The Story of McKibbon: A father and son open up about their family ties

In 1926, a man named John “Jack” McKibbon Jr., along with his brother Marvin, teamed up and opened a franchise location of Piggly Wiggly in Gainesville, Georgia. 

This was the start of the McKibbon enterprise, the springboard for McKibbon Hospitality, based in Tampa. 

John McKibbon III is currently chair of the board of McKibbon and enjoys travels to, and from, the Bahamas to bask in the beauty of the Caribbean, and Tampa Bay, when it pleases him, along with his wife, Letitia. Tampa Bay is where he sees the beauty of his family including J.B. McKibbon IV, president of McKibbon Equities, who resides in Tampa with his wife, Michele, and two children, Karmen and John V.

There is an incredible story to the family business, which spans several generations. The story of fathers and their sons, and the legacy journey to hospitality fame. 

THIRD GENERATION

The current patriarch of the McKibbon family, John, was born in Gainesville, Georgia. 

“My dad did not want to be in the grocery store business so, when he got back from World War II, he opened a restaurant, having had no previous experience doing so,” says John. “He was successful doing that, so then he added a little motor lodge to it.” 

And thus, the journey to McKibbon Hospitality had begun. 

“My dad would come home for dinner, at night, then he’d go back to work and by the time I got up in the morning, he was back at work again. So, there were a lot of hours put in, but I would hear stories about work, and so forth, and things he went through, and I understood how difficult the business was,” John recalls. “He always said, ‘I’m going to work hard while I’m young and healthy. So, when I’m older, I’ll be able to do some things I really want to do.’” 

The big break came when John’s father heard about a small hotel chain popping up, Holiday Inn. He initially leased a restaurant in one Holiday Inn location, and then another, until he had three restaurants within the hotel chain. 

“Back then, there were no McDonald’s or fast food of any kind. The Holiday Inn was really the main restaurant in these smaller towns and he could make as much money [with the restaurant] as the person who owned the hotel,” John says. “But he wanted to own a Holiday Inn.” 

In 1963, he achieved that goal by opening a Holiday Inn, in Gainesville. Rates for a nightly stay were $7.50 per night, which John says was double what other local motels were charging, at that time. “He was told, ‘You’ll never make it.’” 

John grew up attending public school and, upon graduation, he attended a local junior college. Eventually, he ended up at Florida International University for his last two years of college. 

“It was absolutely fabulous because the professors there had either been in business or were still in business. It wasn’t just about teaching theory, they were teaching from real-life experience,” John says. 

After college, John went to work in the Miami restaurant business, and not for his father. 

“Nobody wanted to hire me because they would say, ‘Oh, you just want to work for a few years and then go back to your family business, which was true,’” John says, with a twinkle in his eye and a chuckle. 

He really wanted to work at, none other than the home of the Cheddar Bay Biscuits, Red Lobster, which was expanding rapidly, at the time. “They said I was too young,” he says. 

John ended up at a small chain in Miami, called Bodega. 

“I worked at several of their restaurants and it was just a really incredible experience. And then I left there and joined the family company, but I [had] worked really hard for them. I gave them my all, so I didn’t feel bad about it,” John says. 

John’s father had a strong belief that his children should explore other avenues of employment before joining the family business. John felt the same way, which is why J.B.’s story deviated from the McKibbon brand, before he would agree to join dad. But more on that later. 

In the 1980s, John continued to pick up several other hotels and made a visit to Memphis, Tennessee, the headquarters of Holiday Inn. 

In a meeting, the Holiday Inn executives started talking about a new brand they were going to start called Hampton Inn, which is now owned by Hilton. 

“This is really the first big mistake in my career,” John says. “I go out and start looking at different markets and everywhere I saw new Comfort Inns, new La Quinta Inns and I think to myself, ‘these guys are too late to the business. They’ve missed their opportunity.’ So, I did not develop any Hampton Inns.” 

It was a mistake that stuck with him. A mistake he wouldn’t make again. 

“By the time I realized that Hampton Inn was going to be a big deal, I had missed the boat. The best spots were gone,” John says. “I regretted it for years. It really hurt me that I missed that opportunity. It was right there in front of me.” 

Later, John visited Nashville. He wanted to check in on another franchisee that wasn’t performing, in his words, he was “upset.” 

“So, I figured well, as long as I’m driving up there, I’m going to check out a few things, see what’s going on in the industry and so forth. We had Comfort Inns back then, but now there is a new thing called Comfort Suites. They had one in Chattanooga,” John says. 

It was 10 miles out of the way he was going so he considered skipping the trip. But, reliving what happened with Hampton Inn, he quickly changed his mind. 

“I said, yes John, you must go. I drove up there and I was looking for it and I didn’t find it. But what I found was, what is now called, Courtyard by Marriott,” John recalls. 

SECOND CHANCES

John interned at Marriott when he was at FIU and says he always loved the brand. 

“You couldn’t get in [with Marriott]. They didn’t franchise,” he adds, as they, at the time, were all corporate-owned. “I heard they had started franchising.” 

At the time, John had been working on a hotel property on 12 parcels, near the University of Georgia, in Athens, which he acquired over about four years. He had plans to build an independent hotel on that land. But the 1988 recession hit and derailed his plans. He scrapped the idea of going independent and decided he wanted to put a brand on it, which he did, asking not to mention the name. It was doing well but wasn’t, let’s say, “the style” he was interested in. He needed something a little higher end. 

“I went back [home] and I called Marriott,” he says, adding he had to look up their number, as he didn’t have any connections with the brand. “They put me through to a guy named Jeff Spillman.” 

Spillman made the trip down to Georgia to check out the property and told John, “This is exactly what we’re looking for,” John recalls. “This was my second chance. It’s rare you get a second chance in your career like that.” 

In addition to converting the existing property in Athens, a suburb of Atlanta, to a Courtyard by Marriott, Spillman had other ideas for John. And that’s the story of how McKibbon became a top developer for Marriott’s Courtyard hotels in the Southeast of the U.S. 

With a team in place, and a plan, John was ready to hit the ground running, telling his board of directors he wanted to build 12 Courtyard Marriott hotels, with some being Residence Inns. 

“They looked at me like I was out of my mind,” John says, laughing. “No one was building hotels back then. It was a really rough time.” 

McKibbon opened his first ground-up Marriott in Mobile, Alabama. It was also the first in the area. 

“The day we opened; it was unbelievable. It was just phenomenal how fast and how good business was,” John says. “At the next meeting, the board of directors said, ‘Well John, what are you doing? Get going.’”

John was ready. He went out and built 10 more hotels, in 1996. “It really changed our company.” 

In a story Tampa Bay Business and Wealth published, in 2023, Randy Hassen, current chief executive officer for McKibbon Hospitality, described John as such: “…on the cutting edge of opening Courtyard and Residence Inns for Marriott.” 

Why? “[The brand] had strict standards and that’s what I wanted,” John affirms, saying this nonchalantly, like his vision wasn’t what shaped the McKibbon brand itself, for years to come. 

He puts it more matter-of-factly. “There is nothing worse than if someone goes to a chain and has a bad experience. It hurts the whole chain,” he says. 

As the Marriott business picked up for McKibbon, it became important to spend time in Florida. There were two Marriott hotels in Tampa. 

Business was growing in the Tampa region, so the next step was to set up regional headquarters, in the area, for the business. 

A growing theme, which TBBW cover stories have reiterated many times over at this point, is, people visit the area, work in the area, and, well, they fall in love a bit. 

“I came down to visit the office one time and I was like, my gosh, there are so many people in the office. People kept wanting to move down here to be in Florida versus Georgia,” John says. “I said, ‘Well, let’s just move the company down here.’” 

McKibbon Hospitality originally established its new Tampa-based headquarters in Ybor City, but quickly outgrew it and relocated to downtown Tampa. 

Today, McKibbon Hospitality has $700 million in assets under its management, has developed over 80 hotels and has over 100 hotels under management. 

FOURTH GENERATION

John met J.B.’s mother, Karen, around 1978. They fell in love, and were married, and began their family on a large piece of property south of Gainesville, Georgia. First, the McKibbons welcomed a daughter, Elizabeth, and two years later, their son, J.B. 

When J.B. was young, his parents divorced, so he grew up with them separated. He continued to grow up in Georgia, while Dad traveled, building the hospitality empire. 

John ended up relocating to Tampa when J.B. was about 16 years old. 

J.B. met Michele in high school and began dating, but the road to marriage was slow. He was hesitant. Being extremely focused on his career, the couple waited to marry for more years than many (including Michele) thought they should. Thankfully, J.B. alludes to but doesn’t explicitly say, Michele still loved him. And when the time was right, the high school sweethearts settled down and started their own family, including the fifth generation of one, young McKibbon boy. (You can see the three generations together on the table of contents page.) 

Fun fact. J.B. had to eat a bit of humble pie to woo Michele. After years of “glares” of making such a fine young woman wait, he proudly states he proposed to her on Mount Fuji in 2017.

J.B. has been with McKibbon for six years now. As an adult, he started in the industry at Apple Hospitality, based out of Richmond, Virginia, where he was an asset manager. His first experience at McKibbon, growing up, was mopping floors.

His first development project with McKibbon was the Hyatt House, in Tampa’s Avion Park, and his second project was a Hyatt House in Orlando’s Gateway Village, near the airport, which opened in early 2023.

The current atmosphere in the hotel development world is tempered optimism and staying the course. 

“It is a challenging time. It’s hyper-competitive and difficult to make the math work for construction,” J.B. explains. “We’re, selectively, still getting some things done but it’s not the time to go guns a blazing.” 

J.B. has been in the business, now, for 10 years, but he’s been around the business, to some degree, his whole life. 

“It’s a cyclical business. As much as you want to be aggressive, especially as a young person, and grow the company, you must recognize those opportunities when it makes sense and drive hard,” he says. 

Even if it seems to be moving slow, for the youngest McKibbon in the family business, he’s familiar with the cycle and holds optimism for the future. 

“We’re building that foundation for the next cycle of growth and ultimately, we have to be patient and wait for the timing to take full advantage of that and be well positioned. I feel like we’re making all those smart moves and knowing that there’ll probably be a time in the cycle where a lot of projects that don’t make sense now, do make sense and we’re ready to go,” J.B. says. 

A lesson, one could infer, was learned from Dad, among a few others. 

“My dad and my grandad taught me how to be a gentleman. How to treat people right. How to mind your reputation and how you’re perceived. That’s the most important thing you have and you can destroy it in a second,” J.B. says. 

Lessons from business, of course, are in John and J.B.’s story, but the lessons on building a family are the ones that illicit the greatest emotions in the nearly, two-hour conversation with the McKibbon men. 

“I feel privileged that I’ve had just an amazing role model,” J.B. says. 

The elder McKibbon, visibly touched by his son’s admiration, agrees and holds his son in equally high regard. 

“I’m very proud of him and his family. How he loves his wife and his kids. It’s great to see that,” John says, getting emotional for the first time during our visit. Speaking now, to his son and not the media visiting them, he adds, “I did not do as good a job with my family as you’re doing. I’m really proud of you.”  ♦

Photos by Pamella Lee


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