A family of enterprises.

KW Early Jobs

Below are a list of jobs that Kemmons had as a very young child/youth and as an older adult, before he started Holiday Inns in 1952.

  • Earned his first $5 by posing for an ad for Sunbeam bread.
  • He rode on the back of a truck and sang songs to raise money for war bonds for WWI.  The truck had a piano on it and he remembered singing the song, “Over There”.  He was about 5 years old.
  • At age 6, he began selling the Saturday Evening Post magazine for a nickel per copy.  Then, he learned about the Ladies Home Journal, and he sold that for a dime.  He engaged other kids to sell copies of it for him and soon had a dozen kids working for him.  Each magazine he sold produced a 3¢ profit for his enterprise, with dad keeping 1¢ and his workers getting 2¢.
  • He built rocking chairs in the basement of his Uncle Willie’s home.  The chairs sold for 75¢.  He did the work at night but the noise caused the neighbors to complain and took him to court.  The judge commended him for his industriousness but he and dad agreed on a chair-building schedule that would allow the neighbors some sleep.
  • He sacked groceries at one of the Piggly Wiggly stores, the first self-service grocery store started by Clarence Saunders.
  • He had newspaper routes in the morning and the afternoon.  The routes had 160 customers.  He got up at 4:00am and delivered the morning paper and then in the afternoon after school, he delivered the evening paper.
  • At age 14, he got a job at Wagner’s Drug Store at the corner of Madison & Belvedere as a delivery boy and a soda jerk.  One evening, he was delivering an order to Billy Terry, the Hall of Fame first baseman of the New York Giants.  While taking the order to him on his bicycle, a car hit him and his left leg was crushed.  Only Dr. Willis Campbell, of the now famous Campbell Clinic in Memphis, was confident that he would have dad walk again.  No one else could assure dad of that.
  • At age 17, and in the 11th grade at Central High School, Dad quit school to help him and his mother, Doll, get through the Depression.  His first job after that was writing the latest stock prices on the board for a brokerage firm for $12 per week.  The bookkeeper for that company showed him how to do the bookkeeping job; and when that individual left, Dad was given the job but was not given the raise to the $35 per week that the bookkeeper was making.  They only gave him another $3 per week.  He quit that job and that was the first and last full-time job he ever had working for someone else.
  • He often did odd jobs at the Memphian Theatre in return for admission to see the feature films.  While visiting the theatres, he realized that the theatres offered no snacks for movie-goers, and he saw an opportunity.
    • He thought selling popcorn there was a good idea, so he talked to the theatre manager who, in turn, talked to his boss; and they finally decided that he could put a popcorn machine out in front of the theatre.  He then made a deal to buy a machine on credit for $50 (and buying things on credit was the pattern that Dad used for a lifetime of deal-making for the rest of his life).  The popcorn profit soon outstripped the manager’s income, as Dad was selling popcorn for a nickel a bag and making $40-$50 per week, while the manager was only making $25 per week.  The manager took his job away from him and Dad told Doll, that he was going to get a movie theatre himself and no one was going to take his popcorn machine away from him again.
  • He rented a cigar stand at the 81 Madison building.  He bought day-old bread for 5¢ a loaf and had Doll make homemade pimento cheese sandwiches.  He toasted them and sold them at the cigar stand for 10¢ each, selling sometimes as many as 1,000 sandwiches in a day.
  • After his popcorn venture, he got into the pinball machine business.  Dad took the money he got from the theatre manager who bought him out and bought 5 used pinball machines for $10 each.  He put them in drugstores and hotel lobbies and anywhere that would attract pinball players.  He split the take from each machine with the owner of the business and he moved the machines frequently in search of busier sites.  He plowed his profits back into buying other machines and expanding his locations.
    • It was at the William Lynn Hotel in downtown Memphis at the corner of Monroe & Main where Dad had a pinball machine and was introduced to Mom by Sarah Boswell, who ran the cigar stand in the hotel.
  • He got into the theatre business by buying the closed DeSoto Theatre in the community of Ft. Pickering on the outskirts of Memphis.  He continued to expand and built a new one at the corner of Airways & Lamar, and over the next several years eventually owned 11 movie theatres not only in Memphis but also in other cities.
  • He became an ice cream entrepreneur; placing machines in several locations and hiring a person run them in each location.  His first was in the Hamby Hotel in Helena, AR.  He ran this operation for about 2 years and then sold the business.
  • He got into the cigarette vending machine business and ended up acquiring 110 machines (again on credit) and placing them throughout Memphis.
  • In 1933 at the age of 20, he saved enough money to build him and his mother a house in Memphis, paying $1,000 for the lot and $1700 for the house.  He has 1,000 feet of frontage on Poplar Avenue.
    • 3 years after he built the house, he had a chance to land the regional dealership for Wurlitzer Jukeboxes.  He needed $6,500 to acquire several jukeboxes up front.  He ended up borrowing $6,500 on the house he built for himself and his mom, and he quickly realized there was money to be made in real estate, as well.
    • But he continued to build houses afterwards having learned how profitable it could be.
  • By the end of the decade of the 1930’s, Dad had bought and sold more than $4 million worth of property in Memphis, and had business operations that in addition to real estate, included cigarette vending, pinball machines, jukebox sales, and movie theatres.
  • When WWII started, Dad had already logged 200 hours of flying time and wanted to get into the military as a pilot.  He had vending machines out at the Fourth Ferry Group and knew the Colonel who was in charge.  He passed all the tests and became a pilot with the group flying different types of planes to various stateside locations.  But, he knew he would be assigned elsewhere and decided, before he left, he wanted to get fully liquid.  He about $3 million of debt on all of his enterprises.  He sold everything, paid off all of his debts, and wound up with $250,000 of cash.  He invested the cash into war bonds (a decision he acknowledged was not the best investment he could have put his money into).
  • After the war, he started an Orange Crush bottling company based on learning that a fellow aviator had a very successful bottling operation during the war.  But Dad’s venture failed quickly because after the war sugar was no longer rationed and bottling competition from all sorts of drinks became very competitive.  Mom told him that even us kids did not like the Orange Crush drink.  (I recall that I did and do remember the distinctive shape of the bottle—dark brown with horizontal ribs from the neck of the bottle down).
  • He began building homes again after the war and continued doing so until the time he started Holiday Inns.
  • In the 1950’s, he started an all-girl radio station, WHER, with Sam Phillips.
  • He opened his first Holiday Inn in August, 1952.
Kemmons first job as a model for Sunbeam Bread
Baby KW with bread
Remember that we all climb the ladder of success one step at a time. - Kemmons Wilson