Micajah P. Sturdivant IV, president and CEO of Mississippi-based MMI Hospitality Group, says his family’s 1850s roots in farming are consistent with its embrace of the hospitality industry a century later. The family farm has evolved and expanded into the present day, growing cotton, corn, and soybeans in a vertically integrated, technology-focused commercial operation while staying true to its culture and values. The family hospitality business has followed a similar trajectory over its 66-year history, progressing to remain relevant while holding true to its principles. Sturdivant, who now represents the third generation at the helm, described for LODGING MMI’s conception and evolution, his path to his current position, and the traditions he strives to maintain.
It was his grandfather, Micajah Sturdivant Jr., who recognized both the evolution of the family’s agricultural business and the opportunity for a move into hospitality. Coincident with the Harvard Business School (HBS) graduation of Micajah Sturdivant Jr., President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into law the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which authorized construction of the Interstate Highway System. “He saw how agriculture was changing in terms of industrialization and thought about its impact on a place like Mississippi,” says the younger Sturdivant of his grandfather. Believing it was necessary to diversify and desirable to seize the moment, his grandfather convinced his HBS roommate, Earle Jones, to move from California to partner as the seventh franchisee in the ownership and operation of the world’s 13th Holiday Inn.
Sturdivant says his first foray into hospitality was not at a family-owned property but at summer camp, when, as a junior high schooler, he began working in the dish pit. It was only later, during summers and school vacations, that he took on the typical hospitality jobs at his family’s properties—in the kitchen and at the front desk.
Knowing he’d want to pursue his family business after completing his education, Sturdivant heeded the advice of a family friend, who was a University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) chancellor, to solidify his connection to his home state with an undergraduate degree from Ole Miss before following the postgraduate path of his father and grandfather to HBS to acquire the knowledge and credential to deal with the larger business community. The decision, he maintains, was a good one. “Staying in state allowed me to build on that network my family had established, not just professionally, but also civically, before going to graduate school.”
Between graduation from Ole Miss and heading to Boston for his MBA, Sturdivant worked in banking, gaining expertise and forging lending and financing relationships.
Ultimately, he says, he was “called back to join the family business” in 2006, at first handling acquisitions, development, and management for the hotel group. He went on to become president in 2013 and CEO in 2021.
Regarding those who guided and motivated his career, Sturdivant credits Jones “for what he did to influence the industry” as well as longtime CFO Mike Hart, who joined the company in 1975 and continues to serve in a senior role, for “his selfless and inspiring sense of ownership.” He also points to Hart’s deep understanding of the unique business cycles of hospitality.
Sturdivant says MMI is unique in that it has three divisions: a hotel ownership and management company with about a dozen hotels across the Southeast; a dining systems division that provides food service to facilities in five states; and a restaurant division, begun less than two years ago with the acquisition of Primos Cafes, a 93-year-old Mississippi-based restaurant/cafe concept company.
He wholeheartedly believes hospitality is an operating business more than a class of real estate. “Unlike other real estate classes, like office and apartment rentals, our leases expire every 24 hours,” he says. Knowing that, he says MMI strives to remain relevant by working with owners to offer guests certain standard experiences across a portfolio Sturdivant describes as a “mixed bag” that is decidedly “Southeast centric.”
“Our portfolio today is a melting pot of properties—franchised and independent, full-service and select-service, and drive-to and suburban prototypical destinations,” he says. What they have in common is MMI’s emphasis on working closely with its franchisees. “We leverage the knowledge and the resources of our franchise partners, then plug-and-play where appropriate across our franchise and independent properties alike.” The portfolio includes truly unique independent properties—like the King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort, which the company has owned for 43 years—as well as the newly acquired, family-owned Mission Inn Resort & Club, for which they are “creating a new chapter.”
It is this mix of properties, says Sturdivant, that enabled MMI to emerge from the challenges of the pandemic relatively unscathed. “We were able to handle it better than others to a great extent due to our mix of properties primarily being drive-to destinations,” he explains.
Sturdivant considers MMI true to its roots in agriculture and the Deep South, where hospitality has its own special meaning. “As a six-generation family business rooted in Mississippi agriculture dating back to 1857, our mindset and culture set us apart. I like to say hospitality is in our DNA. It’s mostly a point of view—extra warmth that comes from having a familial, agricultural background, and a sense that everyone is in it together, like on a farm in the middle of nowhere.”
While hospitality comes natural to Sturdivant’s family and is part of the reason for MMI’s success, he also recognizes that the hospitality business isn’t for everyone: “There are glamorous aspects, but deep down, hospitality is a grind.” Fortunately, he adds, “there are a lot of people who have it in their DNA, and those folks make the grind a lot of fun. It’s a privilege to serve those who serve.”
Backing the Team: Going the Extra Mile to Foster Employee Engagement
MMI President and CEO Micajah Sturdivant IV says MMI has never lost sight of its commitment to its team members, even during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. “At one point, we went from 800 team members to less than 80 on the clock in our hotel management division, but we didn’t terminate anybody. Some were furloughed until we were able to bring them back,” he relates. “We excelled through that period, not because it was easy, but because we had a team that was made fully aware of the challenges that were before us.”
For several years prior to the pandemic, he had made a practice of sending all team members a regular Monday Message, plus a handwritten note about 45 days after they first joined the company. During the pandemic, he began emailing updates of “goings on” to everyone’s personal email. As he explains, “We saw what a difference staying in touch with our team members made during that time. We made sure they didn’t think we forgot about them and wanted to show our genuine care for their physical and mental health.”
Recognition is also important, from both management and peers. He reminds that the dedicated work of team members—even behind the scenes—does not go unnoticed. “When in the dish pit or laundry, where you’re not directly interacting with the guests, know you’ve got an audience in your fellow team members,” he says. “You’re serving them and can take pride in that.”
Sturdivant also observes the need to support MMI’s commitment to its team members—more than 90 of whom have served for more than 25 years with the organization—by remaining competitive and growing for the sake of the organization and its staff. “We need to ensure that we are always pushing forward, exploring new opportunities so that our team members have opportunities to grow and sustain careers within our organization.”