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SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY: Orangeburg native finds success in hotel business

SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY: Orangeburg native finds success in hotel business

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Bert Pooser has been building, buying, selling and operating hotels for 44 years. His business decisions over the years have been hinged to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Pooser does not shy away from talking about his decision-making ability, but the decision that lights up his eyes is one he made as a high school senior that ultimately led him to earn a college education.

In 1956, the then-17-year-old Pooser was a school bus driver for the Orangeburg city schools, earning 75 cents a day driving a bus route before and after school. For his senior year, he was assigned the U.S. 301/Five Chop Road and Four Holes Community route. Early on, he realized the 301 tourist traffic posed a serious danger to his riders. Much of the tourist traffic was not obeying the law that requires stopping for a stopped bus while loading or unloading passengers.

On his own, Pooser made the decision to change the bus route to safe on-and-off loading conditions away from the traffic. Among those benefiting from the change were the late Sen. Marshall B. Williams' four children. The Williams family was grateful for this and became friends with Pooser.

Upon graduation from Orangeburg High School, Pooser wanted to go to the University of South Carolina but knew attending college would be financially difficult. One day, Sen. Williams and his wife, Margaret, showed up at his home. Mrs. Williams knew Pooser was going to need financial support. Sen. Williams offered Pooser a job as a floor page in the South Carolina Senate to assist him in being able to go to college. The $20-a-week pay when the Senate was in session paved the way for Pooser to enter USC. He graduated from the university in 1960 with a degree in marketing.

After a stint in the army at Fort Jackson, he returned to Orangeburg to go into the office supply business with a partner, Jay Ruple, who had an interest in a Holiday Inn in Rock Hill with other Orangeburg investors. Meanwhile, Pooser had married the former Jodye Maddox of Griffin, Ga., sister-in-law of Kenneth Newbern, builder and owner of Orangeburg's Thunderbird Inn.

Pooser was flanked by talk about motel investing. Eventually he was invited to join the motel ranks if he could come up with $25,000, the amount needed to acquire a one-fourth interest in a Holiday Inn planned for construction near Camden on U.S. 601. He was staggered by the amount, but a friend, Herman Benjamin, one of Orangeburg's most successful merchants of the last century, encouraged him to make the investment. Benjamin also agreed to sign a no-strings-attached $25,000 bank loan note payable to Pooser. The Benjamin-backed bank loan was used by Pooser to become an equal partner in the motel venture. In less than a year after the motel went into operation, Pooser and his three partners sold the 80-room motel to outside investors at a substantial profit.

The motel sale profit opened the door for Pooser's entry into the Southeast's hospitality industry. In 1967, Pooser and brother-in-law Newbern formed an Orangeburg-based partnership known as Interstate Motel Developers. Within two years, the company purchased and operated five Ramada Inn franchises, one each in Columbia, Charlotte, Walterboro, Cocoa Beach, Fla., and Roanoke, Va. With Newbern wanting to phase into eventual retirement, the partnership was dissolved in 1981.

With himself as president and CEO, Pooser organized Interstate Management & Investment Corp. with investors that included his uncle, Heyward Shuler, an Orangeburg County farmer. Headquartered in Irmo, Pooser's IMIC primarily focused on hotels. However, in later years, the company has branched out to ownership and operation of Lake Murray's Lighthouse Marina and its Rusty Anchor restaurant, and Lighthouse Power Boat Sales in Columbia. More than 1,100 self-storage units are also under the IMIC banner.

Operating within the cyclical accommodations industry, where the norm is four- or five-year ownerships of hotels, Pooser's stance in the business is not as fluid as it often was in the past. Over the years, he owned and/or operated more than 50 hotels in six Southeastern states. In 2006, it was 22 in five states. He now has a five-state mixture of 14 hotels in South and North Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee that includes Hampton Inns, Wingate Inns, Comfort Suites, and Quality Inn and Suites.

According to Pooser, present highway hotel costs are approximately $8 million for 100 rooms plus $1.2 to $1.6 million for land. IMIC has more than 400 employees, including two of the three Pooser children. Kathy Pooser Rabune is the company's vice president of marketing, and Bert Pooser III is vice president of IMIC hotels, Lighthouse Marina and the three self-storage operations. Son-in-law Rick Rabune is the vice president of development.

The building and operation of the Inn at USC, a 117-room upscale hotel on the University of South Carolina campus, was unique among Pooser's ventures. At a cost of $13 million, the Inn was built in conjunction with the USC Development Foundation. Pooser and the foundation were both recognized with awards for the Inn's construction by the Historic Columbia Foundation.

The 71-year-old Pooser enjoys recalling his upbringing in Orangeburg. In his early years, he worked afternoons at his father's grocery and service station businesses. Pooser acknowledges that the Senate job was his financial mainstay to remain in college, but he had to work at other jobs when the Senate was not in session, including a Columbia iron fabrication company, among others. During the summer, he worked as employee of the road survey team of the South Carolina Highway Department.

Pooser has been a man-on-the-go, to say the least. He has received many professional and civic honors. USC's School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management in 2002 honored Pooser as its Hospitality Leader of the Year Award winner. Also in 2002, he was selected by the Hospitality Association of S.C. as the Hotelier of the Year.

His other honors include being named a Distinguished Alumnus by USC's Darla Moore School of Business, and recipient of the Stillwell Award for Achievement in Philanthropy of the Lexington County Medical Center. Pooser has served as board chairman of both the South Carolina Hotel and Motel Association (now the Hospitality Association of S.C.) and the Lexington County Medical Center Foundation. He currently serves on the USC Educational Foundation Board.

Dean B. Livingston of Orangeburg is retired publisher of The Times and Democrat.

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