds once the basketball experiment was winding down. The other thing he was good at through high school was accounting. (This early interest helped spark curiosity in investing, financial management and real estate – core specialties across his professional career.)
So now, Baltimore charted a new path.
He would transfer to UVA and set his sights on the McIntire School, arriving in fall of 1982. In a blur of a first year, Baltimore satisfied all the basic prerequisites while also working.
Baltimore said he “immediately loved” UVA. The Grounds, tradition and history appealed to him. He felt welcomed, and enjoyed the nucleus of friends already here. The academic rigor demanded attention, but he never worried about grades.
“My biggest fear as an undergrad was that somebody would show up with a bill, because I had no safety net,” he said. “My anxiety was around the financial cost. I knew I could do the work.”
That feeling never completely left. In fact, it motivated him and his wife, Hillary, later in life – once they achieved a higher degree of financial security – to give to the University to establish and support a variety of endowed scholarships and fellowships for minority students. One of those, the Sylvia V. Terry Scholarship, honors a former assistant dean of admission, who in the early 1980s kept tabs on young Tom Baltimore and helped him transition to UVA from Ohio. He also established scholarships at the Jefferson Scholars Foundation and Darden.
“It’s about helping kids, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, because I remember what that was like,” Baltimore said.
Prayer, Preparation, Perseverance
If you Google “Tom Baltimore Jr.,” the search results will turn up career- and business-oriented webpages and press releases from his current and former companies. There’s the occasional news article. You won’t find any social media. Not from accounts run by him, anyway. No tweets or Facebook posts. Not even LinkedIn. His two children, Thomas III and Hannah, roll their eyes now and then at his decision to avoid social media, but Baltimore just hasn’t felt the need.
One item that comes up in the search results is a virtual discussion Baltimore participated in as part of the McIntire Black Alumni and Student networking event in the summer of 2020. He remains active with McIntire, has guest-lectured for more than a decade at Darden, and serves on the board of University of Virginia Investment Management Company, the entity that manages the University’s endowment. He is a former member of the Darden Foundation Board of Trustees and the school’s Racial Equity Cabinet, and is a member of the UVA Real Estate Group. Baltimore previously served on the Jefferson Scholars Foundation board, and UVA’s Bicentennial Commission.
Because he speaks frequently to various audiences, the themes around his family experiences and career path are consistently represented. He also has an interesting way of boiling down decades of life and work experience into three words that he connects with his successes.
Prayer. Preparation. Perseverance.
Like his earlier life lessons around work ethic and education, these come across as straightforward and simple. And I was curious about why they are so important to him.
Given his father’s vocation and passion (the J. in their shared name stands for Jeremiah, a Biblical prophet), Baltimore’s faith and his reliance on prayer aren’t surprising.
“I think it’s important to be centered. It’s important to be grounded,” he said. “One of the many things that my late father taught me was to make sure that you have a respect and appreciation for different religions. And that you also develop your own relationship with Jesus Christ – certainly, my Lord and savior.
“So, for me, having that prayer – whether it’s a daily prayer or whether it’s taking time to have grace and humility – is a way of grounding you. For me, that’s an anchor that’s really important.”
Preparation, his second guiding principle, applies universally.
“If you want to be a good baseball player or a good writer or a good doctor, you’ve got to prepare and you’ve got to work hard,” Baltimore said. “You can look across industries, across professions. It’s really important. And I always say the harder I work, the luckier I get.”
As for perseverance, Baltimore describes it as no less than the “secret sauce of life.”
“Bad things will happen to good people. There are going to be setbacks in your life,” he said. “It’s really how you respond to them.”
As CEO, Baltimore encountered his most difficult leadership challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Its impact on the lodging and travel industries eclipsed the economic shocks of the 9/11 terror attacks and the great financial crisis of 2008-09 combined,” Baltimore said.
Park Hotels & Resorts suspended operations at 85% of its hotel rooms nationally, decimating revenue in a business with high operating leverage and continuing fixed costs. In first quarter earnings results from 2020 – near the height of the pandemic – Park reported a net loss of $689 million. The company later suspended dividend payments to shareholders, cut capital expenses, and raised three bond offerings to pay off debt and push out maturities on other debt. In March 2020, Baltimore waived his salary for the balance of the year.
The moves – and these are just a few of them – were drastic, but necessary.
“People were understandably panicked and fearful,” he recalled. “The stress was unprecedented.”
The time was nigh for serious perseverance. Those immediate moves were intended to slow the bleeding and buy time for the development of COVID vaccines and therapies and a hoped-for return to more normal economic conditions. Baltimore’s way through as an executive was to rely on the strong team he had assembled and the support and input of Park’s board. None of it was easy.
“How do you keep a team together? It is important to remain calm and steady in the face of a crisis. You have to remain laser-focused on key priorities. How do you navigate through that?” he said. “You learn a lot about yourself in the face of adversity. If you think about planting a seed in the ground. It gets germinated. It grows in the dark places. That ability to be able to navigate through tough times is a great example of perseverance. I’ve always believed that that’s the secret sauce of life.”
Park’s share price hasn’t bounced all the way back to pre-pandemic levels, but the return of travel has certainly boosted the company. In August, it reported a second-quarter profit of $154 million.
Mentors and Sponsors
Baltimore credits his Darden experience with helping him recognize and hone his leadership style. The school’s “case method” of teaching creates diverse groups to explore business issues, solve problems or generate ideas. Often, a case isn’t solved with a single approach or solution – instead, ideas, possibilities and strategies emerge that can be as varied as those on the team.
When he teaches at Darden, Baltimore leads a lecture he created and named “General Managers Taking Action.”
“In these cases, the students have stepped into my shoes,” he said. “I love teaching it because there are nuances to it, and there’s no right or wrong answer.”
Since Baltimore earned his Darden MBA in 1991, his career steadily progressed. And I was interested in hearing more about his views on the importance of mentorships to young professionals during their career development. Baltimore’s self-reliant approach and grit played a big role in his career, but he frequently and graciously credits key leaders and colleagues who served as mentors and “sponsors” along the way.
Mentors teach, he said. They lead by example, and offer access, advice and exposure through which someone can learn by watching and participating. Sponsors take things to the next level. These are the colleagues and leaders who see the potential and talent in a mentee and actually seek or create opportunities to give them more responsibility and challenges. Sponsors can catapult a young professional from early-stage assignments to managing teams to executive leadership, and more. They’re gatekeepers of opportunity within organizations. And if perseverance is a secret sauce to pushing ahead, then sponsors are a secret sauce to building and keeping talent in house.
“I love pushing people out of their comfort zone. I have numerous examples where I’ve taken someone out of one position and moved them into something very different,” he said. “You can see that they have more talent than they even see themselves. I enjoy watching them grow and excel, watching a team succeed by itself.”
Kind of a familiar path for Baltimore. And if his experience is a guide, it’s one others can choose to pursue as well.
“I’ve been lucky to have a lot of mentors who took interest in me and gave me a chance,” he said. “The things I’ve accomplished, many others can accomplish. I was wise enough and lucky enough to be able to see that when an opportunity emerged, I really needed to show the discipline, make the sacrifice and bet on myself.”
This story originally appeared in UVA Today.
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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