Kemmons Wilson, an interesting sort of guy
If you ever wanted to know a millionaire who didn’t make much of his money, but lived as a human being despite it, then you needed to know Kemmons Wilson. This man was a very hard worker who grew up without a daddy, but had a mom who saw to it that he learned his lessons of hard work and diligent decency.
Born Charles Kemmons Wilson in Northeast Arkansas, this guy was moved to Memphis early after his father died. His mom, called Doll by everybody but him, had her picture on the wall behind his desk. It was a big picture, too. It was right behind him, because she always was, not in a nagging way, but in an always-encouraging fashion. She raised a son to be proud of.
His last office was at least 50 feet deep, from door to desk, and it needed to be. The wall on your left as you walked toward his desk was full of pictures, plaques, and commendations; honorary this and that, and everything you needed to get the sense that this guy was truly larger than life itself. Among the heroes that I had, this one was the only one I got to know firsthand.
Of course, this was the guy who went on a vacation with his young family, got nickel and dimed to death, got mad and started the chain of events that remade the hotel-motel industry in the form of Holiday Inns. I was one of many thousands of Memphians who heard of what he had done as founder and chairman of the board of Holiday Inns.
Back in 1964, my parents flew themselves, my sister and me down to Nassau, Bahamas. Of course, we needed to go to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, go through customs, pick up a life raft and make the jump to Nassau. Kemmons flew directly there from Memphis in the company plane.
He’d been an Air Force pilot in WWII, flying the hump into China. Flying the Hump was flying planes through the Himalayan Mountain chain, below the peaks. At 200 mph, it was a hairy ride, where you could get in trouble quick with one false move. It took some nerve to do that kind of trip on a regular basis. But nerve was one thing Kemmons Wilson was never short of.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and if Kemmons needed something that didn’t exist, he invented it, simple as that. His lawyer Bill Walton didn’t know how they were going to set up franchising, because it hadn’t been invented. The idea was to get the Holiday Inn chain into a lot of other places besides Memphis, and that was going to take somebody else’s money to do. So, he pitched the idea to the rich folks that he would let them build a hotel, and call it a Holiday Inn, but to his strict standards. Prices would be reasonable, kids would be free, and it would have all the details he wanted in a Holiday Inn. They could do this for $5 per room, per night, the franchise fee. This got a lot of investors involved, and literally exploded the growth of the chain.
When he first mentioned the idea of a hotel chain to his wife, Dorothy, she laughed when he said he’d have 400 inns. When it got that big, he didn’t laugh back-he wasn’t one to rub it in. He was a family man, through and through, bringing out of town guests to see his kids, whether it was past their bedtime or not. He and his wife raised 5 kids, who went on to make their own families. Every Sunday was a gathering of the Wilson clan at their house. Every Christmas saw an ever-larger Christmas card sent out with a picture of all three generations of the Kemmons Wilson family.
My time of acquaintance with him was not until he had retired from the inns, and his office was crammed into a space in Whitehaven with his associate, Doyle Savage, with whom he had built Holiday Inns all over the Caribbean, Bermuda and North Africa. Doyle’s son Ralph was nearly the same age as me, and we grew up together at East Elementary and later East High School. Our mothers started flying at about the same time, and they became good friends for many years. So, my parents met Kemmons and Dorothy Wilson through that connection with the Savages, and played cards, tennis and went on trips together.
After retiring from Holiday Inns he crammed himself into a smallish office waiting for his company offices he was setting up with his sons to be open and available to occupy. But if he was crammed in, his poor secretary, Sue Todd, was nearly claustrophobic with wall-to-wall filing cabinets surrounding her!
If he had expertise it was in deal making. Many a salesman wondered where his shirt went after the ink had dried on a deal with Kemmons Wilson. He seemed to never lose that knack either. When his wife, Dorothy died, he went ahead and bought both of their caskets, and at a good price, too. He was so proud of himself for that arrangement that he called his secretary, then Dottie Bonds, and told her “Dottie, tell the boys I’ve still got it!”
He had wanted Holiday Inns to be a company that taught its business of hotel management to people seeking a lucrative career, so Holiday Inn University was created in Olive Branch, MS. It lasted a good long time as such, and supplied the chain with ready-made personnel to manage the inns. The Inns later sold it, so, in his last years, he went and built a Holiday Inn at the local university and made sure it had a school for hotel management in it. Contributing the money for it himself, he nevertheless had a lot of trouble to go to to get the state to allow this to be done. When he finally got it going, he said it was “the hardest $15 million I ever gave away”.
For all his money, this was a down-home, likable person to know. I once did some work for him on a sound system, and went to his house to pick up the check. I was invited in, and sat on the sofa and watched Hee Haw with him and his wife. They truly enjoyed the humor as much as anybody would who wasn’t caught up in themselves. He was impressed with good economy, frugality, and making a penny go a light year or two. I could go by his office just for a visit, and very often he would visit with me. Once, when I had driven a Toyota Starlet to Dallas and back and gotten 49 miles to the gallon, I told him about it. When the visit was over, he was getting up too. I asked him why, and he said “I want to see the car that gets 49 miles to the gallon”.
If you read his biography “Half Luck, Half Brains”, you read about his knack for nerve and feeling like an equal part of humanity with virtually anybody. He’d be in a foreign country where he was building an inn, and have an appointment to meet the king, president, or prime minister. After being carefully versed in protocol, etiquette and how to greet royalty, he walked right up, hand extended, and said “how you doing, Majestic?” Talk about somebody comfy in his skin! They were big stuff, but so was he! They led their country; he led an industry.
Deal making and invention being in his blood, he started the concept of time-sharing condominiums with a development in Florida called Orange Lake Country Club. It was a mile or two west of the main entrance to Disney World, and catered to that clientele. Visitors to the park could stay at a condo one week out of the year, and visit the park, play golf, whatever.
It was an idea whose time had come, and was copied and expanded on by many other companies, with chains of condos all over the world. If you owned a condo in the chain, you could use a week anywhere on the globe.
Niche marketing was also an idea he got into, with different price hotels for different types of customers with different purposes for the visit. There was Wilson Inn for the economy traveller, Wilson World for the family, and Wilson Suites for the extended stay in a town.
So there he was, a hard working poor kid who built up quite a life for himself and his family. He had the endurance to have a heart attack in the Miami Airport- and walk right through it. One time when I mentioned having a problem, he said, “ no you haven’t got a problem, you’ve got an opportunity”. I asked his youngest son, Kem, what he did at the offices with his sons. Kem said, “He’s the 400 pound gorilla- he does what he wants to”. That was he. What a hero!