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Friday, February 14, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kemmons Wilson, who changed hotel industry, dies at 90

The Washington Post

Kemmons Wilson, a business visionary who founded the Holiday Inn hotel chain in 1952 and reshaped roadside lodging by offering inexpensive but comfortable rooms where children stay for free, died Wednesday at his home in Memphis, Tenn.

The cause of death was not reported.

Mr. Wilson, 90, was a folksy, dynamic and humble workaholic who answered his own phone, rarely traveled with an image-shaping entourage and could be found doing landscaping work around his hotels.

He routinely put in 12-hour days and ran business ventures nationwide, from shopping centers to oil refineries to catfish and bullfrog farms. At the center of his career was Holiday Inn, which now has more than 1,000 hotels in the United States.

The only child of a poor widow, Mr. Wilson was a high-school dropout who at the age of 17 started selling popcorn in a Memphis theater lobby to help support his mother. He parlayed his profits into a Wurlitzer jukebox franchise and then began a successful homebuilding business.

On a trip to Washington in 1951, the young millionaire was insulted by the high cost of staying overnight at a hotel — especially the poor amenities, a lack of cleanliness and hidden charges for each child. He began to tinker with how he could improve the entire industry.

With a bank loan, he started the first of his Holiday Inn hotels, taking its name from the hit 1942 film musical with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire.

He opened the first one in Memphis with the key backing of Wallace Johnson, a homebuilder with a national reputation.

Johnson's contacts and ability to raise money fueled the chain's growth. At its peak, a new Holiday Inn was opening somewhere in the world every 2-1/2 days. Today, there are more than 1,000 Holiday Inns across the United States, and more in other countries.

"He expanded the hospitality industry with innovation," Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton said Wednesday. "Kemmons had a zeal for work and his energy level was boundless. Even in his 80s, he was still making business deals. We mourn his passing."

Mr. Wilson also designed the famous Holiday Inn sign using his experience in movie theaters as a guide.

"I knew the value of a marquee. I said I want a sign at least 50 feet tall and have a marquee on it," he said in 1989.

Mr. Wilson established a hotel where millions of guests came to expect free coffee, ice, television and cribs. He built swimming pools and booked musicians to play in the lounge area.

He erected a sign that told the guests exactly what they could expect and what they would be charged. He marketed to the moderate-income traveler.

"You can cater to rich people, and I'll take the rest," he said. "The Good Lord made so many more of them."

By the mid-1960s, the chain was reportedly larger than the Hilton and Sheraton chains combined. Look magazine measured Holiday Inn's success in toilet paper, saying it bought enough to wrap around the Equator 10 times.

In a 1972 cover story on Mr. Wilson, Time magazine said, "Kemmons Wilson has transformed the motel from the old wayside fleabag into the most popular home away from home."

He credited his mother, whom he installed as a Holiday Inn vice president, for honing his work ethic.

"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," he said.

Charles Kemmons Wilson was born in Osceola, Ark. His father, who worked in insurance, died when he was 9 months old. His mother took the boy to Memphis, where she held a succession of odd jobs until she wore out from exhaustion.

Mr. Wilson retired as chairman of Holiday Inns Inc. after a heart attack in 1979, but then started another chain in the 1980s, Wilson World hotels, catering to business people.

As a businessman, he promoted his 20 rules for success. Among them:

• "Mental attitude plays a far more important role in a person's success or failure than mental capacity."

• "No job is too hard as long as you are smart enough to find someone else to do it for you."

• "Only work half a day. It doesn't matter which half you work — the first 12 hours or the second 12 hours."

He called his 1996 autobiography "Half Luck and Half Brains."

His wife of 59 years, Dorothy Lee Wilson, died in 2001.

Survivors include five children; 14 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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