Marion William Isbell, an orphan who picked cotton for 50 cents a day to support himself and went on to found Ramada Inc., building it into a 500-motel chain, has died at the age of 83.
Isbell died Thursday at Scottsdale Memorial Hospital-Osborn, the same day that Ramada unveiled a restructuring plan that includes selling off its hotel and restaurant businesses and focusing instead on its more profitable gambling casinos.
The company said the plan was devised partly in response to a recent buyout offer from Chicago's Pritzker family, which controls 7.2% of Ramada's outstanding stock and is the company's largest shareholder.
"Marion Isbell was a pioneer in the hospitality industry and a personal mentor to me, and a dynamic and caring man whose memory we will cherish," said Richard Snell, chairman and chief executive officer of the Phoenix-based corporation.
In 1929, during a cross-country trip with his wife, Isbell conceived the idea of building comfortable roadside hostelries. But it was 25 years before his plan materialized.
In 1954, Isbell and a group of Phoenix investors began buying motels. In 1960, he decided to assemble the motels into a chain owned by a publicly held company, and two years later became chairman of a 63-motel chain known as Ramada Inns Inc.
Under his leadership, Ramada Inns expanded to 500 motels in 45 states, and later into Canada, Mexico, Brazil and overseas.
Born in Whitehaven, Tenn., Isbell was orphaned before he was 5. He and his brothers, James and Leon, were placed in an orphanage in Memphis, Tenn., and later were raised by relatives.
"I was 8 years old when I first started work in the cotton fields after school," he once said. He later worked as a dishwasher, cook and soda jerk in Chicago before going into the restaurant business there, where he ran a string of luncheonettes before retiring to begin his hotel business.
Isbell ran the Ramada chain as president and chief executive officer until 1973.