By the end of the twentieth century, many Tennesseans were used to seeing the Central Parking logo hanging about urban parking lots; few realized it was the largest parking company in the world. It was originally founded as a side venture by Monroe Carell Sr., an office worker for the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railway. In the early 1950s, Carell leased a piece of property in downtown Nashville and began operating it as a surface parking lot. A few years later, he partnered with fellow employee Roy Dennis and leased some surplus properties from the railroad. Among those properties were large parking lots in St. Louis, Atlanta, and Nashville. By this time, Carell and Dennis had named their business Central Parking.
In 1967, Monroe Carell Sr. talked his son Monroe Jr. into leaving his job with the Duck River Electric Cooperative to work for Central Parking. Carell Jr. moved to St. Louis and began expanding the company there. At about the same time, Roy Dennis convinced his son Robert to take over its operations in Atlanta.
In St. Louis, Monroe Carell Jr. within a couple of years had signed the company’s biggest contract yet–an agreement to run the eighteen-hundred-space parking garage for a project called Mansion House Center. Soon the company began working closely with the developers of large projects–a change from the days in which parking was a freestanding business unconnected to the buildings it served. Central Parking also developed a specialty in mixed-use projects that combined office and commercial use. Through Carell Jr.’s aggressive deal making, Central quickly moved into large markets such as Kansas City, Denver, and Houston.
Central Parking underwent two huge changes to its ownership structure in the late 1970s. In 1978, Monroe Carell Sr. sold the company to Monroe Jr., who had been effectively running it for years without a clear division of ownership between himself and his younger brother James. The next year, Bobby Dennis and Monroe Jr. divided their assets.
In complete control of Central Parking now, Monroe Carell Jr. turned it into the most professional firm in the parking business. It recruited managers more aggressively than competitors and made it clear to them that their job was to expand–not just run–parking operations in the cities in which they were placed. Its training program was unmatched in the business: Central Parking trainees were not just taught how to run a parking garage but were taught about commercial real estate, development, and national trends in urban growth.
Pre-tax income ballooned from $270,000 in 1980 to $1.1 million in 1985 to $3.6 million in 1991. In 1992, Central Parking operated 225,000 parking spaces and had become the largest parking company in the world. Among its far-flung operations by this time were the parking garages at Heathrow Airport in London and at Petronas Towers, a pair of eighty-eight-story buildings in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. That year, Central Parking bought Meyers Parking, which had a large presence in New York (sixty garages and lots in Manhattan). In October 1995, Central Parking’s stock was successfully sold on the New York Stock Exchange. Two years later, it merged with Houston-based Allright Parking, combining the assets of the world’s two largest parking companies.
However, Central Parking had a hard time thriving without its key creator. Monroe Carell Jr. retired as CEO in 2001 but returned as CEO two years later. In 2007, the company was taken over in a private-equity leveraged buyout, similar to the one that another major Nashville firm, the Hospital Corporation of America (HCA) had undergone only a few months later.
No account of Central Parking would be complete without mention of Monroe Carell Jr.’s charitable contributions. Among the larger ones were $5 million for the creation of Pope John Paul II High School, $5 million to build a new library at Harpeth Hall School, and $13 million to the Motherhood of the Dominicans of St. Cecelia. The biggest recipient of Carell’s generosity was the children’s hospital at Vanderbilt University, later renamed the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital. As of 2007, his gifts to the hospital totaled about $25 million.