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The man who founded

Starwood Hotels & Resorts


and built it into an industry leader is stepping aside from his creation.

Barry Sternlicht, who founded the company in 1995, announced Thursday he is resigning as executive chairman and vacating his board seat.

In a news release, Sternlicht said he had fulfilled a commitment to help Starwood make the transition to a new top executive and wanted to shift his focus to

Starwood Capital Group Global LLC

, a private real estate investment company in which he has a big stake.

Last October, Sternlicht handed over the CEO's reins at Starwood Hotels & Resorts to former



executive Steven Heyer after conducting an extensive search for a successor.

"Eighteen months ago, I made the decision to reduce my involvement in the company to spend more time with my family and focus on my other business interests," Sternlicht said. "My commitment to lead the search process for a new CEO and stay through the transition period has now been fulfilled and it is now time for me to follow through with my other commitments... I believe we have a talented executive team led by Steve Heyer and the Board of Directors in place to execute the strategy to maximize shareholder value."

Starwood Hotels & Resorts' brands include St. Regis, The Luxury Collection, Sheraton, Westin and W.

The company's board has elected Lizanne Galbreath, a managing director of real estate investment firm

Galbreath & Co.

, to replace the director's seat vacated by Sternlicht. The chairman's seat is going to Bruce Duncan, an existing director who is CEO of apartment company

Equity Residential



Sternlicht's departure from Starwood Hotels & Resorts appears to eliminate a potential conflict of interest in

a deal the two Starwood companies are pursuing. Starwood Capital is teaming with

Lehman Brothers


to buy a portfolio of hotels from Le Meridien. Starwood Hotels & Resorts would take over management and franchise contracts for the Le Meridien brand.