Wilson, Charles Kemmons

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Wilson, Charles Kemmons

Holiday Inns of America


Employing keen perception and a knack for innovation, Charles Kemmons Wilson transformed himself from a Memphis entrepreneur to a global tycoon. Able to anticipate consumer needs, Wilson formulated a concept for temporary accommodations that resulted in the Holiday Inns of America, a chain that revolutionized the hotel business by setting the standards for hotels as we now know them.

Personal Life

Wilson was born in Osceola, Arkansas, on January 5, 1913. He was the only child of Kemmons Wilson, an insurance agent, and Ruby Lloyd (Hall) Wilson. Wilson's father died when he was only nine months old. Wilson married Dorothy Elizabeth Lee in 1941. They had five children: Spence, Robert, Kemmons, Jr., Betty, and Carole. In his leisure time, Wilson enjoys tennis and traveling. In 1996, he wrote his autobiography, Half Luck and Half Brains: The Kemmons Wilson Holiday Inn Story.

Wilson demonstrated a knack for business at an early age, even though he never completed his education. After his father died, he moved with his mother to Memphis, Tennessee, where she worked as a bookkeeper and dental assistant. He took his first job at the age of seven, selling the Saturday Evening Post door to door. He soon had 12 other boys working beneath him.

When he was 14, Wilson was hit by a car while working as a drugstore delivery boy. The accident fractured his right leg and kept him in a body cast for 11 months. This forced him to miss school for nearly a year. He quit school altogether when, two months before his high school graduation, his mother was hospitalized. He then went to work to support them both.

Career Details

Wilson's first venture, a popcorn concession, opened the door to other opportunities. He bought a secondhand popcorn machine and arranged with the manager of a local movie theater to install it in the theater lobby. Wilson was soon earning $30 a week while paying the manager $2.50 for electricity and space. However, the manager quickly realized the popcorn profits were larger than his own salary, so he terminated the agreement and bought the machine from Wilson.

Wilson invested that money into the purchase of pinball machines. By 1933, he had made enough money to build a house for his mother. Then, using that real estate as collateral, he was granted a $3,000 bank loan and further expanded his business.

He bought more pinball machines along with jukeboxes and cigarette dispensers. He then acquired a Wurlitzer jukebox distributorship, and his business continued to grow. Soon he built and operated seven movie theaters, and even became part owner of a small airplane.

When World War II started, Wilson sold all his property and invested in war bonds. In 1943, after joining the Air Transport Command, he built nine two-unit houses which he leased to servicemen. After the war, he acquired an Orange Crush distributorship. He lost money in that enterprise, but his real estate ventures were very lucrative. He founded Kemmons Wilson Inc. in 1946 and Kemmons Realty Company in 1948. As president of those companies, Wilson built and sold thousands of homes and apartment units. During the postwar boom, he also acquired more movie theaters and ran a successful building supply business.

In 1951, Wilson made a trip that would prove to have a profound impact on the hotel industry. On a cross-country automobile trip to Washington, D.C., with his wife and five children, Wilson found hotel lodgings to be uncomfortable and overpriced. Few of the cramped facilities they stayed in had restaurants that were even adequate, and fewer had air-conditioning. On top of all that, he was charged extra for his children, even though the family all slept in the same room, with the children sleeping on bedrolls. "My six-dollar room became a $16, or my eight-dollar room became $18," Wilson recalled for an interviewer in 1996. "I told my wife, Dorothy, that wasn't fair. I didn't take many vacations, but as I took this one, I realized how many families there were taking vacations and how they needed a nice place they could stay."

By the time he got back to his home in Memphis—already envisioning an increase in tourism due to the construction of an interstate highway system and the increase in dependence on automobiles—he decided to take it upon himself to build a motel chain. He was determined that his chain would eliminate the shortcomings he found and satisfy all of a traveler's needs as he saw them.

Taking the name from the title of a 1942 Hollywood movie, Wilson decided to call his chain the Holiday Inn. In 1952, he borrowed money to build his first hotel, a 120-room facility that he placed on one of the main roads leading into Memphis. At the end of the following year, he built three more hotels. By this time they were called Holiday Inn Hotel Courts. And each featured the Wilson standards that would soon become so familiar across America and throughout the world: the distinctive, bright, cheerful colors; air-conditioned rooms with telephones and free television; a restaurant serving good food at reasonable prices; a swimming pool; dog kennel; baby-sitting service; and free parking. And there was no extra charge for children sharing the same room as their parents.

Wilson soon understood the potential for a national chain. Together with Wallace E. Johnson, another building entrepreneur from Memphis, he created the Holiday Inns of America chain. The chain was incorporated in 1954, with Wilson named as the chairman and Johnson as president. The first franchise opened that same year. Soon after, as the Holiday Inns of America continued to expand, the company went public, and shares were offered to prospective stockholders at $9.75. An original share increased in value to $800 in 15 years. William B. Walton, a Memphis lawyer who became partners with Wilson and Johnson, estimated that between 1963 and 1973 the Holiday Inn chain was opening a new facility somewhere in the world every 2.5 days. Holiday Inns Inc. also branched itself into related subsidiaries, including a travel agency, a hotel supply company and the Continental Trailways bus line. In the 1960s, it also acquired Delta Steamship Lines, a Memphis meat-packing firm, and a bus terminal restaurant management corporation.

In 1977, Holiday Inn went into the hotel/casino business and, in 1979, it purchased Harrah's, a major Nevada casino operation with locations in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, New Jersey. As the company continued to grow, Holiday Inns became a subsidiary of Holiday Corp, and in 1989, it was sold to Bass Plc, best known as a brewery, of the United Kingdom.

Chronology: Charles Kemmons Wilson

1913: Born.

1941: Married wife Dorothy.

1943: Joined Air Force Command during World War II.

1946: Founded Kemmons Wilson Inc.

1948: Founded Kemmons Realty Company.

1951: Got idea for Holiday Inn hotel during automobile trip.

1952: Built first Holiday Inn.

1954: Incorporated Holiday Inn.

1972: Took Holiday Inn chain global.

1979: Suffered heart attack and retired from Holiday Inn.

1996: Wrote autobiography.

After suffering a heart attack in 1979, Wilson retired from his Holiday Inn enterprise. But not long after, he bought land in Orlando and built his first Wilson World hotel, which has since become a small chain that caters to traveling businesspeople.

After selling the Holiday Inn chain, Wilson remained active by running more than 60 businesses from his Memphis headquarters. Besides the Wilson World hotel chain, these include a printing plant, a nursing home, a lumber yard, a candy factory (producing chocolate-covered corn kernels call "W&W") and various real estate ventures.

Social and Economic Impact

During its period of phenomenal growth, Wilson's Holiday Inn chain developed a customer-friendly reputation. Travelers could come to expect comfort, cleanliness, quality service and good food at moderate prices. Holiday Inns soon became a familiar site on the edges of American cities, with their similar and distinctive features and a unique sign that made the franchises easily recognizable from the road. It became company policy that all license applicants would be screened very carefully for their character, management ability, and financial responsibility. Wilson established very explicit license agreements for service standards and accommodations.

Wilson also took a progressive business approach toward Holiday Inn employees, offering stock options and benefits. Management, Wilson believed, should take care of its employees.

By 1970, Wilson, whose family owned about 7.6 percent of all outstanding shares of the company stock, was pulling in an income of $100,000 a year as chairman. At the time, his net worth was estimated to be more than $100 million. By 1972, Holiday Inns had become a global operation—the world's largest and fastest-growing hotel chain with about 1,500 inns in all 50 states and in 25 foreign countries. While growth later slowed, Wilson's creation remained one of the leaders in the hotel industry through the late 1990s.

Sources of Information

Contact at: Holiday Inns of America
1629 Winchester
Memphis, TN 38116
Business Phone:


Hollis, Kerissa. "Holiday Inns: An Idea that Became the World's Largest Hotel System." Memphis Business Journal, 27 January 1997.

Ingham, John N. Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983.

"Kemmons Wilson." Nashville, TN: Kemmons Wilson Companies, 1997. Available from http://www.kwilson.com/kw/index.html.

Williford, Steve. "Chain King: Kemmons Wilson's Success Story." Memphis Business Journal, 9 September 1996.

Wilson, Kemmons. "What Accounts For Success?" USA Today Magazine 126, no. 2628 (September 1997).

Wilson, Kemmons, and Robert Kent. Half Luck and Half Brains: The Kemmons Wilson Holiday Inn Story. Hambleton Hill, 1996.

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