Early on, he also had to overcome sheer inexperience. "At the beginning, we really were a little naive," he says. "We'd go on these buying trips to New York. I was scared to get off the train, much less go to the shows. . . . And our first question always was: 'What's the minimum we can buy?' "
In many ways, Mr. Sarmiento has spent his life in unfamiliar settings. The eldest of three boys, he was born in California but grew up in Bogota, Colombia. At age 12, he got a dose of culture shock when his father, a Colombian-born geophysicist, took a job with Exxon and moved the family to Tulsa, Okla.
"I felt a little bit of an outsider," he says. "I didn't even know anything about baseball or football. . . . I tried my best to fit in, but it was a transition. You carry those feelings with you for the rest of your life."
A stint in Vietnam
After graduating from the University of Kansas in 1967 with a degree in international relations, he considered a career in law or politics. But when his draft notification came, his plans changed dramatically. He signed up with the Marine Corps flight training program and was flying helicopters in Vietnam by 1968.
"We used to say our lives were pretty much boredom with moments of excruciating terror," he says.
One of the most terrifying moments occurred when a storm forced him to make a crash landing in the jungle during a reconnaissance mission. "It was pretty scary," he says. "We were in the middle of nowhere." The crew camped out overnight and made its way back to the base the next day.
A hint of anger surfaces when he describes the stereotype often presented of Vietnam vets. "I do think Vietnam vets have been characterized erroneously as being some type of fringe element, which is really not true," he says. "I think the vast majority have turned out just fine and learned a lot from the experience."
He says he gained self-discipline and maturity during his five-year obligation -- 3 1/2 years of which were spent as a flight instructor in the United States. But when he returned, he was no longer interested in putting that knowledge to work in law school and turned to the hotel business instead, accepting a desk clerk job at the Hyatt in Houston.
From the beginning, it was a perfect match. The chain was growing. Enthusiasm was high, and many young people were being groomed for executive positions. "I loved what I was doing," he says. "On my days off, I'd come in and work with the restaurant manager."
Seven cities and 11 years later, he was named general manager of the Inner Harbor location.
During those years, he quickly made a name for himself, becoming active in influential business groups and being seen at the right black-tie galas. He also helped turn the Inner Harbor hotel into one of the most profitable in the chain.
A vision unrealized
Another attempt -- his stab at saving the ailing BelvederHotel -- wasn't nearly as successful. In 1988, he agreed to take over as chief executive officer of the Belvedere while continuing to run the White House. Less than a year later, he resigned and still considers the experience one of his great professional disappointments.
"I had this vision that the Belvedere could really be a grand hotel, but we never got the right management team in place or the right capital," he says.
The rigors of his career have brought some casualties, particularly in his personal life. His first marriage lasted six years; his second, 2 1/2 .
While he hasn't given up hope of having a family in the future, he's coy about saying whether his current girlfriend, Lisa Renshaw, the president and owner of Penn Parking, might become Wife No. 3.
"We can talk for hours and hours about management philosophies," he says somewhat unromantically. "We're confidantes for each other. That's very strong. It keeps us together."
With age 50 approaching, he's begun to seek a better balance between his professional and personal interests. He's making more of an effort to spend time relaxing in his Otterbein condo and participating in sports he enjoys, including running and scuba diving.
"I'm trying to take the time to do other things and not be so work focused," he says. "Really, what is there at the end of your life? So you started a company. Big deal. You want to have more than just that on your gravestone."
Occupation: President of the White House retail chain.
Born: Oakland, Calif.; Sept. 2, 1944.
Current home: Otterbein condominium.
Education: Bachelor's degree in international relations from University of Kansas in 1967.
Hobbies: Running, scuba diving and flying.
His thoughts on risk-taking: "You've got to face some danger every now and then. Not enough people do that. We're always living in this 'Is my insurance up to snuff?' world. Everybody's so safe. You've got to have some danger in life, or it's not interesting."
Number of white clothes in his closet: "I own 10 different outfitand tons of tops and sweaters."