Society of Entrepreneurs: Robert Wilson builds on his family’s legacy of innovation

by SOE on July 11, 2011

By James Dowd, The Commercial Appeal, 2/18/11

Robert Wilson’s love of aviation led him to found Wilson Air Center, consistently rated as the nation’s top fixed-base operator.

This is the last in a four-part series on the 2011 Society of Entrepreneurs inductees, who will be honored during a black-tie gala April 9.

Growing up as the son of the man who transformed the hospitality industry, young Robert A. “Bob” Wilson learned plenty about customer service early on.

And to this day he credits his dad, Holiday Inn founder Kemmons Wilson, with instilling in him a sense of civic pride and the drive to be the best in every pursuit.

As founder and president of Memphis-based Wilson Air Center, Wilson is nationally renowned and his company is consistently ranked as the top fixed-base operator in the country.

He also serves as vice president of his family’s Kemmons Wilson Companies, where he focuses on hotel construction, warehousing and time-share operations.

In recognition of his innovations in the hospitality and aviation industries, Wilson is being honored by the Society of Entrepreneurs. He will be formally inducted into the organization April 9.

“Pop said we had a family business, and so I never really thought about doing anything else. It was always my desire to grow this venture and see it thrive in different areas,” Wilson said. “I love this city, I love this area, and it’s been great for my family. I never wanted to work anywhere else.”

After graduating from East High School, Wilson headed to Dallas to attend Southern Methodist University. While there, he studied business and finance, and after graduation returned to Memphis to work for his father.

Working primarily in construction, he took jobs as a roofer, electrician and framer on hotel projects in such far-flung sites as Monaco, Nigeria and Panama.

Along the way, he joined the Tennessee Air National Guard and entered the pilot training program. A lifelong aviation lover, Wilson had earned his pilot’s license at 16 and described the Guard program as “a paid vacation.”

It was that passion for flying that later led him to establish Wilson Air Center at the Memphis International Airport in 1996.

“It’s sort of like a big service station for airplanes, but with amenities for the customer to make the experience as positive as possible,” Wilson said. “Our policy is to never say ‘no’ to a customer and to treat them right so that they’ll keep coming back.”

The center has been rated as the top FBO in Aviation International News and received the Operational Excellence Award by AIG Aviation Insurance in 2002.

Since its early days in Memphis, the company has grown to include more than 200 employees and expanded to markets in Houston and Charlotte, N.C.

“I’ve known Bob for a long time and admired his ventures into all types of aviation,” said Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority president Larry Cox. “He revolutionized the FBO business with his attention to detail and focus on customer service. I’m a pilot myself and I’ve been in many airports, but his operation exceeds any I’ve ever seen.”

Wilson has been honored by numerous aviation organizations and was inducted into the Memphis Aviation Legends Hall of Fame in 1998. In 2006, he was inducted into the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame.

“Memphis is rich in aviation history, and Bob Wilson has carved out a special place for himself through his leadership and innovation in establishing Wilson Air Center here,” said Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority chairman Arnold Perl. “The model he founded here has been replicated across the country, which points to Memphis as a center of aviation innovation.”

– James Dowd: 529-2737

Robert A. Wilson

Age: 66

Occupation: President of Wilson Air Center, vice president of Kemmons Wilson Companies

Address: WAC at 2930 Winchester; KWC at 8700 Lake Trail Dr. West, Suite 300

Phone: 328-5050 (WAC); 346-8800 (KWC)

Employees: More than 200 at WAC, about 3,000 at KWC

Online:wilsonair.com and kwilson.com

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