Jim Clayton was born in 1934 in a tin-roofed house on a sharecropper’s farm. By the time he was five, Clayton was dragging cotton rows using a log pulled by a farm mule. When he was 12, he had his own cotton patch. He walked four miles to school each day, even in winter when the roads were bad. Though his father wanted him to continue working on the farm after his high school graduation, Clayton packed his clothes and his guitar and headed to Memphis to work and study.
As a student, Clayton worked 30 hours a week selling vacuum cleaners. He also played his guitar three nights a week in honky-tonk bars. His schedule left him little time for sleep, which took a toll on his health. One morning he awoke to find half of his face paralyzed. The cause was mysterious, but his doctor prescribed rest. Clayton took that time to figure out what was most important in his life. He decided he needed to make school his main priority.
Clayton transferred to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to finish his engineering studies. He earned his first-class radio broadcast engineer’s license and began working for WATE-TV. On his own time, Clayton started buying and selling cars. By the time he earned his college degree, he was earning more from his car-selling hobby than from his job at the television station. Clayton opened a used car lot in Knoxville, and he and his brother, Joe, eventually became partners in the auto business.
Clayton did his own television commercials to promote his business. During one session, he strummed his guitar and said, “Hi there, folks,” into the camera. This was the beginning of a 16-year weekly musical variety show called Star Time, which made Clayton a household name. He often sang with Dolly Parton, who was one of his frequent guests. In his “spare time” he also earned a law degree.
Clayton entered the mobile home industry in 1966 when he bought a badly burned mobile home, renovated it, and resold it. He began his first mobile home factory in 1969. Ten years later, he and his brother dissolved their partnership, with his brother taking the auto business and Clayton keeping the housing-related companies.
Clayton Homes grew to include a network of more than 450 dealers in 23 states. It has built more than 34,000 homes and employs 13,400 people nationwide. In 1989, Forbes magazine included Clayton Homes in its “200 Best Small Companies in America” list for the fourth consecutive year, while Financial World recognized Clayton Homes as one of 500 companies on the “fast track.”
Jim Clayton has been singled out by The Wall Street Transcript as the top executive in the manufactured housing and recreational vehicle industry. In 2003, the company was acquired by Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. for $1.7 billion. Its president and CEO is Jim Clayton’s son, Kevin T. Clayton.