Wilson did his best to contribute to his family income, by selling popcorn, magazines, grocery and various other means. He studied at the 'Central High School', but quit when his mother became unemployed, owing to the infamous global economic crisis, known as the 'Great Depression'.
To support his mother, Charles began his career as a businessman and managed an ice cream shop, a cigar store, as well as a sandwich stall. Soon, he saved enough money to buy the 'DeSoto Theatre', a movie hall in Memphis that had run out of business earlier. He eventually owned eleven theatres across different cities, some of these were built by this businessman himself.
In 1951, on a family vacation to Washington D.C., Wilson was quite disappointed with the accommodation he was provided. This gave him the idea of starting a new business of running motels, for which he joined hands with Wallace E. Johnson as and Eddie Bluestein, who helped him in the investment and architecture aspects respectively.
The first of the 'Holiday Inn' chain of motels, located on Summer Avenue, enroute to Memphis, was inaugurated in 1952. He did not leave any stone unturned and built more motels, with his numbers reaching up to 100 within the next seven years.
The hotels had certain characteristics, with the quality, cleanliness, and accessibility being top priority. Also, the partners, Wallace and Wilson were particular about keeping a Bible in each room.
By 1964, the number of hotels owned by this business magnate grew to 500, and 'Holiday Inns' began giving other expensive accommodations a run for their money, in terms of standard and comfort.
Kemmons launched the 100th outlet of 'Holiday Inn' in the year 1968, at San Antonio, Texas. The same year, the first international hotel belonging to the chain was opened at Leiden, Holland, in Europe. Around the same time, he purchased the 'Continental Trailways', and used its bus transport services for his hotels.
'Holiday Inn' became successful on a global level, and by 1972, there were more than 1400 hotels belonging to the chain. Some hotels were also converted to resorts by installing 'Holidome' indoor swimming pools.
In July, 1974, this renowned businessman went ahead and purchased the 'Memphis Tams', a team belonging to the 'American Basketball Association'. His financial associates for this venture were distinguished personalities like Al wilson, Isaac Hayes, and Mike Storen.
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The team, with the new name, 'Memphis Sounds', was successful under the wings of the new owners, performing highly well in the 'ABA Playoffs' of 1975. The following year, however, the team was bought over by a Baltimore-based group of entrepreneurs.
In 1979, 'Continental Trailways' ceased to be in Wilson's hands, since the company was sold to Henry Lea Hillman Sr., a businessman from Pittsburgh. The same year, the owner of 'Holiday Inn' stepped down from the management, following his decision to retire from work.
The chain of hotels remained in the hands of Kemmons till the year 1990, when it was bought by the British company 'Bass PLC' and renamed as 'Holiday Inn Worldwide'
In 1996, this accomplished entrepreneur spoke about his rags-to-riches story, focusing on the inception of 'Holiday Inn', in his autobiography titled 'Half Luck and Half Brains'.
Personal Life & Legacy
Around 1941-42, Charles got married to his childhood sweetheart, Dorothy Lee, and the two were blessed with three sons, Spence, Kemmons Jr., Robert, as well as two daughters, Carole and Betty. Dorothy passed away after 59 years of a happy marriage, leaving behind her children and husband.
Wilson died at the age of 90, at his Memphis home on February 12, 2003. The great entrepreneur was buried at a cemetery in Forest Hill.
In order to recognize this brilliant entrepreneur's contribution to the field of business, the 'University of Memphis' named one of its institutes as 'Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management'.