Kemmons Wilson, 90, a business visionary who founded the Holiday Inn hotel chain in 1952 and reshaped roadside lodging by offering inexpensive but comfortable rooms where children stay for free, died Feb. 12 at his home in Memphis. The cause of death was not reported.
Mr. Wilson was a folksy, dynamic and humble workaholic who answered his own phone, rarely traveled with an image-shaping entourage and could be found doing landscaping work around his hotels. He routinely put in 12-hour days and ran business ventures nationwide, including shopping centers, oil refineries and catfish and bullfrog farms.
The focus of his career was Holiday Inn, which took off with the postwar baby boom and the interstate highway system and now has more than 1,500 hotels worldwide. The chain triggered scores of imitators such as Howard Johnson, Motel 6 and Econolodge.
"If you died," Mr. Wilson's wife, Dorothy, once said, "all your partners couldn't get into the funeral."
The only child of a poor widow, Mr. Wilson was a high school dropout who started selling popcorn in a Memphis theater lobby to help support his mother. Instantly successful, he parlayed his profits into a Wurlitzer jukebox franchise and then began a home-building business.
On a trip to Washington in 1951, the young millionaire was insulted by the high cost of staying overnight at a hotel -- especially with the poor amenities, lack of cleanliness and hidden charges for each child. He began tinkering with how he could improve the industry.
With a loan, he started the first of his Holiday Inn hotels, taking its name from the hit 1942 film musical with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire that introduced the song "White Christmas."
He established a hotel where millions of guests came to expect free coffee, ice, television and cribs. He built swimming pools and booked musicians to play in the lounge area.
He erected a sign that told the guests exactly what they could expect and what they would be charged. He marketed to the moderate-income traveler.
"You can cater to rich people, and I'll take the rest," he said. "The good Lord made so many more of them."
By the mid-1960s, the chain was reportedly larger than the Hilton and Sheraton chains combined. Look magazine measured Holiday Inn's success in toilet paper, saying it bought enough to wrap around the equator 10 times.
In a 1972 cover story about Mr. Wilson, Time magazine said he "transformed the motel from the old wayside fleabag into the most popular home away from home."
He credited his mother, whom he installed as a Holiday Inn vice president, with fostering his work ethic.
"She taught me that I could do anything that I wanted to do, and she drilled it into my head so hard that I finally decided that I could do anything I wanted to do," he said.
Charles Kemmons Wilson was born in Osceola, Ark. His father, who worked in insurance, died when he was 9 months old. His mother took the boy to Memphis, where she held a succession of odd jobs until she became exhausted.
At 17, Mr. Wilson left school and bought a popcorn stand on $50 credit. He did so well, the theater owner bought him out, and the young entrepreneur moved on to pinball machines and then flying lessons.
A turning point came when he discovered the profitability of real estate. He became a home builder.
After returning from his Washington trip, he opened his first Holiday Inn in Memphis with the key backing of businessman Wallace E. Johnson, a home builder with a national reputation.
Mr. Wilson retired as chairman of Holiday Inns Inc. in 1979, after a heart attack, then started another chain in the 1980s, Wilson World hotels, catering to business people.
As a businessman, he promoted his 20 rules for success, among them:
"Mental attitude plays a far more important role in a person's success or failure than mental capacity," and "No job is too hard as long as you are smart enough to find someone else to do it for you."
His called his 1996 autobiography "Half Luck and Half Brains."
His wife of 59 years, Dorothy Lee Wilson, died in 2001.
Survivors include five children; 14 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
The Washington area now ranks first among metropolitan regions with the number of Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Select hotels, a spokeswoman for the chain said. There are 31, she said, compared with 26 in second-ranking Chicago.