What Makes for Success?

Kemmons Wilson
Founder, Holiday Inns

Kemmons Wilson quit high school during the Depression when his mother lost her job. He began making money by selling popcorn outside theatres. In 1952, he opened the first Holiday Inn in Memphis, Tennessee. Today, there are more than 2,000 Holiday Inns across the U.S. and around the world. Named by London’s Sunday Times as one of the “thousand makers of the 20th century” and featured as the subject of a Time cover story, Mr. Wilson is rightly called “the father of the modern innkeeping industry.” He retired as chairman of the board of Holiday Inn in 1979, but he remains active in more than 60 business ventures in a wide variety of industries.

In this issue of Imprimis, two leading American businessmen discuss the true meaning of success. Kemmons Wilson participated in the College’s Executive Speaker Series in September 1996, and Kent C. Nelson delivered the October 1996 Convocation address at Hillsdale.


I am often asked, “What makes for success?” I know that most people regard success as the attainment of wealth. But I think that the most successful people are those who take pride in their work, pride in their family, and pride in their country. It is great to attain wealth, but money is really just one way—and hardly the best way—to keep score.

As parents, we all try to share with our children the knowledge we have gained through our own experiences, which usually include many successes and failures. As an entrepreneur, I have also tried to pass on to my children the importance of business and economics and how each relates to the world in which we live. I am a very fortunate man in that my three sons are partners in my work and they appear to have learned their lessons well. My only problem now is that I have to listen to their advice.

That was not the case back in 1951 when I took my wife and our five children on a vacation to Washington, D.C. Those were the good old days when the children still had to mind us and listen to our advice. A motel room only cost about $8.00 a night, but the proprietors inevitably charged $2.00 extra for each child. So the $8.00 charge soon ballooned into an $18.00 charge for my family. If we could get a room with two beds, our two daughters slept in one, and Dorothy and I slept in the other. Our three boys slept on the floor in sleeping bags. Sometimes there was a dollar deposit for the key and another dollar for the use of a television. This made my Scotch blood boil, and, after a few nights, I told my wife how unfair I thought all the extra charges were. They did not encourage couples to travel, especially with their children.

I was active in the construction business at the time, so I also told her that building a motel, or even a hotel, was no more difficult than building a home. I was seized by an idea: I could build a chain of affordable hotels, stretching from coast to coast. Families could travel cross-country and stay at one of my hotels every night. Most travel in 1951 was by automobile, but without the benefit of the interstate system we are so familiar with now, so this kind of service would be unique. Dorothy asked me how many hotels I thought it would take, and I threw out the number 400. She laughed and said it couldn’t be done. Now, my mother, who raised me alone after my father died, had instilled in me the belief that I could do anything if I worked hard enough and wanted it badly enough. At that moment, I wanted it desperately just so my wife wouldn’t laugh at me.

I learned a lot of things on that vacation. I measured the bedrooms and bathrooms in every motel in which we stayed, and by the time we returned home, I knew exactly what kind of hotels I wanted to build. I learned a few things from my kids, too. When you travel with five children all under the age of eight, you learn, for example, about the vital importance of a swimming pool. Have you ever stopped at a motel or hotel with your children when their first words weren’t, “Make sure it has a swimming pool”? I also learned about the importance of having a doctor and a dentist on call. One of our children fell ill with a toothache and another one had a high fever. We had to use the telephone book and make a number of calls in order to track down professionals who were willing to help.

Features that we take for granted today were ones I determined would be standard in my hotels: free televisions, in-room telephones, ice machines, and restaurants. And, of course, children would stay free.

At home in Memphis, I showed a draftsman named Eddy Bluestein the lists and diagrams of what I wanted. Several days later, he brought me his rough sketches. On the first, he had sketched out in script the words, “Holiday Inn,” a fictional name he had seen in a Bing Crosby movie the previous evening.

I heartily approved, and the first Holiday Inn opened in Memphis in 1952. Before it was finished, there were others under construction in the three remaining corners of the city. I wanted to make sure that motorists could not drive through Memphis without passing at least one Holiday Inn. By the end of 1953, all four hotels were open for business, but I had used up my savings and credit. That is when I started dreaming of franchising. I don’t believe I knew the word at that time; I just thought that I had a great idea and that I could sell it along with my plans and specifications for a flat fee of $500 plus a royalty of 5 cents per room per night.

To find buyers, I went to see my friend, Wallace Johnson. He was also in the construction business and was active in the National Association of Homebuilders. I showed him my figures and explained that all we had to do was get one homebuilder in each major city in the United States to build a Holiday Inn and we would soon have a chain of 400 across the country. We invited 100 homebuilders to a meeting and 64 showed up. We sold 12 franchises, and with the great sum of $6,000 in additional capital, we thought we were off and running.

We were wrong.

Most of the homebuilders were too busy building homes to exercise their franchise option. Only three of them actually built one of our hotels. Worse yet, we discovered that there was no way we could sell the rights to build Holiday Inns as cheaply as we planned. After the first 15 franchises, the fee was raised to $2,000 and 5 cents per night or 3 percent of the gross room sales. We also decided that we needed to attract investors. Holiday Inn’s first public offering was 120,000 shares at $9.75. Expenses only amounted to about 75 cents per share, so we ended up getting a check for a little more than $1 million. This time, we really were off and running.

The 50th Holiday Inn opened in Dyersburg, Tennessee in 1958, and the 100th opened in Tallahassee, Florida in 1959. The first Holiday Inn outside the United States opened in Montreal in 1960. In 1964, we opened the 500th hotel in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. This was the idea—this was my dream. When I retired 28 years later there were 1,759 Holiday Inns in 50 different countries. Today there are over 2,000.

Sometimes the first step is the hardest: coming up with an idea. Coming up with an idea should be like sitting on a pin—it should make you jump up and do something. I have had a great many ideas over the years. Some were good, some were great, and some I would prefer to forget about. The important thing is to take your best ideas and see them through. Not all of them are going to be winners, but just remember, a person who wins success may have been counted out many times before. He wins because he refuses to give up.

My own success was attended by quite a few failures along the way. But I refused to make the biggest mistake of all: worrying too much about making mistakes. A man who never makes mistakes is the man who never does anything. I have made as many or more mistakes than most people, but I always try to learn from them and to profit from my failures. It is stupid to make the same mistake twice, but I have done it many times. What has saved me from despair is the knowledge that, as the late Norman Vincent Peale once said, “Enthusiasm makes the difference.” He was right. Enthusiasm is the most contagious disease in all the world, and it is a disease that cures instead of weakens the patient. Very little in this world has ever been achieved without enthusiasm.

I also believe that hard work has helped me to overcome my mistakes. The freedom to work is second only to the freedom to worship. Work is the master key that opens the door to all opportunities. If a person truly knows what he wants out of life and is willing to work hard enough for it, life will pay its richest rewards and greatest dividends. Work is not man’s doom but man’s blessing. A 40-hour week has no charm for me. I’m looking for a 40-hour day.

I have worked in boom times and in recessions, in the Great Depression and in time of war. Our government has been led by Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals. Through all, I have seen our free enterprise system survive and provide the economic means to build the greatest society in the history of the world. I suppose such observations makes me seem like a fellow with a lot of old-fashioned, corny ideas. Indeed, that is just the kind of fellow I am. I can prove it too, by quoting one of my favorite pieces of inspirational literature. I came across it years ago, and I still think it is the best way to sum up what makes for success:

For best results, this garden should be planted every day:

Five rows of “P”eas:

Three rows of squash:
Squash gossip,
Squash criticism,
Squash indifference.

Five rows of lettuce:
Let us love one another,
Let us be faithful,
Let us be loyal,
Let us be unselfish,
Let us be truthful.

Three rows of turnips:
Turn up for church,
Turn up with a new idea,
Turn up with the determination to do a better job tomorrow than you did today.