Uncertainty surrounds Hammons hotels after founder's death

Hammons Hotels a major partner with Oklahoma City for downtown hotel and convention business.
by Steve Lackmeyer Published: June 3, 2013
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A nine-story Renaissance Hotel on the outskirts of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs — once scheduled as the latest addition to billionaire John Q. Hammons' array of upscale properties — stands as testament to the uncertainty left by his death last week at age 94.

The hotel appears to be months away from completion. But it's missing windows and doors, and the interior is barren.

Hammons abandoned the 300-room hotel in 2009, just before his longtime personal secretary seized control of the company, replaced the executive board and put Hammons in a nursing home.

Control of the company has been in dispute ever since. John Q. Hammons Hotels, meanwhile, controls three of downtown Oklahoma City's full-service hotels, a sizable chunk of meetings booked at the Cox Convention Center, and large hotels in Norman and Tulsa.

Hammons died May 26 with no known heirs. The company's control remains contested in a Delaware court.

Those who knew Hammons note he ran much of the company's operations at an age when most CEOs are long past retirement. Mark Grimes, Flintco's Oklahoma City division president, met Hammons at the start of a long and happy relationship with the construction of downtown's Renaissance Hotel.

Grimes observed a man who obsessively oversaw details of each hotel, almost always meeting at the same reserved back table at his University Plaza hotel in Springfield, Mo., where he had lunch daily.

“He was a control freak,” Grimes said. “I could go to lunch with him in Springfield, and he had that table in the back. And every day I met him, he came with a set of plans under his arms. He couldn't take lunch without working.”

Former Oklahoma City mayors Ron Norick and Kirk Humphreys and former city managers Don Bown and Glenn Deck all dealt with a hotelier who revived the downtown hotel market.

Downtown was on the ropes when Norick, on the heels of persuading voters to approve the MAPS downtown improvements initiative, interested Hammons in building a full-service hotel in connection with expanding and upgrading the Myriad Convention Center.

When Humphreys succeeded Norick in 1998, the deal was still not done — and Hammons was playing with the idea of going with an Embassy Suites instead of the more upscale Renaissance flag.

Hammons told Humphreys the deal wouldn't work because of increased costs associated with building a kitchen large enough to service the hotel and expanded convention space.

“So we had to pay more for the kitchen to get the deal done,” Humphreys said. “We had to negotiate more. … I thought he was great. He was charming. I had breakfast with him, and he gave me his book, talked about his worth. He was a seat-of-his-pants operator, and he did what he wanted.”

That also meant disregarding more cautious executives and investors.

“You really got the deal done with him, not the executives,” Humphreys said. “He was always here when we met.”

Stock prices for Hammons Hotels, then a public company, were under pressure. Hammons executives wanted him to scale back development and sales.

“He was visceral about doing the project,” Humphreys said. “If he wanted to do it, he found a way.”

After striking a contract with Flintco to build the Renaissance in Oklahoma City, that meant building several stories of the hotel without closing on the land purchase with the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority. “He did everything on a handshake,” Humphreys said.

Old school

Hammons is seen by some as one of the last vestiges of an era of larger-than-life hotel magnates that included Conrad Hilton and John Marriott. Instead of delegating authority, he manned the negotiating table to deal with cities, developers and contractors as he built his empire.

For companies such as Tulsa-based Flintco, the arrangements worked out well. After building the Renaissance Hotel in Oklahoma City in 1998, the contractor was hired by Hammons to build nine other hotels.

Hammons was a Joplin, Mo., boy who grew up during the darkest years of the Great Depression. After a stint in the U.S. Army, he saw the influx of soldiers returning home after World War II and sought to make his fortune in residential real estate.

In 1958 he switched his focus to hotels, joining with Roy E. Winegardner to buy his first 10 Holiday Inn Franchises from founder Kemmons Wilson.

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by Steve Lackmeyer
Business Reporter
Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter and columnist who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's Metropolitan...
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