20th Century Trailblazer
Kemmons Wilson once said: "Put opportunity ahead of security." Wise words from a man who knew how to recognize an opportunity wherever it was, and who had the vision needed to make the most of it.
From his humble beginnings with a loving and devoted mother, Kemmons Wilson developed a drive, daring and perseverance that built him several fortunes and shook the foundations of more than one industry.
But it was his deep and lifelong commitment to family that had been instrumental in shaping the innovative ideas that made him great—first Holiday Inns, then Orange Lake and other family businesses. And, grateful for the opportunities he had, he reached out to create better opportunities for others and to give back to the community in numerous ways.
A classic tale of rags to riches with many twists along the way, the life of Kemmons Wilson was an awesome journey, and truly one of the 20th Century's most interesting stories.
Some people measure success by their net worth. But for Kemmons Wilson, a self-made millionaire, family was the greatest gift of all. Throughout his life, it was his close family ties that helped to spark the ideas, fuel the internal fire and shape the beliefs that made him a success.
His story began in 1913, when his parents settled into the sleepy Mississippi River town of Osceola, Arkansas, hoping to build a life there. But his father, Charles Sr., was stricken with what is believed to have been Lou Gehrig's disease. He died at 29 years old, leaving his 18-year-old wife, Ruby (Doll) Wilson, a widow and single mother. She left the town and returned with 10-month-old Kemmons to her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, where she moved in with her widowed mother.
Early on, young Kemmons learned the value of money. He watched as his mother Doll struggled to support them, working first as a dental assistant, then as a bookkeeper, never earning more than $125 a month. Young Kemmons started to envision all sorts of innovative ways to earn money, and the seeds of a true entrepreneur were sewn.
The early entrepreneur
Kemmons was actually a savvy entrepreneur at the tender age of six, selling copies of The Saturday Evening Post for a nickel. Then he began selling the Ladies Home Journal when he learned he could earn five cents more per copy and be the district manager, with other children selling the copies for him. This led to more morning and evening paper routes and every other money-making opportunity he could think of. He built and sold rocking chairs, sacked groceries, and by age 14 was working as a delivery boy and soda jerk.
But all of his successes were suddenly wiped away by tragedy. While making a delivery for the store, Kemmons was struck by a car. Months of hospitalization diminished all of the income he and his mother relied on so desperately. But the terrible experience and fight back to health may well have strengthened Kemmons for the difficult times still ahead.
Hard times prompt hard decisions
Enter the Great Depression, wiping out the jobs of millions of Americans. Doll, by now not in the best of health, lost her bookkeeping job and had no income to support her son and herself.
This desperate situation forced Kemmons to make a decision against his mother's wishes. At age 17 he dropped out of school and began working for a local brokerage. When he asked for a raise but was turned down, he left. Shortly after, Kemmons would strike his first gold.
He bought a popcorn machine and thought it would be a good idea to sell his favorite snack outside a local movie theater. The theater manager was appalled when he realized that Kemmons was making $40-$50 a week selling sackfuls of popcorn—more than the theater made selling tickets!. He stopped the young man from selling any more, but before he could take over the business, Kemmons made sure the manager bought the popcorn machine from him.
His popcorn venture over, Kemmons turned to the world of pinball machines, where he met his future wife Dorothy Lee and also began his lifetime interest in flying. Next he entered the movie theater business, ending up with 11 theaters. He opened an ice cream store, then entered the vending machine business. Kemmons worked 15 hours a day and soon earned enough to build a home for his mother. This work ethic would stay with him for life.
Doll, too, was a strong guiding force for Kemmons throughout his life. As a single parent, she raised her son very well, according to Kemmons. He felt that he received more love from Doll than many children do from two parents. Kemmons says of his mother, "She taught me that I could do anything that I wanted to do, and she drilled it into my head so hard that I finally decided that I could do anything I wanted to do."
A life-changing discovery
With every new endeavor, Kemmons learned an important lesson that he would take with him to the next adventure. But perhaps no lesson he'd learned had as great an impact on him as the discovery of property value. Using the new house he'd built as collateral, Kemmons borrowed $6,500 from a local bank to purchase a regional jukebox distributorship. That's when he made the life-changing realization that you could build a house, then borrow money on it to pay for other things. So he began buying property. Lots of it. And that was the beginning of his lifelong construction business.
From a poor boy selling newspapers during the Depression to a young man who owned more than $4 million worth of Memphis property, Kemmons was already a success story—living a life that few in this era even dared to dream. But he didn't stop there. He would continue to recognize opportunities wherever they appeared. And he'd take the risks necessary to seize them.
On December 2, 1941, Kemmons married his sweetheart, Dorothy. But they had no time to enjoy married life because just five days later Pearl Harbor was attacked. Faced with going off to war, Kemmons feared that Dorothy and his mother Doll would be burdened with all of his debts if anything happened to him, so he sold his possessions.
After distinguishing himself as a combat pilot, Kemmons was discharged from the military in 1945 and returned to Memphis to be with his growing family. He and Dorothy had five children—Spence, Bob, Kem, Betty and Carole. They would be the inspiration behind his second fortune—the Holiday Inn® motel chain—which catapulted him to international recognition. From one motel in 1952, Holiday Inn grew into a phenomenal success that circled the globe, with sales topping $1 billion annually by 1970.
Some things stay the same
Kemmons did not let mega-success alter his family's values. The family continued to live in their comfortable but unpretentious house in Memphis. Despite their wealth, Kemmons and Dorothy wanted their kids to appreciate hard work and learn the value of a dollar. So each of the Wilson kids had to take jobs every summer. And even though others were often impressed when they learned who their father was, the Wilsons taught their children not to be too impressed with themselves. Both he and his wife also made it clear to their kids that they couldn't always get what they wanted—an important lesson that Kemmons learned growing up poor in Memphis. He and Dorothy did use their money to make an important point—they offered their kids financial incentives not to smoke or drink before age 21. The strategy worked.
The family shares its success with others
With all of his many triumphs, Kemmons Wilson remained a man who measured success by what was closest to his heart—his family. Perhaps his greatest achievement of all was his ability to communicate his values to his children. One of the most important of these is giving back to the community.
Over the years the family donated both their time and money to help schools, museums, universities, youth leadership organizations and environmental causes. In 2000, Kemmons broke ground for the Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality & Resort Management, a hotel and school at the University of Memphis in Tennessee. Kemmons donated the 134,489-square-foot, state-of-the-art training facility to the university. For students who are pursuing a degree in hospitality and resort management, it will be the only school of its kind in the Southeast. It will also help to continue a standard of excellence that Kemmons started 50 years ago.
Today, the Wilson children and grandchildren are actively involved in the family businesses and continue the rich traditions of hard work, high standards, family values and commitment to the community that are the hallmarks of Kemmons Wilson's success.
Get your own copy of Kemmons Wilson's book, "Half Luck and Half Brains: The Kemmons Wilson Holiday Inn Story." Click here to download the order form.