Wilson, (Charles) Kemmons, Jr.

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Wilson, (Charles) Kemmons, Jr.

(b. 5 January 1913 in Osceola, Arkansas; d. 12 February 2003 in Memphis, Tennessee), entrepreneur and trendsetting founder of the Holiday Inn lodging chain.

Wilson was the only child of Charles Kemmons Wilson, Sr., a successful insurance salesman, and Ruby Lloyd “Doll” (Hall) Wilson, a dental assistant and later a bookkeeper. Wilson’s father died from what was probably Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) only nine month’s after Wilson was born. Although Wilson’s mother was left with the payout from a $2,000 life insurance policy, she spent most of it on an elaborate funeral. Nearly penniless, she and Wilson moved to her mother’s home in Memphis, where she got low-wage work.

Wilson held various part-time jobs from an early age to help support the household, and through observation and experience, he quickly learned the art of profit making. At the age of seven he organized a team of twelve other boys to sell the Ladies’ Home Journal from door to door at a dime apiece. As their agent, Wilson kept one penny out of the three-cent commission per copy and cleared as much as $3 per week. Other childhood jobs included sacking groceries, delivering newspapers, assembling rocking chairs, and soda jerking. At the age of fourteen he worked as a drugstore delivery boy. During one delivery in 1927 he was struck by an automobile. The accident caused his kneecap to be crushed and his leg to be broken in five places. A series of operations and a yearlong period of convalescence brought Wilson back to full health, but one leg healed two inches shorter than the other.

In 1930 Wilson’s mother lost her bookkeeping job and was in poor health. The situation forced Wilson to drop out of Central High School in Memphis in the middle of his senior year. He worked full-time, and although he never returned to school, he quickly pulled his mother and himself out of poverty through a series of profitable small business ventures. By 1933 he had enough money to build a new house for his mother at a cost of $2,700. Three years later Wilson managed to obtain a loan against the house for $6,500, which he used to invest in what became a profitable Wurlitzer jukebox distributorship. The discovery of real estate’s extraordinary power in providing financial leverage prompted Wilson to speculate in residential and commercial properties. By the end of the 1930s Wilson had bought and traded over $4 million worth of real estate in the Memphis area.

During the latter half of the 1930s, Wilson began dating Dorothy Lee, a bookkeeper at a downtown Memphis hotel. They married on 2 December 1941 and would have five children. Prior to World War II Wilson had become an avid recreational pilot. His skills as an aviator were needed in 1942, when Wilson enlisted in the military and became a flight officer with the Fourth Ferrying Group of the U.S. Air Transport Command. After two years of piloting duties within the United States, Wilson was assigned by the air force to fly C-47 aircraft in Southeast Asia in its dangerous “Hump Airlift” operations. These operations involved the aerial transport of military and humanitarian supplies to Chinese allies who were fighting Japanese forces. The route extended from air bases in northeastern India over the Himalayas to air bases in southwestern China. He was honorably discharged from the air force in November 1945 and returned to Memphis. As the postwar baby boom brought with it a rapidly growing demand for housing, Wilson took advantage of the market by designing and developing affordable working-class and middle-class residences. By 1950 he was one of the largest homebuilders in Memphis and was a millionaire.

In 1951 Wilson discovered a new real estate and business opportunity. During a vacation to Washington, D.C., with his wife and five young children, he was disappointed by the roadside accommodations along the way. He and his family found motels to be cramped, uncomfortable, and lacking in such amenities as air-conditioning or good restaurants. The aspect that most disturbed him was the customary surcharge of $2 per child. While he could easily afford the additional costs, Wilson felt that for most middle-class American families, extra charges for unpleasant accommodations were unfair and would discourage them from taking to the road to explore the country. From a businessman’s perspective, he also knew that he had come upon a largely unorganized, poorly operated mom-and-pop service industry that was clearly underserving its market. As he later described it, the motel business was “the greatest untouched industry in America” in the 1950s, and he thus made it his personal goal to create a national chain of 400 properties. Wilson measured and sketched out the motel rooms and site plans he encountered along the way and then created his own improved version. When he returned with his family to Memphis, he submitted his drawings to a draftsman, who produced a formalized motel design and, inspired by the 1942 Bing Crosby movie, informally titled blueprint “Holiday Inn.” Wilson liked the plans and the name and began work on the construction of his first motel.

In August 1952 the first Holiday Inn Hotel Court opened on Summer Avenue (U.S. Highway 70) in Memphis’s eastern outskirts. Within eighteen months Wilson had built three additional motels at other entry points to the city. All of the properties included the amenities he had missed at motels on the Washington trip, including swimming pools, air-conditioning, family restaurants, telephones, free ice, dog kennels, and free parking. Children were allowed to stay for free in the same room as their parents. At the entrance to each property stood what became the one of the most recognized corporate icons in twentieth-century America—the fifty-foot “Great Sign” with its neon star, brightly lit directional arrow, scripted lettering, and large white marquee. The green and yellow colors of the sign, as well as the room decor, were selected by Wilson’s mother.

The Memphis motels were successful, but Wilson needed help to manage and finance the vast national lodging chain he had envisioned. He invited Wallace E. Johnson, a Memphis housing developer, to help develop a franchising strategy, and together they formed Holiday Inns of America. In 1956 they were joined by the attorney William B. Walton, who helped refine, standardize, and protect their marketing concepts. The chain grew slowly at first but then took off in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1962 the 400th Holiday Inn—Wilson’s initial goal—opened in Vincennes, Indiana.

From the early 1960s through the 1970s Wilson and his leadership team led Holiday Inn through a period of remarkable expansion. By the end of the 1970s the chain had grown to over 1,700 properties in almost fifty countries, making it the largest lodging company in the world. Holiday Inn had also created and acquired numerous subsidiaries. Wilson appeared on the cover of Time magazine (12 June 1972), which dubbed him “The Man with 300,000 Beds.” The tremendous success of Holiday Inn resulted in the creation of dozens of other motel chains that imitated Holiday Inn’s amenities, pricing, architecture, and site selection. Although other lodging chains had existed before the inception of Holiday Inn and other motels of the era offered similar amenities, Wilson’s company was more aggressive, organized, and consistent in its marketing, franchising, promotion, and expansion strategies.

The economic recession of the mid-1970s significantly affected the company’s profits and the value of its stock. To stave off a stockholders’ revolt, the company changed its management team. In the process Wilson relinquished considerable control over the operations of the corporation. In December 1978 Wilson suffered a heart attack. In June 1979 he resigned as chairman of the board of Holiday Inn due to a major disagreement he had over a decision by the board of directors to acquire the Perkins restaurant chain.

Within months after his departure from Holiday Inn, Wilson focused his attention on new business opportunities. Between the early 1980s and early 2000s he was an owner or major partner in over sixty companies involving time-share resorts, private country clubs, convention centers, snack food manufacturing, commercial printing, oil drilling, coal mining, and other enterprises. In 1984 he created a small chain of hotels called Wilson World. His final deal came in 2002 with the creation of the Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management at the University of Memphis, which was realized through his donation of $15 million. He died at his home and was interred at Forest Hill Cemetery–Midtown in Memphis.

In 1970, at the height of his career, Wilson received the Horatio Alger Award, which honors distinguished Americans. Wilson was an individual who grew up in poverty but through intelligence, observation, persistence, and a keen sense of timing became a very wealthy and highly respected world business leader. The hallmark of his multitude of commercial enterprises was the Holiday Inn lodging chain. Because of the superior innovation, organization, and promotion of Holiday Inn, Wilson effectively led the modernization of the lodging industry and changed the appearance of the American roadside.

Wilson’s autobiography, written with Robert Kerr, Half Luck and Half Brains: The Kemmons Wilson, Holiday Inn Story (1996), provides a detailed and complete overview of his life, family, and businesses. A book chapter about Wilson and Holiday Inn is in John A. Jakle, Keith A. Sculle, and Jeffeson S. Rogers, The Motel in America (1996). Popular magazine profiles of Wilson published during the early 1970s include Frederick A. Birmingham, “Kemmons Wilson: The Inn-Side Story,” Saturday Evening Post no. 244 (Winter 1971): 66–71, 123, and “Rapid Rise of the Host with the Most,” Time 99, no. 24 (12 June 1972): 77–82. Obituaries are in the Memphis Commercial Appeal (13 Feb. 2003) and New York Times (14 Feb. 2003).

Jefferson S. Rogers

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