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VOL. 131 | NO. 41 | Friday, February 26, 2016

The Tipping Point

Work with the Disabled Made Wilson a Warrior for Equality

By John Klyce Minervini

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At age 25, Kem Wilson had his whole life laid out for him. He had graduated from Furman with an undergraduate degree in business administration. Newly engaged, he had a promising job at a Memphis financial consulting firm. Now all he had to do was take his rightful place at the head of the family business.


Which, frankly, was nothing to sneeze at. Named for Wilson’s grandfather, Kemmons Wilson Companies had begun as a hotel chain and broadened into sectors like resort time sharing, insurance and financial services.

So, as jobs prospects go, not too shabby.

Then Wilson did what no one would have expected. On a sunny morning in June, he and his soon-to-be wife quit their jobs and moved to Jackson Hole, Wyo. During college, Wilson had worked there as a camp counselor, and he says he was drawn to the blue skies and wide open spaces.

“We said, let’s go figure out life,” Wilson remembers. “We had no idea what we were gonna do, but we knew it was gonna be an adventure.”

For Wilson’s wife, Allison, that meant working in a high-end gift shop. Meanwhile, Wilson got a job as a rehabilitation trainer with Community Entry Services (CES). Over the next two years, he coached adults living with mental and physical disabilities, helping them get jobs, gain life skills, and otherwise become as independent as possible.

Which was different from financial consulting. Now Wilson spent his days with clients who lived with severe autism or Down syndrome. He helped them meet basic needs like reading, bathing and getting dressed.

“It was way out of my comfort zone,” Wilson recalls. “There was a whole lot of laughter and a whole lot of tears.”

“And a whole lot of seizures,” he adds, after a moment.

In the end, Wilson did come home to run the family business. Today, along with his brother and two cousins, he manages day-to-day operations at Kemmons Wilson Companies, with a personal focus on wealth management. He also oversees the family’s investment in companies like Imagineer Technology Group (software) and Evaporcool (energy efficiency).

It’s a high-powered job. In the nine days before our interview, Wilson – or K3, as he’s known around the office – had flown to New York, Boston, Chicago, Phoenix and Palm Beach. But he says his experience in Jackson Hole had a profound effect, one that continues to ground him.

“I saw that we’re all created equal,” he reflects. “I saw that each person is equally worthy of dignity and respect.”

One way that manifests itself has been the formation of a community service board at work. Every two years, employees of Kemmons Wilson Companies come together and select two partner nonprofits. As a group, they will invest as many as 1,400 service hours with each organization.

Best part? They’re on the clock. Every year, Kemmons Wilson Companies gives each of its employees 32 wage hours to invest with local nonprofits.

“You say you believe in Memphis,” Wilson remarks, leaning forward. “Well, why not put your money where your mouth is?”

The family also directs the Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation, a community fund that has given over $25 million to Memphis nonprofits over the past 25 years.

Personally, Wilson serves on the boards of Repairing the Breach and the Gifted Education Foundation, two nonprofits that use after-school enrichment programs to teach life skills to kids in underserved neighborhoods. He has also served as a mentor, paying monthly visits to a ninth grader in Memphis’s Alcy Ball neighborhood.

“I think it’s easy to live in a bubble,” Wilson observes. “If you ever need perspective, start mentoring. There’s a lot of hurt out there.”

Wilson’s ongoing efforts to lift up Memphis’s underserved kids can be linked to his adventure in Jackson Hole. But he says it goes back even further, to lessons he learned at his grandfather’s knee. As a self-made man, the original Kemmons Wilson put a famously high premium on values like family, hard work and humility.

“Every summer from the time I was 16, I had to have a job,” Wilson recalls. “Each week, my dad would take my paycheck and net out my allowance. I was like, really?”

“But now I know,” he adds, “those kinds of lessons are important.”

Kem Wilson is a graduate of New Memphis’s Leadership Development Intensive. Learn more at newmemphis.org.

PROPERTY SALES 97 282 19,395
MORTGAGES 113 315 22,365
BUILDING PERMITS 278 550 39,866
BANKRUPTCIES 55 204 12,452