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William Becker, 85; helped begin Motel 6, founded Arizona bank

Times Staff Writer

William Becker, the co-founder of Motel 6, the innovative low-budget motel chain launched in Santa Barbara in the early 1960s, has died. He was 85.

Becker, former chairman of the board of the Stockmen’s Bank, based in Kingman, Ariz., died of a heart attack April 2 in a Kingman hospital, said his son, Tod Becker.

Becker and Motel 6 co-founder Paul Greene were Santa Barbara contractors when they decided to begin building motels offering rooms at bargain rates.

Becker had been inspired by a monthlong, cross-country car trip from Santa Barbara to his family’s farm in Greenwich, N.Y., in the summer of 1960.

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“Staying in motels across the country, you paid a high price and got poor lodging conditions,” Tod Becker recalled Friday. “He thought, ‘Why not build a nice motel offering clean rooms at a budget price?’ ”

Becker and Greene initially planned on charging $4 a room per night -- an amount that with high occupancy they figured would cover building costs, land leases, mortgages, managers’ salaries and maid service -- but they quickly determined that was too low.

They considered charging $5 per night before finally settling on the $6 rate that inspired the motel’s name.

The first Motel 6, a 54-unit complex near East Beach in Santa Barbara, opened in 1962.

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“When we entered the business, we had the advantage of not knowing anything about it, so we weren’t burdened by preconceived notions,” Becker told the Wall Street Journal.

But they did have a background in building low-cost tract homes in the Lompoc area. And by building their motels with their own crews and equipment, according to a 1967 Newsweek story, they estimated that they saved 50% in initial construction costs.

Determined to keep costs as low as possible, Becker and Greene eliminated dressers, replaced closets with clothes racks and built shower stalls with rounded edges rather than corners to reduce cleaning time.

They also used no-iron sheets, foam drinking cups and coin-operated TVs (25 cents for six hours).

“We feel that this is the type of simple accommodation needed by travelers with families,” Greene told the Santa Barbara News-Press in 1962. “It may cause a revolution in the business in the West, but we feel it has a great future.”

By 1967, Motel 6 had 31 locations in California and four other Western states and in August of that year boasted an 89% occupancy rate, which was 23% higher than the national average.

Becker and Greene’s success -- they had a net worth of $8 million in five years -- may have pleased budget-conscious travelers, but it did not sit well with some of their competitors.

In Santa Barbara, according to the Newsweek story, a Motel 6 advertising sign was repeatedly torn down.

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In Reno, Becker and Greene were forced to go to federal court to “upset a city ordinance prohibiting them from advertising their $6 rate.”

And in Sacramento, room clerks from rival hotels were spreading a false rumor that after registering at Motel 6, guests were handed a set of sheets and told to make their own beds.

Becker, meanwhile, continued scouting new Motel 6 locations in his Piper Comanche 400.

Born in Pasadena on May 18, 1921, he moved with his family to Santa Barbara in 1934. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he worked in a painting contracting business with his father and his brother, Don.

He went into partnership with Greene in the late 1950s.

After selling Motel 6 in 1968 -- today there are more than 880 Motel 6s in the United States and Canada -- Becker and Greene continued to work with the company before retiring in 1973. Becker bought a large cattle ranch 40 miles east of Kingman in 1970, and he moved there full time in 1978.

Like the cross-country trip that inspired Motel 6, Becker’s decision to launch a bank grew out of a personal experience.

“We had to drive three hours over dirt roads into Kingman from the ranch,” Tod Becker said. “He got into the local bank and it was a quarter to 12, and he needed to have the bank manager’s guaranteed signature on some stock certificates.”

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But the bank manager was getting ready to leave for lunch and would not be back until 1:15 p.m.

“He turned to me and said, ‘What this town needs is a real bank,’ ” Tod Becker recalled. “I had been hearing the same thing from an employee of the bank that this town needs a good independent bank. We got the employee and some local businessmen-ranchers together and started raising some money.”

The Stockmen’s Bank opened in Kingman in 1980, and Becker served as chairman of the board for 26 years. The bank, which grew to have 31 branches in Arizona and 12 in California, was sold and merged into National Bank of Arizona in January.

In addition to his son and brother, Becker is survived by his stepdaughter, Joann Sharp; eight grandchildren; and nine great grandchildren.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com


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