2013 Trailblazer Award Recipient: Welcome W. Wilson, Sr.

2013: The American Advertising Federation – Houston honored Welcome W. Wilson, Sr. at the Sixteenth Annual Trailblazer Awards Gala in September. The program copy reads: 

Welcome! The word itself conjures up a pleasant greeting. Welcome, the man behind that moniker, is the epitome of that gentlemanly greeting – Houston style.

Though unassuming and respectful, one senses Welcome is somebody significant when he arrives and walks into a room. In fact, he even arrived before his name did! Born at home in 1928, he remained nameless for 22 days, as his folks, E.E. “Jack” and Dora Wilson, argued over an appropriate moniker. Finally, his father said, “Let’s make him feel ‘welcome,’” and he was christened Welcome Wade Wilson. Neither he nor the city he came to love and embrace would ever be the same.

“My father thought Houston was going to be the center of the universe,” commented Wilson. “There were half a million people, it was the largest city in Texas, but his vision was that it – Houston – would become one of the greatest cities of the world... I have no complaints about his judgment.”

Today, Welcome Wilson Sr. is chairman of Welcome Group, LLC, a family business, which owns over 75 facilities totaling more than 3.5 million square feet of single-tenant industrial and office facilities. Welcome Sr. has also been the Chief Executive Officer of real estate firms, having developed more than 1,000 apartment units, multiple shopping centers, downtown office buildings, several hotels and more than 8,000 subdivision lots.

However, long before he arrived in Houston, Welcome set the tone for his trailblazing approach to life, and the world of an entrepreneur. As a second-grader in Corpus Christi, his first job was scraping and stacking plates in the school cafeteria. The experience became a simple life lesson: “When people are willing to do something others are not willing to do, they prosper,” Welcome recalls learning.

He attended Texas Southmost College, and graduated with an Associate of Arts degree in 1946. Later that year, he enrolled at the University of Houston. In 1949, he would graduate with a Bachelor of Business Administration degree. Regarding his time in school, he likes to quip, “I was in school so long ago that {at the time} the Dead Sea was only sick.”

Another life lesson was learned when Welcome and his brother Jack first arrived at the University of Houston in 1946. Their father told them to “telephone” him about whatever they needed – he’d then explain how they could do without it! “He felt like self-reliance was the most important thing he could teach us,” relates Welcome.

While attending UH, one of his three full-time jobs was as business manager for the student newspaper. He got the position because he went out and sold advertising; in fact, he sold the very first ad for The Daily Cougar. Where most students would avoid this like the plague, Welcome was happy to do it. “I was always anxious to do something that other people were not willing to do,” he reflects.

Welcome’s belief in advertising would remain with him to present day. His father owned a radio station. “I’ve believed in advertising since the earliest of times. My father’s career choice for me was to be in the advertising agency business. In my view, advertising set America ahead of the rest of the world by 25–30 years because people can reach out and bring in business,” he says.

For more than 65 years, Welcome has enjoyed a career that has been all about making friends. And, brother, has he made a lot of friends! They’re as influential as they come.

“He’s a lot like Forrest Gump,” recounts one of his mentees. “Every point in his life has something different and it’s all amazing.”

Welcome has always tried to take advantage of opportunities presented to him. A case in point was when he was in charge of the platform seating arrangements during President Kennedy’s visit to Houston at Rice Stadium. Welcome assigned himself a seat right behind the podium, so whenever the cameras would see JFK, they’d also see Welcome.

“Shameless self-aggrandizement has always been my policy. It’s only been in recent years that I’ve been willing to admit that,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.

One of his friends who had a strong influence on Welcome was also his business partner, Jack Valenti. Valenti was an alumnus of UH and, in those early years, a partner in the Houston ad agency of Weekley & Valenti. In time, Welcome would spearhead the naming of the communication school at UH to be the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication.

Through those six decades of building friendships, Welcome has experienced some rather unique and amazing opportunities. Highlights include: He served in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations as a five-state Director of Civil and Defense Mobilization, a division of the Executive Office of the President.

He also had responsibility for what is now known as FEMA. Welcome was a witness to the atom bomb tests in Nevada in 1954 and the hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean in 1956.

Welcome received the Arthur S. Flemming Award (established in 1948 to honor outstanding federal employees and recognized by the U.S. President) as one of Ten Outstanding Young Men in Federal Service in 1958.

In 1975 Welcome, with his brother Jack, Jack Valenti, and others, developed Jamaica Beach and Tiki Island in Galveston. “The idea was to create a second home market for Galveston vacationers. It was a learning experience and could not have been possible anywhere else in the country,” says Wilson.

He received the University of Houston’s Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1970, as well as the University of Houston’s C. T. Bauer College of Business Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1996. He received an honorary doctorate degree in May 2013.

The Texas Business Hall of Fame named Welcome as a Legend and Honoree in 2011, and in May of that year, he was named “Entrepreneur of the Year” by the Houston Technology Center. Other honors received include the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Houston Business Journal and the Crusader Award from Neighborhood Centers Inc.

How would one describe Welcome? Try family man, patriot, inquisitive, interesting, quick with a quip, willing to help – take a breath – personable, friendly, humble, smart, storyteller, singer, seller, WHEW – that’s a start, but that’s Welcome.

Welcome has always engaged in numerous civic, professional and philanthropic endeavors throughout his lifetime. He and wife Joanne, college sweethearts, have been married 64 years and raised five children. Their great-grandkids are seventh generation Houstonians. So it was no surprise, when asked about his meaning of life, that Welcome responded:

“To have children and leave their world a better place.”

Inspired by this need to make people’s lives better, and determined to enhance the educational value of UH, Welcome would accomplish his top priority as Chairman of the University of Houston System Board of Regents: attaining Tier One status for the university.

Welcome, who has to have Cougar red coursing through his veins, loves the University of Houston.

“I spend at least 50 percent of my time working for UH,” he says. “Our Chancellor and President,

Renu Khator, is originally from India and was the last to be interviewed by the Board of Regents.

When she looked over and said, ‘Mr. Chairman, I have fire in the belly,’ that did it! I hired her,” says Welcome.

“Only Columbia, Yale, Princeton and Harvard have graduated more CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. The CEOs of Neiman Marcus, Shell Oil, Cameron and CenterPoint are all UH grads,” he says proudly.

Welcome has no plans to retire. “At this age, it is not a burden, but a joy to have this life and do what I love,” he says. Always quick with a quip, Welcome says of his outlook now: “Being 85 is not all bad. Everything I buy comes with a lifetime guarantee.”

Welcome Wilson Sr., a Houston trailblazer. He makes everyone feel, well, welcome.