Written by: 
Meredith Moriak Wright
Photography by: 
Ahna Hubnik

Putting in hard work to transform a "no" into a "yes" is a familiar task for James O. Guillory Jr. ('13).

When the athletics-over-academics-minded Houston high schooler was denied admission to UNT in 1992, Guillory had his mother drive him the four hours to Denton to meet face-to-face with an admissions counselor. He professed his commitment to put school first and left that day with conditional acceptance.

Shortly after completing his business studies at UNT, when 21 banks turned down the $5 million loan application needed to fund his first hotel development, Guillory kept asking. Later, bank 22 didn't say "no" — it said it couldn't fund a hotel project for a 25-year-old with no experience in the hotel industry. That week, he secured a job as a hotel sales manager.

"After a month I called the lender and said I'd like to meet with him," Guillory says. "We met and he said that he liked me, but that they couldn't do business with someone who didn't have hotel experience. I pulled out my business card and said, 'I've been at this hotel for a month and I'll stay there as long as it takes. I need that loan.'"

The loan was approved 48 hours later and Guillory continued his job as a sales manager while becoming the first African American to own and develop a Hampton by Hilton-branded hotel. The 65-room hotel, near the Houston Ship Channel in Deer Park, opened in 2003.

"I gambled everything, including everything my parents owned, to get that first hotel completed," says Guillory, president of HarDam Hotels. "I was so focused on getting it done and had the attitude that there was no space to fail, but I recognize it could've gone badly."

Guillory learned to run a lean and mean business from his parents, gas station and convenience store entrepreneurs. By implementing their business acumen and pouring his own sweat equity into his first hotel, he was able to keep costs low and quickly turn a profit. By the end of 2007, he had proven himself a viable business partner for investors and sold the property to pursue more hotel opportunities.

"The company went from ground-up new construction to hotel acquisitions development, redevelopment and repositioning," Guillory says. "I'd already shown the lending and investor communities that we were capable of new construction. Now I needed to show we also could acquire a hotel and turn it around."

He expanded beyond hotels, into retail centers and luxury townhomes, but when the downturn came in 2008, he sold all non-hotel-focused properties.

Achieving steady success in the industry for 17 years, HarDam Hotels today is the owner, developer, investor and asset manager for seven hotels in the Hilton Worldwide, Marriott International and Hyatt Hotels Corp. brands. They are located in urban markets and business districts, including Houston's Medical Center area as well as the ship channel area, and Guillory has plans to expand throughout the state.

He says achieving success comes with building a great team and vision.

"It's important to realize your own strengths in your organization," he says, "but also to seek out the expertise of others in areas you need a company to be great at — and together bring results."

James O. Guillory Jr. ('13)

Choosing UNT
Location, location, location. Not too far from home, but not too close. Plus, it was near a major market but had the separation to still be a college town with a student-focused environment. My older sister went to TWU and I really enjoyed Denton. I'm proud to serve today on the UNT Alumni Association Board of Directors and College of Business' Murphy Center for Entrepreneurship Board.

Filing for the degree
When I finished all the work for my bachelor's degree in 1997, I had ambitions of going to graduate school. I didn't file for my degree because I wanted to retake some courses and increase my GPA. I started my company two years later and never returned to school. I filed for my degree in 2013. It was important to me that my parents know I completed what I started, what they paid and sacrificed for. I also wanted my children to recognize that it can be done, by any means, and should be done.

Finding strengths
I decided to study accounting because I knew it was a good foundation for a job. I was getting B's and C's and a professor once suggested, "Maybe you should consider another degree." I took it as someone saying, "You can't do this," and pressed on, but I realize now he was telling me to look at my strengths. I was making A's in economics and marketing; that's what kept my interest. He taught me it's important to be honest with yourself.

I have four daughters, Madison and Morgan Guillory, and twins Kayla and Kourtney Lien. The twins are UNT seniors studying finance, and I make it to Denton as often as I can to spend time with them. I credit my parents, Lou Anna and James O. Guillory Sr., for much of my success. If they hadn't modeled hard work and the benefits of entrepreneurship, or had the capital to leverage against my first bank loan, it might have taken me a lot longer to get my first hotel on the ground.