Interview with C. Kemmons Wilson, Jr.

Principal & Executive Vice President, Kemmons Wilson Companies


On a summer morning in 1951, Kem Wilson, Jr. and his four siblings, two brothers and two sisters, helped pack the car after spending the night in a motor court motel somewhere between Washington, D.C. and Memphis, TN. Little did they know, but at that moment the extra $2 they each cost their father for the privilege to sleep on the floor of their family’s motel room, would launch an idea in Kemmon Wilson, Sr.’s entrepreneurial head that would forever change not just the lodging across the globe, but the life’s work of Kemmons Sr., his three sons and that of multiple grandchildren.

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Though Kemmons Wilson, Jr. (Kem) was not given much of a choice in his career path, he wouldn’t trade his life’s work alongside his father and brothers, and more recently his own boys and nephew, for anything. As in any family business, his work has had plenty of challenges, but the four cornerstones of his father’s life – Citizen, Family Man, Entrepreneur, and Founder – have not only been sustained, but nurtured and grown by Kem, Jr. and his brothers Spence and Bob, and will continue with the help of his sons and nephew, and someday their children.

Vernon Holleman sat down with Kem at the end of 2011 at the University of Memphis Holiday Inn which the Wilson Family helped to build as a foundation for the Hospitality School at U of M. Vernon and Kem discussed Kem’s experience following a larger than life serial entrepreneur who built, among other things, an organization (Holiday Inn) known not only to most Americans, but most of the world. Interestingly, the interview occurred at a time when real planning for the next (third) generation of family business leadership was underway, so the issues of continuity, succession, and transition were both fresh and real.

Before jumping to what the Wilsons are currently doing to sustain the family business into the future, the interview discussion focused on what Kem and his brothers experienced early in their careers working with their father. These early moments have shaped the thinking and decision making today, as they plan for an eventual transition of leadership to their offspring and future generations who may join the Kemmons Wilson Companies.

Half Luck and Half Brains, The Kemmons Wilson Holiday Inn StoryWhile the creation of Holiday Inn was certainly a major highlight of Kem’s father’s business career, it was hardly the only. Kemmons had much success both before and after his time with Holiday Inn and was always driven by his very humble beginnings. The family business, the Kemmons Wilson Companies has, over time, owned and operated, over 400 different businesses, giving Kem, Spence, and Bob no shortage of work and opportunity to build their individual skills and build on the foundation of hard work and success they saw firsthand growing up. Clearly, the history of Kemmons Wilson and Holiday Inn was beyond the scope of this interview, but much of that history was captured in the 1996 book titled, Half Luck and Half Brains, The Kemmons Wilson Holiday Inn Story. There is also plenty of information, of course, on that history on the internet. That said, the company history is not vital to learning and gaining from Kem’s story and insight on successful succession planning. 

You will find at the core of this interview, a story of family success driven by love – love of one another, love of serving and delivering for others, love of business, and love of country. It is not lost on Kem that their situation is rare, as so many have asked him how on earth he and his brothers have been able to get along for so long. Is love and respect the true secret of a successful family business transition? Listen for the many examples of that throughout this interview and judge for yourself. Enjoy.

Notable Discussion Topics:

Among other topics, Kem discusses the following issues with Vernon Holleman III, CLU:

  • Following a True American Business Legend
  • Non-Family Executives – Importance and Working with (mentoring)
  • Why go Public?
  • Tempering an Entrepreneur during Shifts in Eras / Practices
  • Multiple Siblings – Roles and Responsibilities (Focus and Workload)
  • Perspective based Expectations for Next Gen / Rules
  • Ownership
  • Next Generation Leadership Shift – When is it Time?
  • Confidence in Ability – Importance of Telling (and showing) Them!
  • A true Family Business? A key, but overlooked, Decision
  • Outside Help for Transition Planning
  • Balancing Work and Play – a Key to Success
  • Work Involvement- Balancing After Peak Work Years – Importance Of


C. Kemmons Wilson, Jr. is a Principal & Executive Vice President of the Kemmons Wilson Companies and Chairman of the Board of Wilson Hotel Management Company. Kem is a lifelong resident of Memphis, Tennessee who started working in the family business after graduating from the University of Alabama and serving two years in the U.S. Navy. Kem completed the Owner / President Management program at Harvard Graduate School of Business. He is married to Norma Thompson and has five children and 13 grandchildren.

Kem is active in the Memphis community and dedicated to his Church. He currently sits on a number of boards including the University of Alabama Board of Visitors, Presbyterian Day School, Hope Christian Community Foundation, Baptist Memorial Healthcare Foundation, Country Place Ministries, Downline Ministries and NEXUS.

Wilson Hotel Management Company owns & operates full and limited service hotels throughout the U.S., including Holiday Inn and Quality Suites at Wolfchase.