You may not have heard of the late Nashville businessman Jack Massey. But without Massey, you probably wouldn’t have heard of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Born in Georgia in 1904, Massey moved to Nashville on the eve of the Great Depression to become a pharmacist. He eventually opened his own pharmacy, then a drugstore chain, then a surgical supplies business. He sold Massey Surgical in 1961, intending to retire.
Retirement “has not taken”, as they say. Tired of playing golf and rummy, Massey began looking for a business to buy. The search led him to a young Kentucky lawyer named John Brown Jr. and therefore to a picky white-robed entrepreneur named Harland Sanders (who had been made an honorary colonel by the Kentucky legislature).
Many years later, Brown remembered the first time he introduced Sanders to Massey. “We’re going to have lunch, and right off the bat the Colonel says, ‘I just want you to know that no such and such from the South are going to come here and buy my company,'” Brown said later. “He just came out of nowhere. It was something Jack and I hadn’t even talked about.
However, that is exactly what ultimately happened.
In 1964, at a meeting at the Covered Wagon Motel in Utah, Brown and Massey convinced Sanders to sell them his restaurant business, called Kentucky Fried Chicken, for $ 2 million in cash. Massey and Brown tried to get Sanders to take part of his payment in inventory, but Sanders declined the offer (a move he later regretted). “It was hard for him to come to terms with the idea that the business could be better without him leading it,” Brown told me a few years ago. “So he said, ‘I don’t want any of your stocks. It will not be worth the toilet paper.
Under the contract, Sanders also agreed to sell Massey and Brown his likeness, which is why you see comical (and in my opinion disrespectful) knockoffs of Sanders in TV commercials today.
The next four years changed the history of restaurants and franchising. When Massey and Brown bought KFC, the company was nothing like the chain we know today. At that time, Sanders’ pressure-cooked chicken was primarily sold as a menu item in mom-and-pop restaurants; stand-alone locations were the exception rather than the rule. The company did little publicity.
Massey and Brown transformed Kentucky Fried Chicken into a fast-growing stand-alone fast food chain and launched a nationwide advertising campaign to tell the world about it.
Soon new franchises took hold in markets that before had never heard of the phrase “secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices”. The restaurant chain went public, its shares doubled, doubled again, and became one of the most talked about companies on the New York Stock Exchange.
Somewhere along the line, KFC created the drive-thru window – at least when it comes to fast food chains.
By 1968 Kentucky Fried Chicken had made many of its franchisees millionaires (like Dave Thomas, who later started Wendy’s restaurantchain). Massey and Brown sold the company to Heublein for $ 240 million, and within a year or so, KFC’s corporate headquarters moved from Tennessee to Kentucky.
But Massey has yet to retire. Instead, he co-founded a chain of hospitals, along with three other men from Nashville (Dr Thomas Frist Sr., Dr Thomas Frist Jr. and Henry Hooker). Licensed early due to Massey’s association with fast food restaurants, Hospital Corporation of America ultimately has become the leader of a new sector of the economy called for-profit healthcare.
Today, HCA remains one of the most important companies in Tennessee. It owns 185 hospitals and has significant market share in metropolitan areas such as Dallas, Kansas City, Houston, Tampa, and Nashville.
Massey passed away in 1990. Today the Nashville landscape is filled with things he created, co-founded or funded. One of the more subtle tributes to Jack Massey is the successful restaurant chain known as J. Alexander’s. Originally created by a group of Nashville investors with historical ties to Massey, the “J” in J. Alexander’s stands for Jack, as in Jack Massey.
Bill Carey is the founder and executive director of Tennessee History for Kids, a nonprofit organization that helps teachers cover social studies. He is also the author of several history books and a former Capitol Hill reporter.
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