the ceo magazine, innovation
Tommy Spaulding, President, Spaulding Companies

The Brown Palace Hotel in Denver has been one of the most elegant establishments in Colorado since its founding in 1892. It was named one of the world’s 500 best hotels by Travel & Leisure and every U.S. president since Teddy Roosevelt (except Calvin Coolidge) has been a guest at the Brown Palace. Dwight Eisenhower even used the hotel as his Western campaign headquarters in 1952.

My close friend Marcel Pitton is the Managing Director of the Brown Palace Hotel. Marcel is from Interlaken, Switzerland, and has spent his entire working life in the hotel business. But all of this experience is only helpful to him today if he can use it as a springboard to continuous innovation. That’s because the Brown Palace is in constant competition with such nationally known luxury hotels as the Four Seasons and the Ritz-Carlton, which have both established footholds in the Denver market. Luckily, as Marcel and many others will attest, innovations can rise up from the most mundane or unusual situations if you are attuned to the possibilities.

A few years ago Marcel read an article about the bee pollination crisis, in which a sudden and unexplained decline in the honey bee population may actually affect farming and agricultural production because of the huge role that bees play in pollinating crops. Intrigued by what he read, Marcel contacted the Denver Beekeeping Association and began a series of conversations about making a home on the hotel rooftop for some beehives. His instincts were driven in part by ecological concerns, to see if the hotel could be involved in making a small difference, but he was also intrigued by the entrepreneurial possibilities. A green initiative dedicated to urban beekeeping, he mused, would stamp the Brown Palace as an innovative business and could even become a new moneymaker for the hotel.

So, in conjunction with local beekeepers, Marcel launched the “Royal Bee Initiative.” There are currently four hives on the roof of the hotel, each with about 65,000 bees, and they produce 150 or so pounds of honey each year. Denver beekeeper Matt Kentner helped Marcel get the initiative off the ground and the project is now overseen by Marygael Meister, who is President of the Denver Beekeeping Association.

The Brown Palace today sells jars of locally produced honey in its gift shop, serves the honey during its afternoon tea service, uses it in the hotel spa and for special facial treatments, incorporates it into the lavender honey soap dispensed to guests, and even features it as a key ingredient in a microbrewed beer (Rooftop Honey Saison) that is produced in partnership with the local Wynkoop Brewing Company.

Marcel says the bees have been like “liquid gold” for his hotel. Just as important, though, the initiative has given the Brown Palace a bit of distinctiveness that sets it apart from other Denver hotels. Guests can learn about the concepts of urban agriculture, sustainability and the importance of bees to the world’s food supply. All because of one brainstorm and one person’s commitment to continually growing his business.

Another of my favorite stories about the power of innovation stems from a speech I gave a few years ago at Colorado State University that was sponsored by the Fort Collins Chamber of Commerce. At a book signing after my talk, a woman named Nancy came up to me and said that I should meet her husband, Curt, who owned a company that practiced much of what I preached in terms of the power of building authentic relationships. When she gave me her card, I discovered that her husband was Curt Richardson, the founder of Otterbox, which makes protective cases for a variety of tablets, smartphones and e-readers. I laughed, pulled out my phone and showed her the Otterbox case that was already protecting it.

On her invitation, I later went back to Fort Collins, had dinner with Curt and Nancy, and was given a tour of the Otterbox headquarters. It’s a huge corporate campus in the center of town and the instant you walk in the front door you become immersed in the company culture, which is not only innovative and fun but also based on building relationships and working collaboratively. The first thing I noticed was a large spiral slide in the center of the lobby that lets employees have a bit of fun during the day by actually sliding down from one floor to the next! There is also an immense, 400-gallon saltwater fish tank, dozens of flat screen televisions, a massage room and a bike storage area. Sounds like a fun place to work, doesn’t it? But the building is designed for more than fun and fitness, as it also includes coffee bars on each floor, open meeting spaces, fireplaces and a patio/barbeque area. The whole point of the Otterbox design is to encourage meetings and collaboration while providing an atmosphere that sparks innovation.

I was fascinated by all of this, of course, but what really impressed me later was to learn Curt’s story. From an early age, he had shown a curiosity about entrepreneurship and industrial design and he eventually gained considerable expertise in plastic injection molding. This combination of interests led him to buy or found numerous companies through the years, many of which either failed or weren’t as successful as he had initially projected.

But he never gave up on his visions and, in the midst of all this entrepreneurial activity, he continued to tinker with various designs and inventions on his own. Curt actually created the first prototype of a waterproof case in the early 1990s – in his garage. That case led him several years later to found Otterbox, which is now a household name in the world of protective cases for the technology that we carry around with us every day in our pockets, purses and backpacks.

The lesson I took away from Curt’s story is that overnight success rarely happens overnight. Otterbox is a tremendous success story, but Curt Richardson founded it after previously owning and running at least five other companies. Otterbox was truly the culmination of a lifetime of effort and of lessons learned from previous failures. We shouldn’t be afraid to fail, and we also shouldn’t shy away from tinkering with or reinventing our careers or our companies. Or our lives for that matter.

About the Author

Tommy Spaulding is founder and president of Spaulding Companies, a leadership-development consulting firm based in Denver, and author of the New York Times bestselling book It’s Not Just Who You Know and author of the new book THE HEART-LED LEADER:  How Living And Leading From The Heart Will Change Your Organization And Your Life.  Co-founder of The Center for Heart-Led Leadership, Spaulding consults with and speaks to businesses, associations, and organizations across the country.  For more information please visit


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