In the Footsteps of Giants

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Craig Aronoff

I just finished reading a delightful family business biography:  Half Luck and Half Brains: The Kemmons Wilson Holiday Inn Story.  A classic “rags-to-riches” saga, Kemmons’ father died when he was nine months old leaving his mother to raise him by wit, hard work and unstinting love.  Young Kemmons entrepreneurial streak was evident even as a child in his ability to see and act on opportunities.  Involved in literally hundreds of businesses in his lifetime, he reinvented the lodging industry after a frustrating 1951 family vacation with a vision of a national chain of reasonably priced, consistently high quality places to stay along the highways of America (and eventually, the world) called Holiday Inn.  In every way, he was a giant of international business who walked with the world’s mightiest leaders in business and government.

Holiday Inn became a public corporation and was sold to Bass LLC in 1979.  Wilson’s on going opportunistic ventures and numerous enterprises comprised a vibrant family enterprise under the leadership his three sons and involving three of his grandchildren.  The family’s continued success depends not on replicating the patriarch’s business practices, but by applying the family’s values and reinventing and rationalizing the family’s business operations.

Wilson maintained that the most important blessing in his life were the women in it:  his mother, Doll, and his wife, Dorothy.  When the book was completed, all five of the second generation siblings lived in the vicinity of their hometown of Memphis, TN, as did the grandchildren.  There had been no divorces in three generations. A large, close and loving family was a greater accomplishment for Kemmons Wilson than his mighty financial accomplishments.

Kemmons and Dorothy Wilson have passed on now and left a marvelous legacy of family, business and good works.  The family celebrates their heritage and recognizes their founder as an unique phenomenon, never to be duplicated.  They follow in his footsteps as a family, and as a business, they honor him by constantly seeking new and better ways to serve their customers, their associates, and their partners.

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