Kemmons Wilson Cos. Continues in the Spirit of its Founder

Published on: 08 May 2017

Memphis Daily News

McLean T. Wilson has a statistic he likes to keep top of mind: 94 percent of third-generations businesses fail.

Kemmons Wilson Cos. (KWC), the enterprise founded by McLean’s grandfather, Kemmons Wilson, is in the other 6 percent.

“We’ve very aware of the legacy and name, and there is a sense of stewardship and responsibility,” said McLean Wilson, principal of Kemmons Wilson Inc.

Aside from his role with his family’s company, Wilson has been a major player behind the $200 million Crosstown Concourse project, serving as a co-leader of the development team and helping to assemble the unique financing that made it possible to overhaul Sears Crosstown into a vertical urban village that’s on track to open Aug. 19.

And the Concourse isn’t the only project underway with the Wilson family’s stamp on it. Wilson Hotel Management Co., a division of KWC, is converting the Central Station building into a Curio by Hilton hotel.

The project, which is a major component of the Downtown train station’s redevelopment, took a step forward in late April when the Memphis City Council approved a special use permit for the hotel conversion.

Over the years, Kemmons Wilson Cos. has diversified into numerous businesses, with core industries that include resort timesharing, hospitality, real estate, financial services, aviation and insurance, plus other private investments.

The company’s namesake, however, had humble beginnings. To help support his widowed mother, he sold newspapers for a nickel, popcorn outside a movie theater, and both pinball machines and Wurlitzer jukeboxes.

By 1948, he had founded Kemmons Wilson Cos. and become one of the premier builders in Memphis. Four years later, he launched the first Holiday Inn in Memphis.

“It was incredibly risky. He bet the farm twice in his life, and Holiday Inn was the first time,” Wilson said. “He built four hotels in Memphis and was tapped out. The banks wouldn’t loan him any more money. That’s how he built the franchise model. Ray Kroc, with McDonald’s, copied it really.

“His idea was he wanted a Holiday Inn on every interstate within a day’s drive” so traveling families could have a consistent experience, a brand they could count on.

In the 1980s, after his retirement from Holiday Inn, Kemmons Wilson made his second gamble: a timeshare in Florida.

“He realized all the developers doing timeshares were pretty dishonest, selling dreams based on a piece of paper and a drawing,” Wilson said. “So he decided to build a resort and then start selling” when it was ready to use.

Wilson, 39, says that growing up he really didn’t appreciate the depth and breadth of his grandfather’s business acumen; Kemmons was just his grandfather.

“The first thing he taught us was that family and faith were of utmost importance,” Wilson said.

His grandfather’s impact on the business world didn’t register until Wilson was a student at the University of Virginia, taking a course on business leadership.

“We were reading a book,” he recalled. “He was chapter six. That’s when it hit me what an incredible businessman he was. It wasn’t until he passed away that I forged by my own path in business. I lament that I never had great business conversations with him.”

But Kemmons Wilson no doubt would be impressed by what he sees today and how the third generation is continuing the business in a no-nonsense fashion.

Financial Federal, a locally owned bank, frequently partners with KWC. As senior vice president Jon Van Hoozer puts it, “The reason we get along so well with them is there’s a minimal amount of drama.”

This is true even when in engaged, complicated deals. Van Hoozer mentions a smaller one, a new Embassy Suites Hotel in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, as well as the much-larger Crosstown Concourse project.

“McLean is smart as a whip and very creative within the boundaries of financing,” Van Hoozer said. “From day one (with Crosstown Concourse), it took a lot of foresight to call in permanent lending experts before a shovel even hits the ground.”

Wilson says projects such as the Concourse and Central Station are important to KWC, adding, “This idea of doing work in our hometown has meaning independent of financial return. So we are deeply engaged in a lot of different ideas and projects. There’s also a social return metric. This is the city I grew up in, am raising my children in. There’s a sense of responsibility in participating in the crafting of the city.”

If his grandfather were alive today, he believes he would be in awe of the transformation taking place in Memphis.

“He’d be extremely proud. He cared deeply about our city. He got his start here and never wanted to leave.”

McLean T. Wilson keeps that in mind as well as that percentage of third-generation businesses that fail, that fall into the trap of being defensive and just trying not to “screw this up.”

Such timidity was never part of Kemmons Wilson’s approach – whether he was selling newspapers and popcorn or building the Holiday Inn brand to more than 1,400 hotels and making the cover of Time magazine.

So the third generation is embracing growth, in the founder’s spirit.

“I still have his blood running through my veins,” McLean Wilson said. “We can’t not dream.”

Learn more about Mclean Wilson's journey with Kemmons Wilson and his continued relationship with Financial Federal Bank here.