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A ‘lodging legend’ speaks up

WS talks to Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson

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in Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

Kemmons Wilson, 86, still goes to his Memphis office every day. The founder of Holiday Inn now buys lodging properties and oversees his own hotels, time-shares and other businesses.

We spoke with Wilson about his colorful career, work ethic and ability to motivate employees:

WS: You had the idea for Holiday Inn in 1951. How did you make that vision real?

Wilson:
I don’t know if I’d say I had a vision. To me, vision is a fancy word for common sense. In 1951, most motels weren’t that nice. And they charged an extra $2 per child. That made my Scottish blood boil. Common sense told me there had to be a better way to house families economically when they traveled.

WS: As your company grew, how did you hire the right people?

Wilson:
Most people I’ve hired came to me for advice. That’s how we met. They didn’t respond to an ad for a job. They just wanted to talk and share ideas and hear what I had to say. That’s why I advise anyone who wants to get ahead to pick up the phone, call someone they respect and ask for advice. It can’t hurt. And you never know where that call will lead.

WS: In June 1972, you appeared on the cover of Time magazine as “the man with 300,000 beds.” You were praised for your work ethic. What makes you work so hard?

Wilson:
It’s all how you look at it. I like to say, “Work half a day. It doesn’t matter which half: either the first 12 hours or the last 12 hours.” I didn’t finish high school but I made up for it in hard work. I also think it’s easier to work hard if you’re making your own decisions. I love to make decisions. Some people are scared of them, and those are often the same people who don’t like to work too hard.

WS: But you get to make your own decisions because you’re the boss. What about employees who lack your authority?

Wilson:
My employees make their own decisions! No job is too hard if you get someone smart to do it and leave them alone. That’s how I got this far. I never claimed to have all the answers.

WS: In your 1996 autobiography, Half Luck and Half Brains, you thank your secretaries by name right after you thank your family. Why?

Wilson:
I have had only three secretaries in my long career. And they’ve been great. I’ve always found that you must recognize the contributions of those people who help make you successful, especially the ones who do the most work but don’t always get the praise they deserve. When you work closely with people, day in and day out, you need to let them know how much you appreciate their effort.

WS: Did you get the proper recognition back when you were an employee?

Wilson:
I had only one job where I worked for someone else. My boss never gave me a raise, even though I thought I worked hard and earned it. So after I started Holiday Inn, I knew I had to pay attention to those employees who went beyond the call of duty. I’ve said it many times: “People who take pains never to do more than they get paid for never get paid for anything more than they do.”

WS: What advice do you give people just starting out in their careers?

Wilson:
I have 14 grandchildren, and I paid their way through college. I told them to study two things: law and accounting. I also told them I didn’t want them to be lawyers or accountants. But these two skills help you succeed in any business.

WS: Have they taken your advice?

Wilson:
No. At least not yet.

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