Developer Welcome Wilson Sr. Served Under JFK, Has Partied With Trump And Worked In Every Field Of Real Estate
Jampacked with his vintage weapons collection, an honorary doctoral degree from his alma mater the University of Houston and tons of photos of family, friends and former presidents, the office of Welcome Wilson Sr. serves as a time capsule into an impressive life.
Wilson, 90, served in the executive offices of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy in the 1950s and '60s, selected Renu Khator as the president and chancellor of the University of Houston system in 2007 and owned 10% of the Houston Astros baseball team in the 1960s and '70s. And that's not even getting into his real estate prowess.
Wilson made a name for himself as a real estate powerhouse with the development of the Jamaica Beach and Tiki Island subdivisions, which later became Galveston County cities. He went on to build apartment complexes, hotels, office buildings, retail centers and, as of late, single-tenant industrial buildings throughout Texas.
Wilson, the chairman of family-owned The Welcome Group, owns 4M SF of manufacturing and industrial facilities in 87 locations worth more than $450M.
“I have been in every field of real estate,” he said.
In 1957, after a few years in the Navy, Wilson discovered about 300 acres of available land on west Galveston Beach to build a resort-style subdivision. The problem was he didn’t have the upfront funds to purchase it.
Developing property in Galveston was difficult. Financiers were denying mortgage loans and insurance brokers feared floods and hurricanes would damage the properties.
“Galvestonians never sold land on time,” Wilson said. “They didn’t trust anyone to pay them. So, every transaction was for cash.”
Lucky for Wilson, his best friend, R.E. "Bob" Smith, who was 50 years older, was more established in the real estate business. He bought the land and sold it to Wilson for $1 down.
Wilson, along with his brother Jack and a few others, constructed Jamaica Beach, a 1,600-home master-planned community. Smith later co-signed a loan to finance the construction of the community’s streets.
“He helped me a great deal,” Wilson said.
In September 1961, Wilson resigned as the state director of Civil and Defense Mobilization to focus on development full time.
After wrapping up those Galveston projects, Wilson set his sights on Houston. He entered the market as a developer with the Kingsbrook Apartments and 300-unit Fox Hall Apartments off Katy Freeway in the mid-'60s. He also served as chairman and founder of the Homestead Bank in north Houston, where he constructed a bank building and a retail center on Homestead Road in 1965.
In a joint project with James E. Lyon, the owner of the River Oaks Bank in Houston, Wilson built a 22-story office building Downtown at 801 Travis and Mickey Leland Federal Office Building, which he eventually sold to the federal government in the '80s. He also constructed the sixth Marriott hotel ever, near the Astrodome.
Supporting Downtown Inclusion
As a rising real estate mogul with a political past and connections, power players throughout Texas began to lean on Wilson's influence.
In the early '60s, Houston Mayor Lewis Cutrer asked Wilson to solve a problem. Eight downtown lunchroom owners refused to serve students from Texas Southern University, formerly the Texas State University for Negroes. The students — wearing their Sunday best suits, ties and dresses, Wilson remembered — rode the bus over to dine at the establishments.
“They would go sit at a lunch counter trying to order. And, no orders were taken, because they were black,” said Wilson, who believed the students had the right to eat at the restaurants.
Wilson set up a meeting with the restaurant owners who were denying service. After two hours of vicious discussion, Wilson and Bob Dundas, the vice president of Houston-based Foley Brothers department store, convinced the owners it would be easier if all of the businesses integrated at the same time.
Wilson promised to suppress media attention. He said he believed the race riots occurring in cities like Birmingham, New Orleans, Atlanta and Little Rock were due in part to the news coverage that stirred people to show up and protest.
Wilson’s tactics worked. The Houston Chronicle and the Houston Press did not run the story. The Houston Post published a single-column story with a small headline on page 18 — insignificant placement in a newspaper, he said. And there were no race riots in Downtown Houston over the restaurants’ integration.
Narrowing His Focus
After a couple of decades bouncing between political positions (including a stint as the ambassador to Nicaragua), major community roles (as part-owner of the Astros he helped oversee the construction of the Astrodome and was chairman of the University of Houston Board of Regents from 2006 to '11) and developing across asset classes, Wilson purchased GSL Construction Ltd. from Gustave St. Levey for $1M in 1998.
The portfolio included four single-tenant industrial projects under construction in Houston, a broken Xerox machine and later 15 additional buildings developed by Levey in another deal.
It changed his real estate career entirely.
He shifted to single-tenant industrial development. Learning from a previous financial mistake, Wilson decided to no longer sell properties. About 50 years ago, he sold Fox Hall for $750K. While he said he probably needed the funds, it would have been better to keep the property, which has maintained 100% occupancy since he sold it.
“The reason we don’t sell anything today is because of Fox Hall,” he said. “If I would have kept it, the mortgage would have been paid off twice. The cash would be falling in right now. And, the people I sold it to still own it today.”
So when he got into the industrial business, Wilson sold off all its non-industrial assets and vowed to never sell again. It helps that industrial assets are less risky, he said. Tenants typically sign longer leases and bear the bulk of the responsibility as far as repairs and maintenance go. The move also allowed the company to cut its staff from 100 employees in the early days to 17.
“We do not build spec buildings,” he said. “We have a tenant and a signed lease before any developments start.”
Keeping Up The Pace
Wilson, who gets up every morning at 4:30 to go to the gym, has no plans of slowing down now that he is in his 90s. He wants to own $1B in property and has less than half collected so far. Industrial is steaming forward in Houston as more deals close to accommodate the e-commerce warehouse expansion.
“Every major real estate investment company is under the quota for industrial assets,” said Wilson, who gets calls from companies looking for him to sell. “Everyone is looking for an investment. And, we are competing with all of them.”
In his book "Always Welcome" released in September, Wilson shared his four passions: God, family, country and the University of Houston.
Wilson's passion for U of H dates back to when he lived on campus as a student, worked for the student-run newspaper, The Cougar, and met his wife, Joanne.
The two married on the day he graduated from U of H in 1949 and will celebrate their 69th anniversary today, Aug. 27. The couple has five children, 16 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.
“Welcome Wilson Sr. is a man of integrity and action and I consider him a friend and a mentor. Even while managing a wildly successful career in commercial real estate — constructing, owning and operating millions of square feet of commercial property over the years — he has always made championing the University of Houston a priority,” U of H President Khator said.
“In many ways he is like the University of Houston. He is committed to this city and not afraid to get out in front and find solutions to some of the greatest challenges we face."