"THE LAST TYCOON
IS THIS MAN AMERICA'S
By Ed Weathers
"I Know how to live with success.
I'm probably the most happy and satisfied
man that ever lived."
KEMMONS WILSON IS RIGHT THERE.
When you call the offices of the man who just might be the most celebrated Memphian in the world, you're prepared to navigate through four layers of secretaries, three p.r. men, and at least one vice-president before being told that he'll call you back. After all, this is an important man-a man who revolutionized the travel world by inventing Holiday Inns, a man who at one point was opening a new hotel somewhere on the planet, every two and half days, a man who's been called one of the thousand most important people of the twentieth century. Not to mention, of course, a very rich man. Considering all that, you expect to wait a day or two before he actually does call you back. Heck, you don't even expect him to be in town.
But, instead Kemmons Wilson is right there. Within fifteen seconds of dialing Kemmons Wilson Companies, Inc., you're talking to his personal secretary, Dottie, and thirty seconds after explaining that you'd like to interview her boss, she's saying, "Well, why don't you just talk to Mr. Wilson about that?"
And, click, ten seconds later-within a minute of your first picking up the phone-Kemmons Wilson is right there, saying in his down-home Memphis drawl, sure, he'd be happy to do an interview, how 'bout tomorrow, any time'll be fine, anywhere you want, year, rye-cheer in the office will be just fine, you name it.
And twenty-four hours later, you're right there, in Kemmons Wilson's really-pretty-modest office, cluttered with nacho chips and blueprints and clocks and souvenirs and photos of laughing children, in the really-pretty-unspectacular Kemmons Wilson Companies complex on Winchester a couple of miles west of the Airport next to a grocery store and across from a pizza parlor. And stocky, sandy-haired, gravel-voiced, 72-year-old Kemmons Wilson is right there, too, in his blue blazer, chain-puffing his Muriel cigars and looking you straight in the eye through the bifocals that he doesn't wear when he's being profiled on Lives of the Rich and Famous, and sprouting common-sense business principles that seem so simple ("Hire the best people you can find, and then turn them loose"; "The secret of success is to get other people to do what you want them to do") that they make you wonder why everyone's not a jillionaire like Kemmons Wilson, the high school drop-out and self-confessed mama's boy who reinvented where the world stops when it goes from here to there.
And don't be surprised if, before the late-afternoon interview is over, you find yourself right there, sitting in Kemmons Wilson's playroom/dining room (complete with Elvis pinball machine), in his home opposite Galloway Golf Course, eating first-rate spaghetti and special soaked-and cooked dried lima beans that remind him of his Depression days and that his wife Dorothy has prepared at the last minute ("Little Mama, I'm bringin' a guest home for dinner. Why don't you cook up some spaghetti?") and watching a bunch of his laughing tow-headed grandkids splash around in the pool in the back yard, where two Cadillacs and a herd of Big Wheels are parked, while the All-Star Game plays on at least three tv sets scattered about their non-really-mansionlike house.
No, Kemmons Wilson doesn't hide. He's right there. And, unpretentious good host that he is, he seems happy to have you right there along with him.
The fact is, being right, and being there-and there, and there, all over the business landscape-and inviting the world to spend some time at his place
have been what Kemmons Wilson's life has been all about.
Kemmons Wilson at age five, in uniform as part of a World War I bond campaign.
PLOT BY HORATIO ALGER
ANY LONG-TIME MEMPHIAN WHO doesn't know the basis of the Kemmons Wilson legend by now just hasn't been paying attention. It's an almost too-good-to-be-true story that's been told, not just by Time and Lives of the Rich…, but by Life, The Saturday Evening Post, Fortune, and just about every other major U.S. medium, including, not long ago, the Merv Griffin Show and the CNN business program Pinnacle. It's the story of a poor boy who was once told he'd never walk again but did, and who later dropped out of school during the Depression to help
support his widowed mother, and who promptly parlayed hard work, opportunism, and a popcorn machine into a fortune in construction-and who later parlayed that fortune into a mega-fortune with one of the century's great why-didn't-I think-of-it ideas: the clean, reasonable, no-surprises roadside hotel.
It's the small details that make the Kemmons Wilson story worth the retelling, especially for anyone who's fascinated by the intricate and varied machinery of the American Dream. Kemmons Wilson himself seems happy, even eager, to tell his story one more time, and each time he tells it, a few dozen new anecdotes come to the surface. He especially likes the ones in which he makes money. As he likes to put it, money is "a nice way to keep score." Sitting at his cluttered meeting table, next to a stack of a hundred one-dollar bills entombed in clear plastic, near a bronzed "discovery drill bit" from an oil rig, amid piles of Wilson World Hotel blueprints, he lights up a cigar ("Three for a dime," he jokes), sits back, and launches into a tale that is full of dollars and sense:
Charles Kemmons Wilson was born to Kemmons Wilson, an insurance man, and Ruby "Doll" Wilson, in Osceola, Arkansas, on January 5, 1913. ("Kemmons" was the name of the doctor who had delivered his father.) When young Kemmons was nine months old, his father died at age 29 of what was called "creeping paralysis" (perhaps Lou Gehrig's Disease), and soon after, his mother moved with her son, an only child, to Memphis.
Doll Wilson was never to remarry. "She used to say that no man was good enough to be the father of her son," says the son today. He, in turn, told his mother that he'd never marry, that he'd be happy just taking care of her; it was a promise he kept until he was twenty-nine. When Ruby, who worked as a bookkeeper, used to come home from work, little Kemmons would be at the midtown bus stop to meet her. "There's no question but what she spoiled me," he says today, wistfully. "She was a very loving mother; I was a very loving son.
She taught me that I could do anything 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."
The closeness of their relationship was to last until Ruby's death in 1968. Behind Kemmons Wilson's desk today is a large portrait of Doll Wilson. "She's still lookin' over my shoulder," he says. In fact, it was Doll who decorated the first hundred Holiday Inns. "Her favorite colors were green and yellow," laughs Wilson, explaining the unorthodox motif of the early motels.
From the first he showed a flair for entrepreneurship. "I started out sellin' anything I could. I sold The Saturday Evening Post. Then I found out I could be district manager for the Ladies' Home Journal. I had about ten kids workin' for me. I was seven years old."
He also sacked groceries, delivered newspapers, and built rocking chairs in his uncle's basement on Madison until two in the morning ("I explained to the neighbors who complained about the noise that it was the only time I could work after school. They understood").
As a teenager, he also jerked sodas and delivered packages for Wagner's Drug Store, at Madison and Belvedere (now the site of Zinnie's). It was then that he received the injury that almost left him crippled. "I was delivering a package from Wagner's to Bill Terry (the Hall of Fame first baseman) and got run over by a car," he recalls. "My kneecap was crushed. My leg was broken in five places. They said I never would walk again. But Dr. Campbell [Dr. Willis C. Campbell, after whom the Campbell Clinic is named] said, 'I'll make that boy walk.' And he did." Wilson was in a body cast for fourteen months, but today he has only a slight roll to his walk to indicate the injury.
In 1930, at the bottom of the Depression, Doll Wilson lost her job. "Then things got serious," says Wilson. "We were really scufflin'. I can remember we'd buy five pounds of dried butter beans for 25 cents. That's what we'd live off for the whole week. Didn't even have bread. The next week we would buy five pounds of black-eyed peas. After that, I just made up my mind that I was never going to be poor again. I was 17."
That year, Wilson dropped out of Central High School ("I was a very bad student; I was workin' all the time.") and dropped into the Business World.
First, he bought the famous popcorn machine, for fifty dollars. "I put zero down, and I paid one dollar a week for it," he says grinning. For another $2.50 a week, he rented space and electricity in front of the lobby of the Memphis Theatre, and he sold popcorn to moviegoers. He thinks he may have been the first popcorn seller in movie history. "I got to where I was making $25 to $50 a week," he says. "The theatre manager there was watching me every minute. Pretty soon, I was making more than he was, so he took it away from me."
With the money from this forced sale of the popcorn machine and the money he had saved, but mostly with credit, young Wilson then bought some pinball machines-and his career was off and profiting. Soon he was making all kinds of deals. In fact, the Good Deal is still Kemmons Wilson's favorite kind of story, and he made a lot of them back then. For example, he tells of renting a duplex ("at Cox and Monroe") for $25 a month, then renting out half of it for $15 a month, plus a room in his half for $8 month. "So my rent was only $2 per month," he finishes, with a pride that has lasted over fifty years.
Around that time, along with all his other enterprises, Kemmons Wilson even tried a real wage-paying job. It was with a cotton brokerage. It didn't last long. "I started out making $12 a week," he remembers. "Then I took over the job of
someone making $35 a week, but they wanted to pay me just $15 a week. I told 'em I wanted $35. They wouldn't give it to me, so I gave 'em two weeks notice. It was the only [wage-paying] job I ever had."
THE HOUSE THAT KEMMONS BUILT
BY 1993 WILSON HAD SAVED enough money to do something he'd always wanted to do: build his mother a house. He took his pinball profits and for $1,000 about 1,000 feet of frontage on Poplar between what are now Massey and Ridgeway. "My mother had never had a house," he says by way of explanation. He enjoys telling about how, since he'd never had the property surveyed ("I said, 'What's a survey?'"), he actually ended up building the $1,700 two-bedroom, 800-square-foot house on adjacent property still owned by the previous owner. The solution? "We just swapped deeds," he says, clearly nostalgic for less litigious times, when business deals were simpler.
Meanwhile, Kemmons Wilson kept working deals. In 1933, the Wurlitzer jukebox distributorship for Memphis became available. Wilson went to a mortgage company to see if he could borrow $6,500 against his house to buy it. "Bayard Boyle, Sr., came out and measured the house and the lot, and said he thought I could get the money," Wilson recalls. Before long, he was the country's top Wurtlitzer distributor-but the experience had really sold him on a new career:
"I said to myself, if you can buy a lot for $1,000, build a house for $1,700, and borrow $6,500 on it, that's got to be the business I want to be in."
So in 1936 Kemmons Wilson started buying land and building houses. "I didn't know a thing about building houses," he claims, "but I had sense enough to find people who could. That's the whole secret to anything." He says he made money on his houses because "I always built a larger house than anybody else, and sold it cheaper. I sold mine fast."
Meanwhile, of course, he still had his pinball, cigarette, and jukebox concessions going. He spent most of his time running around town in a Chevy pickup truck, day and night, to keep up with everything, while his mother helped him oversee his housing projects. He even built seven movie theatres, including the Airways Theater, which is still at Lamar and Airways. ("When I lost my popcorn machine,"
he explains, "I said, 'Someday I'm going to own a movie house so no one can take it away from me.'"
Kemmons Wilson remembers every address he's ever lived at, every price he's ever paid-and, apparently, every time someone's taken advantage of him on a business deal.) On Sundays, not to waste a day, he'd take his airplane (he'd
bought an Aeronica C-3 and learned to fly in the mid-Thirties) out to little towns in the country and sell rides for a dollar apiece.
Helping him sell tickets for those rides was a Memphis girl named Dorothy Lee, whom Wilson had met in 1937 while servicing his pinball machines at the William Len Hotel. He describes their courtship like this: "I had a truck, and I carried pinball machines at night. If I had a date with Dorothy, she'd carry one end of the pinball machine, and I'd carry the other." It took four years for him to propose to Dorothy. "I kept resisting marriage because of what I had told my mother," he says. "My mother didn't think any girl in the world was good enough for me."
Kemmons and Dorothy were married on December 2, 1941, five days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Characteristically, he took her to a Wurlitzer convention in New Orleans for their honeymoon.
Faced with going off to war, Wilson decided to liquidate all his holdings. "I owed a million and a half dollars by the time World War II came along," he says, with a certain pride that he was rich enough to owe so much money. "But I was scared of leaving my wife and mother with the debt when I had to go off to war. So I sold everything I had. I ended up with a quarter of a million dollars, free and clear, and I put it all into war bonds." Remembering this, he shakes his head and smiles ruefully: "That was the worst deal I ever made. If I'd just saved all those equities and everything…" He puffs his cigar wistfully, and leaves the sentence unfinished.
During the war, Wilson was stationed in India, where he flew planes from Shabru to Dum Dum through tight Himalayan mountain passes. His mother kept construction business going while he was gone. But even overseas, Kemmons Wilson was thinking up new business deals. In fact, one of his favorite stories is about a war-related deal that lost him $150,000. (He seems to get almost as big a kick telling deals that lost money as deals that didn't.) His tent-mate in India owned an Orange Crush soft-drink franchise in Georgia, and each month he showed Wilson his spectacular income statements.
After only three days in Memphis following the war, Wilson flew unannounced to Chicago, talked the Orange Crush people into selling him the Memphis distributorship, which he paid $250,000 in war bonds, and built himself an Orange Crush plant in Memphis. It flopped. "A year and half later I couldn't even get my children and wife to drink Orange Crush," he laughs. Turns out everyone wanted to drink Coca-Cola, and the only reason his Georgian tent-mate had made all that money during the war was that his firm had gotten a huge sugar allotment when sugar was being rationed, and, as Wilson says, "people would drink anything with sugar in it back then." Wilson sold the plant at a $150,000 loss.
The rest of the Wilson empire, however, was doing just fine, thank you. The post-war housing boom soon made Kemmons Wilson, house-builder, an even
richer man, and of course he still had a few other deals-an insurance company, for example ("I found out that if I was in the insurance business, I could insure my houses at a discount")-going on the side. But the biggest deal of all was just around the corner.
And Dorothy Laughed
PROBABLY THE BEST-KNOWN KEMMONS Wilson story is the one about a trip he took with his family in 1951. Here it is one more time:
By now Kemmons Wilson was a family man, the father of three sons and two daughters. In the summer of 1951, he packed his wife and kids into the family car and set off for Washington, D.C. On the road, he discovered something that made his Scottish blood boil; he found that roadside motels, which were not particularly reliable to begin with, charged two dollars extra for each child, even if the child slept in the same room as its parents. "So our $6 room became a $16 room," he says today, leaning back in his office chair and warming quickly to a tale he's rehearsed a thousand times. "Well, I told my wife I didn't think this was fair. It wouldn't encourage people to travel with their children. I told her I was going to build a chain of motels, and I was never going to make a charge for children as long as they stayed in the same room as their parents… Also, back in those days, nobody would think of stopping in a motel unless they looked in the room and examined it first. So that was another thing-I said I was going to build a brand name that you could trust. And I told her I'd build 400 of these things across the country before I was through. She laughed at me. That kind of made me peeved, and I said, 'I'm gonna do it!'"
Wilson pulled out the tape measure he has always carried with him wherever he went (he keeps it in his pocket even today), measured the rooms at the motels he and his family stayed at, and by the time he got back to Memphis, he knew what he wanted. He hired a draftsman to draw up the plans.
It so happened that the draftsman watched an old Bing Crosby movie while he was working, and he sketched the name of it at the top of his plans. Wilson saw it, liked it, and stuck with it. Holiday Inn was born.
The first Holiday Inn opened on Summer Avenue in August of 1952. It had 120 rooms and stood on the land in front of Wilson's own lumber yard. With characteristic shrewdness, Wilson had gotten a $325,000 loan to build the first Holiday Inn-and then promptly built it for under $280,000, leaving him with, as he gleefully puts it, "about $50,000 to put into my pocket." Within two years, he built three more Holiday Inns in Memphis, "one on each corner of the city, so you couldn't come into Memphis without passing one of my hotels."
Wilson soon realized, however, that overseeing 400 hotels around the country would be a bit tougher than, say, checking up on 400 pinball machines around Memphis. It was at this point that he came up with a novel notion: "I dreamed up the idea of franchising," he says. "It had never been done with anything so far as I know. I decided if I could get every home builder in the United States to build one Holiday Inn, then I could get those 400 up almost over night."
It may be disputed whether Kemmons Wilson actually invented the whole concept of owning a franchise (as opposed to simply distributing a product, as a car dealer does), but there's no question that the idea was greeted as something different from the start-to Wilson's embarrassment. He went to his friend Wallace Johnson, a real-estate man who had been a director of the National Association of Homebuilders, and they brought scores of builders to Memphis to make them an offer that in retrospect looks like one of the sweetest deals in history: a Holiday Inn franchise for $500 down and five cents per room per night royalties.
In other words, the owner of a 100-room Holiday Inn franchise would have to pay only the down payment and construction costs, plus just $5 a day! How many builders leaped at the deal that, as it turns out, would have made many of them millionaires? Exactly three. Wilson the businessman understood. "After all," he says, "all we were offering them was a name, a set of plans, and a dream!"
But Wilson was determined. Soon he and Johnson were building the Holiday Inns themselves and hustling to doctors, lawyers, and anybody else they could find with money to invest. Holiday Inns started popping up all over the landscape, and travelers-attracted by the low family prices, the air-conditioned rooms, the swimming pools, and the friendly service-flocked in. The company went public with a $3.9 million stock offering in 1957. By 1960, over 100 Holiday Inns were in operation.
Though Kemmons Wilson by now was receiving national attention for Holiday Inns, it was still hard work finding franchisers. The big jump was yet to come, and it involved one of the biggest risks Kemmons Wilson ever had to take.
In the early 1960's Wilson learned about a budding new technology: computers. He looked into it and decided it might help Holiday Inns. In 1964 he negotiated a deal with IBM for $8 million to install a system that would allow travelers to reserve rooms in any Holiday Inn in the country and to find out instantly where rooms were available. When he signed the agreement, Wilson turned to his partner Johnson and said, "This deal is either going to make this company or it's going to break it."
It made it. The Holidex system went on line in July, 1965, and from then on," says Wilson, "it wasn't a question of trying to sell franchises-it was a question of allocating them." Suddenly, everyone wanted to own a Holiday Inn. At one point,
a new Holiday Inn was being built every two and a half days, a new room every twenty minutes.
By the way, the 400th Holiday Inn had already long since been built, in December of 1962, in Vincennes, Indiana. Dorothy was still laughing, but for different reasons now.
THE TROUBLED SEVENTIES
IT WAS TYPICAL OF KEMMONS Wilson that during the whole Holiday Inn book he kept his hand in dozens of other businesses as well. His real estate, construction, and insurance companies were still active, for example and characteristically, he'd picked up a number of other businesses that dealt with his hotels-everything from lumber to lamps. By the early Seventies, he had over thirty subsidiary companies in the Holiday Inns fold, including things like Continental-Trailways bus lines and Delta Steamship Lines. Some observers claim that even he couldn't keep his eye on everything and that his loose management style ("I was always informal. I'm an informal kind of guy. You didn't have any trouble getting in to see me, did you?") left the company at risk when the 1974 oil embargo and the subsequent recession forced people to cut back on their travel. The company, said the experts, was overextended. Net income for Holiday Inns dropped 36% from 1972 to 1974. And HI stock dropped from 56 to 4 ¼ .
Wilson realized some changes had to be made. It's unlikely, however, that he expected those changes to end as they did: by the end of the decade Kemmons Wilson and Holiday Inns were no longer one.
Wilson doesn't like to talk about the period of the Seventies. It is the only subject about which he becomes even the least bit evasive or merely politic. His normally hearty manner leaves him, he retreats back into his chair, and his voice drops to barely a whisper.
Speaking of that period, he says simply, "I never took my worries home. I was the happiest guy who ever lived. I'd sleep like a baby." But then he adds, "Maybe I wasn't as rich as I had been…" and it's clear it was not the happiest of times for him.
Wilson's account of what happened in the mid-Seventies goes like this:
In 1974, he decided he needed someone new to head HI operations. The man who held the job at the time was not working out. So Wilson called Roy Winegardner, a Missouri native who had at one time owned forty Holiday Inns which he had then sold to become one of the company's largest stockholders. Some say Winegardner was called in to head off a stockholder's revolt, but Wilson says he "just needed somebody to run the operation. I've never been an operations man. So I asked Roy to come in. He owned a lot of stock. He did a good job." And that is about all that Kemmons Wilson has to say about the Holiday Inns management changes that were the talk of the business community for several years.
The new management, headed by Winegardner (then first vice-chairman; later chairman; now retired) and his protégé Michael Rose (then senior vice-president; today chairman and CEO), sold off nearly all of the company's non-hotel subsidiaries, discarded unprofitable properties, and consolidated four operating divisions into one Hotel Group. Operating income went up 90% in the next three years. But while Holiday Inns was once again off and profiting, and Kemmons Wilson was still nominally in charge of things, one senses that-though he won't say it in so many words-HI's shift from let's-make-a-deal, roll-up-your-shirt-sleeves entrepreneurship to the principles of Harvard Business School finance left Wilson cold.
Meanwhile, one other event took place during this time that received much misleading publicity. Holiday Inns went into the gambling business. It was rumored that, for religious reasons, the older HI directors opposed HI's foray into the world of gambling. Before it was over, President L.M. Clymer and Vice Chairman William B. Walton did in fact resign from the board in protest against the gambling decision.
That Wilson resigned as chairman of the board just as the gambling deal was being concluded with Harrah's in 1979 made outsiders think he, too, found the gambling connection offensive. He didn't. In fact, he says it was he who initiated the negotiations with Harrah's casinos, back in 1976. "I never had any problems with gambling," he insists. "If it's run right, it's just like any other business. Besides, I don't think you can change the morals of the world."
He illustrates this last point by telling the story of how, back in the early Sixties, he once had to talk partner Wallace Johnson, who was also very religious, into allowing Holiday Inns to serve whisky: "I said, 'Wallace, we've got to have whisky. I mean, it's all part of the hotel business.' And he understood." It's clear that Kemmons Wilson, who does keep a Bible on his office desk, has no trouble reconciling his business principles with his religious beliefs.
If the gambling venture did not bring about Kemmons Wilson's retirement, what did? Initially, he claims it was the heart attack which he suffered in June of 1978 and which led to open-heart surgery. But then he admits that the new corporate approach also contributed to his decision: "Changes in the management may have had something to do with my retiring," he says. "We did have some disagreements." And finally he gets specific: "The day I decided I was going to get out [HI], I was in the hospital recovering from the heart attack. They were having a board meeting, talking about buying Perkins [restaurants].
I called the board and talked to all of 'em on the speaker phone. I said, 'It would be the worst thing we could ever do [to buy Perkins], and we shouldn't do it.' They did it anyway. That was the first time that my desires were never carried through by my board, I'm sure that had a whole lot to do with my thinking [about retiring]: If you can't control your board, maybe you should leave."
"A hell of a mistake," says Wilson of management's decision to change the famous Holiday Inn sign.
On June 29, 1979, Kemmons Wilson resigned as chairman of the board of Holiday Inns. Asked today what he thinks of the current management of the company, he says, "I guess the best thing I can tell you is they've made the company continue to grow. They've made money. It's a lot stronger company than it was when I left." He says it all without much enthusiasm. The only overt
criticism he has of the company since he left, however, has to do with their redesigning the famous Holiday Inn sign: "A hell of a mistake," he says. "It's like Coca-Cola changing their signs."
His retirement clearly marked the end of an era for Holiday Inns, for Kemmons Wilson, and perhaps for the American business scene. One wonders if it will be possible ever again for a man to build such a business empire on little more than hard work, ambition, luck, and cleaver entrepreneurship, or if, instead, business-school formulas will rule the future. The Wilson family itself is taking no chances: each of Kemmons's three sons has attended Harvard Business School.
From Nachos To Wilson World
OF COURSE, KEMMONS WILSON didn't really retire in 1979. He just retired from Holiday Inns. "I never expected to retire altogether," he says, as if astonished at the mere thought of not working. "I knew I had to do something. I'm a doer!" He sits up again in his chair, lights a new cigar, puts his elbows on the table, and winds up to pitch his latest deals-about nachos, time-sharing, and the joys of Mickey Mouse.
Wilson's original real-estate, insurance, and construction businesses were still around in 1979, but that wasn't enough for him. With the same nose for a good deal that got him a popcorn machine in 1930, he was sniffing out new enterprises before he was four months out of the hospital, and the first thing he hit upon, appropriately enough, was nachos. He has long made his own salsa dip at home ("lots of tomatoes, some peppers-great if you melt it with Velveeta cheese"), and he liked it with nacho chips. "So I was in California," he says, gathering enthusiasm, "and I found this guy that was making these chips out there that were better than any I'd ever seen. So I bought his machinery and his formula from him for $100,000. Today I've got three plants [making GranDaddy's Nachos and GranDaddy's Nacho Dip] that bring in $2 million a year." The school-of-business boys must be shaking their heads.
One year later, in 1980, Wilson embarked on yet another project, this one a $100 million baby as big as anything he has ever started, and it's taken up more of his time than anything else since his retirement. Just after his Holiday Inn retirement, Wilson was in Florida overseeing a Kemmons Wilson Companies construction project in Sarasota, when one of his managers mentioned that he'd just paid $8,000 for two weeks in a time-share unit in a Florida resort. In Wilson's head, the cash register started grinding: "I figured if my guy had paid $8,000 for two weeks [per year], that means somebody was getting over $200,000 for a house that cost maybe $40,000 to build. I said to myself, 'That ought to be a good business.' Of course, what I didn't realize then was what it cost to market the damn things." He laughs at his own naivete.
In 1981, he broke ground on 357 acres of land for which he paid $2.5 million. Where? Where else? "There's only one place to go with it," he recalls saying to himself. "Orlando. Right next to Disney World." Today, Orange Lake Country Club, four miles west of Disney World, is Wilson's favorite topic; he'll talk about it for hours. Until recently he commuted there as much as three days a week. The club which has already sold $60 million worth of its time-share allotments, is a plush resort with a 27-hold championship golf course, 15 tennis courts plus a 7,000-seat tennis stadium, an Olympic-size swimming pool, beaches, fishing, and 1,000 time-share villas, many still going up. If the project succeeds, Wilson himself says, "All the credit should go to Mickey Mouse."
In fact, Wilson is so certain of Disney World's drawing power that he decided to build his second major project of recent years just one mile from its gate. He calls it, "Wilson World," and, no surprise, it's a $20 million, 443-room mid-priced ($50/night) hotel, complete with indoor and outdoor pools, an indoor waterfall, whirlpools, and a nightclub. It's been successful enough that Wilson is now planning to build two more-one near Cape Canaveral and the other, yes, right here in Memphis, across from the Mall of Memphis.
Meanwhile, more than thirty other Kemmons Wilson Companies continue to handle just about anything their chairman of the board and presiding genius thinks might make some money-from condos, apartments, and real estate tax shelters, to plywood, grandfather clocks, and cemetery plots.
By now Kemmons Wilson has been everywhere in the world, from Kenya to Moscow. He's done things that have changed that world in some fairly fundamental ways. He's met popes, presidents and potentates. He's known by important people all over the planet. But, despite it all, Kemmons Wilson appears to be a man who-to use a slick contemporary phrase he'd never use himself-has found his own center. He says simply, and seems to mean it, "I know how to live with success. The secret is being yourself and having the right wife and the right family. I'm probably the most happy and satisfied man that ever lived."
At heart Kemmons Wilson may be America's purest capitalist-in all the best senses of the word. Asked what he learned from his heart attack back in 1979, he says, "I learned I ought to slow down and smell the roses. But the roses is business. That's the roses for me."
There's no doubt about it: Kemmons Wilson is right there.
The Wilson family in 1971 when Dorothy was named American Mother of the Year.
THESE DAYS, KEMMONS WILSON is what, apparently, he's always been. He lives in the same house he's lived in for over forty years, with the same wife he's been in love with since 1937. Without any self-consciousness whatsoever, he says of Dorothy, "This is my maid, my cook, my dishwasher, my love, my partner, and my sweetheart, all in one." A vivacious brunette who appears to enjoy spoiling him as must he loves to be spoiled, Dorothy in fact does all their cooking herself and spends a good deal of her time pretending to try to polish her husband's ways while simultaneously catering to him.
One of Wilson's favorite sayings is "No man can ever be successful until he teaches his wife not to expect him home for dinner." Asked if she ever resented his being away from home so much, Dorothy says, "I was so busy with five children-no." But Wilson was always devoted to his family, and often took his kids on trips with him. (They learned to fly by instrument before they could see out the cockpit window.") Today, his five children-Spence (43), Bob (41), Kem (39), Betty Moore (37), and Carole West (36)-and his fourteen grandchildren are the lights of his life. He works with them: Spence is president of KW Companies, and Bob and Kem are vice-presidents. And he plays with them: every Sunday night they get together for swimming, games and gossip. "We all live in Memphis," he says proudly. "We can call a meeting and have everybody there within five minutes."
For a man of his wealth, Kemmons Wilson leads a remarkably unpretentious life. He's up at 6:30 each morning, reads the paper, drinks a Diet Coke for breakfast, and goes to work around eight. (He drives a Cadillac, true, but one of his favorite stories is about his first Cadillac, which he bought-and sold-back in 1934: "I started driving that Cadillac, and everywhere I drove people stated saying, 'Man, Kemmons you've become a big-shot.' I sold it and took a $200 loss on it and went back to a pick-up truck, because I didn't want to be a big-shot. I didn't get another car for twenty years.") He usually works a twelve-hour day, and spends much of that time on the phone with stray callers. ("I've had many a good deal brought to me by somebody who's just called me on the phone.")
When he's not working, Wilson might play a little tennis at the Memphis Country Club or the Wimbleton Racquet Club (which he owns), or pick up a gin-rummy game. He took up tennis with a vengeance after he was fifty, says he plays badly
except for his serve, and insists, "I want to die on the tennis court." He likes bourbon and Coke before dinner, and puts Tabasco sauce on everything, including spaghetti. He loves butter pecan ice cream, saying, "A day without ice cream is like a day without love." He says his doctor wants him to watch his weight (he's 5'10" and weighs 195) but he claims he's absolutely healthy and has totally recovered from his heart attack. He has no hobbies ("My hobby is work"), though he watches a little television and says he enjoys hunting. He reads mostly trade publications. The only kind of music he says he likes is "music to make love by." He's never touched politics. And in day-to-day life the man who signed personally for $8 million to computerize Holiday Inns watches his pennies. Once, to prove a point to his wife, he put a 33-cent loaf of bread into a 94-cent package; he says she couldn't tell the difference; she says she could; they both laugh about it.
At the same time, despite the modest lifestyle, Kemmons Wilson is a man with no small measure of ego. But it's such forthright ego that it's disarming, and it's mixed with an I-know-what-I-am modesty, as well. "If this isn't going to be a good story, and if it's not going to be a cover story, then I don't want anything to do with it," he says right off, with astonishing ingenuousness, to the visiting writer.
But Kemmons Wilson doesn't make too much of himself. He regrets not going to college, for example, saying, "I'd have been a lot better person if I'd gone. I've got great common sense-maybe the best-but I was never smart." And he loves to tell stories on himself, like the time his friend Sam Phillips of Sun Records called him up at home in the middle of the night in the Fifties with a problem-a real problem:
"I says, 'Sam, you've been drinkin'. It's eleven o'clock. I'm goin' to bed.' And he says, "You gotta see me. I gotta talk to ya.'
"So he comes out and tells me he's got a chance to sell Elvis Presley's recording contract for $40,000, and he says, 'If you owned it, what would you do?' I said, 'Hell, if I owned it, I'd sell it! He's not even professional!'"
By the time he gets to describing Phillips coming up to him years later and shouting, "If I'd kept just one damn percent!" Kemmons Wilson is practically giggling with delight.
"I've made a million mistakes,' he likes to say. "The only people that don't make mistakes are the people that don't do anything."