Richard Kessler
Richard Kessler

Richard Kessler

He ran Days Inns of America while still in his twenties. Today, he has his own hotel chain and uses two private jets to check out new projects.

Richard C. Kessler was just 23 and fresh out of college when he helped to found Days Inns of America in 1970. Only six years later, he became the chain’s president, CEO, and chairman. 

He held those titles until the company was sold in 1984, at which time he founded the Kessler Enterprise, which now owns and operates a dozen luxury hotels in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, and Colorado. In 2010, in association with Bill Marriott, Jr., he formed Marriott’s Autograph Collection, and he is now its largest American franchise operator.

Kessler’s most recent project was the $350 million Plant Riverside District in his native Savannah, Georgia, which includes a JW Marriott hotel, food and entertainment venues, retail outlets, and a 1,100-foot extension of the Savannah River Walk. He has five more properties in the works.

The 76-year-old entrepreneur—who holds bachelor’s and master's degrees in industrial engineering and operations research from the Georgia Institute of Technology—is passionate about historic renovations and has restored the 1888 Casa Monica Resort and Spa in St. Augustine, Florida, as well as such Savannah properties as the Mansion on Forsyth Park and the Kehoe House, both of which are now part of his hotel collection. 

Kessler divides his time between Orlando, where his company is based, and Savannah, where he lives in a 26,000-square-foot 1916 three-story mansion that he restored to its original splendor. It is the only Italian Renaissance Revival home in Savannah and was once the shop of antique dealer Jim Williams, the protagonist in the book and film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. .

What did your father do for a living?

He set up his own plumbing company. I worked for him growing up. Later, after he retired, he went to work with me at Days Inns.

Did your mother work outside the home?

No, but she graduated first in her class and was valedictorian. In her speech, she said, “It’s too easy to take the elevator to success, so take the stairs.” 

Richard Kessler
Richard Kessler

What was the most important thing you learned from your parents?

That having a spiritual grounding is extremely important because it has to do with how you value life. We're active Lutherans. The second thing was to follow through; do what you say you’re going to do. The third thing I learned from my father was how to work. With him, everything had to be perfect. Finally, I learned the importance of a loving family. 

Why did you study engineering in college?

I never planned to be an engineer. I chose Georgia Tech because it was the most difficult school. I asked which major would be best for having my own business one day. They said industrial engineering teaches you how to think through problems and organize solutions.

What was your first job?

I took a break to do military training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, in 1968 and then the National Guard program. I went back to Tech, got a scholarship for my master’s, and graduated in 12 months. I had about 10 offers to work in finance or engineering or marketing, but all the jobs were with big companies. I wanted to find someone from whom I could learn real estate development and ended up working for Cecil B. Day, who had the idea of creating a hotel chain, Days Inns of America. In five minutes, we decided to do it. I sketched out a logo for Days Inn, which is still used today. Cecil showed me how to operate an innovative enterprise and create companies. 

You were 23 years old?

Yes. I headed up the development program of all the hotels and was in charge of negotiating all the contracts. I would go around and start all these Days Inn projects. I had 17 hotels under construction at one time. 

Then in 1972, I went to Orlando and saw it was booming. I told Cecil, “We need to be there.” He suggested we form a company. He said, “I’ll own 70 percent, you’ll own 30 percent, and we will capitalize it with all of $1,000, and you have to figure out the rest.” That's what I did. He had a piece of land on the north side of Orlando and wanted a hotel built. He said he’d pay me $30,000 to get it built, but that money would go into our company. I built about 4,000 rooms. 

What happened during the oil embargo?

We survived it. Banks were calling us, asking us to take over their hotels just for the debt. Quickly, we were ramping up ownership and operation of more Florida hotels. Then Cecil said he wanted me to go to Atlanta and take over all the Days Inns. I was 29 years old and became president, CEO, and chairman. A few months later, Cecil, in his mid-forties, went into the hospital and passed away.

Then what happened?

On the corporate side, we maneuvered right through [the loss of Day] without a bump in the road. We continued compounding earnings by about 30 percent a year for nine years straight. And then Cecil’s widow decided she wanted to sell, so she put it on the market, working with Goldman Sachs, and they sold it. I cashed out and started the Kessler Enterprise. And I've been running it since.

You’ve filled your home and hotels with amazing art and antiques. Where did you learn about art?

I never had an art course in my life. I think people are born with certain aesthetic abilities and skills, and for some reason, I was. Right now, I'm sitting on 100-year-old Persian carpets. I learned a lot about them and have a major collection. Behind me is a mirror made in Venice in the 1700s, a fabulous piece. And some French chateau porcelain. There is German Meissen porcelain all around me. I can look at something and know the quality. 

Do you go to Europe on art-buying trips?

Everywhere I go is an art-buying trip. I was in Santa Fe [New Mexico] this past week, and I’m sure they were very sad to see me leave.

Your most ambitious recent project was constructing Savannah’s Plant Riverside District. How long did that take? 

That was a 10-year project from the time I signed the contract and closed on the property. It was a coal-fired power plant. After they closed it, they spent five years cleaning it up. I had only 30 days to do due diligence and 15 days to close. It was the largest undeveloped piece of land in any historic district in America, so I knew I needed to be very thoughtful about what I did and how I did it.

How do you fly privately?

We have a share in two small Cirrus SF50 jets for taking people to the regional locations. They fly about 400 miles per hour, and they have a range of about 1,000 miles. They’re green on the outside, so we call them the pickles. 

Do you mainly fly between Savannah and Orlando?

I’ll drive that. Anything over five hours I'll take a commercial flight or, if it's difficult to get to, I'll take the jet to make it quicker and easier.

How often do you fly privately?

Probably two flights a month.

What's the purpose of those trips?

Ninety-nine percent is business. I fly to job sites where I want to be at two or three projects in one day. That's the only way you can do it; otherwise, it'd be a three-day trip. I've done three major project meetings in one day.

Have you considered buying your own jet?

Oh, yes. We're looking at buying a third plane, which a friend has been kind enough to lend to us, an Embraer Phenom 300. We have eight people we need to get somewhere, so we’re thinking about buying it with two other people. We bought a small interest in one eight years ago when we had a lot of projects going on far apart, and it really was a tremendous asset. It's one of the best luxuries you can have. It's expensive, so we try to moderate the use, but it can save a lot of time and a lot of wear and tear.

Has your private flying changed in recent years? 

Well, I think we’ve all recognized what a hassle flying commercial is: long lines, delayed flights, restrictions on luggage—it's taken the joy out of flying. It's a necessity that we have to get places today and it’s really encouraged me to look at shared ownership just to save time. 

Do you expect to fly more when you have a share in the Phenom?

As I get closer to retiring, I want to do more pleasurable trips. I'd love to get on the jet, let them take me to a location, drop me off, and then come back and pick me up two weeks later. But given that we still have a lot of projects on which we're working, this will be a few years away. 

Why did you decide to go in with two other guys on a jet rather than just buy your own?

It’s expensive as heck. Could we afford it? Yes, but it's not a practical use of money. We can buy this used jet for maybe $5 or $6 million, so we have a million and a half or $2 million invested instead of $15 million. Plus, we wouldn't use it enough to justify sole ownership.

Richard Kessler
Richard Kessler

What is your next project?

We have several. We’re finishing up a hotel in Greenville, South Carolina, built like a 1920s lodge by a river and the waterfalls—a fabulous site downtown with 187 rooms and filled with art related to nature and Native American life, opening in August or September. We bought a historic building in New Bern, North Carolina, which we have started working on. We’re building a village and a beautiful hotel on top of the mountain with big views with glamping and cottages and a famous hotel spa in Cashiers, North Carolina. We’re also planning hotels in St. Augustine, Florida, on the Florida coast, and in Asheville, North Carolina. 

You've created and sustained many charitable organizations and you've said that you've always had a heart for people who couldn't help themselves. Where did that come from?

It probably came from seeing people who were in need and in bad situations and couldn't help themselves. It made me realize how much I had in my life. I founded a Christian Retreat Conference Center in Effingham County [Georgia] which is focused on the family and offers a very inexpensive recreational place. I also started an orphanage for abused boys, and I'm still involved in that. 

At the JW Marriott Plant Riverside, there's a life-sized replica of a dinosaur, which is the centerpiece of the lobby, along with scores of fossils and giant geodes. Are fossils and minerals a longtime interest or did you collect them specifically for this hotel?

I started collecting rocks when I was about three. I put them around a tree. My father would say, “Oh, Richie, you have rocks in your head.” Well, I did. I've been collecting rocks and minerals and artifacts ever since.

What are your other hobbies?

I love collecting art—anything that’s beautiful. And I love music and the outdoors. I've always been a hunter and fisherman. I belong to some animal conservation groups that contribute a lot of money to protect different species of animals. 

What’s most important to you?

Leaving things better than I found them.

This interview has been edited and condensed.