Brunch with Bosses
Hello! We’re Ally & Amanda— your go-to blogging duo for all things Knoxville business. We’re passionate about local business and are excited to be sitting down with some of Knoxville’s top business executives. We’ve got the inside scoop, and we’re here to share it with you! Whether you’re looking for some mid-week motivation or just a quick, insightful read, we’ve got the tales of trials and triumphs you’re looking for.
Over the years, we’ve developed a deep respect for Ken and the rest of the Kelsan team that extends far beyond daily business operations. Keep reading for an inside look into Ken’s journey into leadership and his role in upholding strong company values along the way.
Take us on a verbal walk through your career, if you will. Where did you start out?
“I’ll tell you this— I started working at a young age. When I was 12 years old, I started mowing lawns in my neighborhood. Looking back, I remember making $80 in a week and thinking I was rich!” he laughs. “When I turned 16, I went to work for The White Stores Grocery Store chain in Bearden (which has since become a Food City) as a bagger and cashier.
After graduating from high school, I went to work as a part-time Computer Operator at White Stores headquarters while working toward my Marketing degree at The University of Tennessee (Go Vols!).”
And how did that lead you to where you are today?
“As a Computer Operator, I was able to learn a lot about programming. So, when I graduated from UT, I was offered a job as a Computer Systems Analyst at a medical company in South Carolina. Awhile after accepting that position, a foodservice distributor owned by the Keller family, called The IJ Company, recruited me to help them with their computer conversion. This position allowed me to move back to Knoxville— my hometown— so I happily accepted.
From there, I moved into the Director of Management Information Services position, where I stayed for 5 years. But I still had an interest in using my marketing degree somehow. ‘Maybe sales,’ I thought. So, I applied for IJ’s District Sales Manager position in Atlanta and got the job. I was in that role for 5 years as well, before being promoted to Senior Vice President of Sales for Kelsan. In 2002, I was promoted to President and here we are!”
How have you seen the marketing field change over the course of your career?
“The biggest change I’ve seen in marketing over the years is the move from print material to digital. Back in the day, your company had to be in the Yellow Pages if you wanted your business to be found. I remember when fax machines were the craze of the day, and businesses were being solicited through them,” he recalls.
“Also, with the advent of the internet and all that came with it— websites, social media, eblasts— the marketing game really has totally changed. I guess I’m showing my age, but oh well!”
Throughout your career path so far, what accomplishment stands out most?
“To this day, I’m President of Kelsan, but what some people may not know is that I also became President of The Keller Group in 2014. Essentially, that means I’m responsible for supporting 7 different companies: Kelsan, Midlab, Fairways & Greens, Smart Auto, Bright Motors, Smart Way, and KelShred— the newest addition to the Keller Group companies. That definitely stands out.”
What lessons have you learned throughout your career?
“I’ve learned that it’s the ‘who’ first, and then the ‘what’. In other words, if you don’t have great people around to help you execute your business plans, you will most likely not succeed. I’ve also learned never to put up with employees who have bad attitudes— life is too short! There’s truth in the old saying, ‘one bad apple can ruin the entire barrel.’ Once you realize an employee isn’t a good culture fit, free up their future as soon as possible. Both of you will be happier in the long run.”
What’s the biggest challenge in your role?
“Dealing with seven different companies on a daily basis can be stressful at times. Every company’s culture is different, so it can be a lot to manage in (what sometimes feels like) very short days.” How do you overcome this challenge? “I try my best to exercise at least five days a week to relieve stress and I DELEGATE as much as I can to all the great people I work with.”
Last but not least, what’s your favorite thing to do in Knoxville?
“I like to stay active— running, golf, any kind of exercise. My wife and I enjoy riding our bikes downtown on the greenways and having brunch in Market Square. We also like visiting the Farmer’s Market and enjoy the Broadway series at The Tennessee Theatre. So much to do in Knoxville!”
Big thanks to Ken for taking the time to share his story with us! Stay tuned and thanks for reading!
Every month, we brunch with a local boss who’s killin’ it in our community. They share their unique insight with us, and we share it with whoever wants to know! Have a suggestion for a boss you’d like us to brunch with? Contact us today!