Greenville Magazine’s The Cliffs Business Person of the Year 2007

by Lydia Dishman

JAMES BARKER -- President, Clemson University

”I’m not comfortable locked into the ivory tower,” says James Barker, explaining how he doesn’t see himself as an academic, in spite of his professional status as architect and educator. “I believe you need to know something about plumbing and poetry.”

He believes his role as Clemson University’s president isn’t just about academics either, but ties directly to business and economic development. As such, he’s worked to further Clemson’s collaborative efforts in the community with CU-ICAR, the Small Business Development Center, and the new Renaissance Center, a unit of Clemson’s College of Business and Behavioral Science. So when he was notified of being an honoree for Business Person of the Year, he says with quiet pride, “It is such a positive thing for people to see Clemson as a major player.”

Barker knows it can take a while to make everyone see what he knew all along. When he became Clemson’s 14th president, Barker all but had a set of blueprints for his goals. He recalls boldly telling the Board of Trustees his vision for Clemson to be among the top 20 public universities in the nation. Ambitious to be sure, but Barker says, “I was crazy enough to believe we could do it.” Once everyone saw they had the potential, Barker says, “The results were staggering. It was act of faith that paid off.”

One of the ways Barker led the charge was to see the university as a whole rather than a sum of its different schools. He looked at Clemson’s status as a land grant university status as an opportunity to further improve academics by reaching out into the community on a local and state level.

That meant many collaborative efforts to plan and execute. In Greenville, the first evidence of this was at CU-ICAR, where he confesses he put on his architect’s hat during the conceptual stage of the buildings. “I even rolled out a sheet of tracing paper,” he admits.

But he’s not doing any of the sketching for the current construction on campus that will include a new life sciences building and an IT center, among other projects. Off campus, 83 acres were purchased in North Charleston. “We see a restoration cluster emerging there and we want to foster that restoration economy,” he explains.

Now he’s in visionary mode again, drafting a plan for graduate students of entrepreneurial business at the Renaissance Center. He says the Center will give its students the kind of non-traditional classroom that will give them hands-on experience. In this way, “The students will be making a direct contribution to our economic future as we mix Clemson’s role of economic and intellectual development.”

By 2015, the Renaissance Center “will be recognized nationally as a model for total immersion graduate education based on its innovative programs,” as well as “fostered a series of new regional firms led by entrepreneurs who emerge from the Center’s experience-based enrichment activities.”

With the emphasis on automotive, trans-genetics, and advance materials research, Barker states, “this is the next generation. We are trying to build a knowledge-based economy. And this is a dynamite combination.”

MARK KENT -- CEO, Kent Manufacturing

Mark Kent is perhaps one of the most genial and self-deprecating people you will ever meet. He also radiates a kind of energy that is contagious, even at 9:30 am. So it is not surprising when he belts out a hearty laugh and confesses, “I have no idea who nominated me. I’m just grateful; it is an honor.”

Likewise, he chuckles at what he’s accomplished this year, namely, infusing a company that was founded in 1843 with the blood of a new millennium. “Without boring you to death,” says Kent, “We changed our name to Kent Worldwide, and changed our mission and our vision.” And while he’s led the charge to expand further into real estate, Kent is determined not to forget that he is the fifth generation in his family’s business.

“We’ve always been a good manufacturer and a successful textile company,” says Kent, who admits frustration with the bad press the American textile industry has gotten in recent years. “I want us to be the premiere wool manufacturer in the world.” To do this, Kent says, “We are banking on innovation. We signed a collaboration deal with Clemson.”

This, he explains will allow the company to create a new fiber that is eco-friendly. Having traveled extensively throughout Asia, India and Australia, he’s seen sides of mountains stripped away, thousands of acres of forest clear cut, and horrific factory conditions where even children are pressed into working 10-hour days.

Kent doesn’t want his company to be like that. “We have the opportunity to make a difference by repositioning ourselves. Giving back to the community is not just about volunteering and being in business is not just about being profitable. You have to have a balance.” So, in addition to developing high-tech fibers and the textile portion of the business in an eco-friendly way, Kent has also turned this philosophy to his company’s real estate holdings.

“We are big believers in urban renewal, taking discarded assets instead of greenspace.” Restoration projects that include the Liberty Building and the Cigar Factory will soon be joined by the Peacock Hotel, a luxury destination that is rising from a decidedly unglamorous brownfield. Kent is particularly proud of the efforts that went into cleaning up the site even before the cornerstone was laid. “The land had absorbed a lot of chemicals from nearby businesses,” he explains, “Even if we don’t do anything else, I feel as though we’ve left this in a better way than we found it. That is what I’d like to be known for.”

VALINDA RUTLEDGE -- CEO, Bon Secours St. Francis

Valinda Rutledge agrees that she is kind of like a cheerleader. Always a powerhouse of quiet energy, she’s alternately cheering on the staff at Bon Secours St. Francis and giving them the tools needed to make great strides as providers of quality healthcare. But, when she puts down the pom poms, she’s the one who goes over to the hurdles and sets the bars ever higher.

She takes her philosophy of servant leadership, and the mission that the Bon Secours sisters set out over a hundred years ago, very much to heart in her daily work life. As such she is available well beyond her usual 10-hour work days if someone on the staff needs her.

Because of this combined effort, St. Francis sailed past the competition this year to snatch a Gold Achievement Award for Quality statewide. Last year they were awarded silver. “I was very proud,” she says, “It shows how much we’ve worked in terms of the quality journey.” Then in the next breath she says, “I’ve shared with the organization here that I want us to go for the national award next year.”

When she’s not busy setting goals, Rutledge is working with the planning committee for developing the 60-acre parcel St. Francis acquired on the Millenium property for their third campus. “I want the campus to be extremely unique, understanding that healthcare will not be delivered in the way it used to be.” She says the focus will be more on wellness, and with individuals becoming more active participants in their care, she sees dramatic changes in the next ten years.

One achievement Rutledge doesn’t mention is a personal accomplishment. She’s recently been promoted to Market Leader in both South Carolina and Kentucky for the hospital’s parent company. Aside from her current responsibilities as CEO, she’ll be exploring possible expansion opportunities in the growing two-state market.

Instead she continues to speak about the future, setting higher standards and continuing to give everything she’s got. “It is never about just one person,” says Rutledge, “It takes a whole organization. I am blessed to be a part of one that continues to make a difference.”

MONICA SMITH -- Owner, The Pink Monogram

You could call Monica Smith a lot of things: mother of four, educator, salesperson, craftswoman. One thing you can’t call her is a slouch. Up at five a.m., even on weekends, the entrepreneur and mastermind behind the Pink Monogram is hard at work multi-tasking.

It wasn’t too long ago that multi-tasking meant she was teaching an elementary school class, volunteering for the Junior League, and cheering her heart out on the sidelines of her son’s baseball games. No matter where she was, though, she was always stylishly sporting some clever clogs with a custom-stitched monogram across the top.

“People would always ask me where I got them,” she recalls, laughing out loud about those days she was busy sewing in her basement. But as more people started demanding their own pair, Smith knew she had something bigger on her hands. Through trial and error she hit on a formula that was just right and boom – the Pink Monogram was in business.

A few tactical moves on Smith’s part sent that little business straight out of the basement and into the stratosphere. Taking her clogs and accessories to the gift market in Atlanta got her the first 20 accounts. Going back each season and working that show saw that number shoot up to 600 last summer.

She now has a website that offers over 5,000 products, and a storefront right off Augusta Road that serves as a retail boutique, a warehouse, the manufacturing center, and the offices of her 14 employees. Those employees include her husband who came on board with full-time accounting and invoicing responsibilities.

Despite the explosive growth, Smith continues a very hands-on approach and is committed to excellent customer service.

Though the three years she spent working out of her home and putting out 200 boxes a day on her porch for UPS pick up are receding into fond memory, she still recalls thinking her neighbors must have thought she was crazy. “They laughed at me,” she says. Meanwhile, as the orders continue to pour in, helped by coverage on radio, in major magazines and the New York Times, Monica Smith can bet that the last hearty laugh will be her own.

BILL WYLIE -- CEO, Retired Goodwill Industries

Bill Wylie can remember his first trip to Greenville in 1976 like it was yesterday. For the former executive of W.T. Grant who had just left Caribou, Maine “in a driving snowstorm!” the warmth was welcome. As was a job interview with Eugene Stone.

But the thing Wylie remembers most was the question posed by his prospective employer as to what he liked to do in his free time. Wylie’s answer was, “figure out ways to make retail stores more profitable,” an answer that Mr. Stone appreciated very much. He was hired and held what he laughingly counts to be about 35 different positions within Stone Manufacturing and Umbro International. But when the company downsized Greenville operations in 1998, Wylie took it as a sign to retire.

It didn’t last long.

An active supporter of Goodwill Industries for years, they approached him in 2002 to see if he’d consider taking on the position of Executive Director. Wylie was intrigued. Here was another chance to do what he did best: turn things around. He took on an agency that was making $8 million in retail with a staff of 180, that he says, “were more than a little demoralized.” By 2007, they had revenues of $23 million with 500 employees.

He won’t take the all the credit, stating firmly that all he does is “surround myself with smart people and just get out of the way. My opinion is not an edict, I give them suggestions to help creatively think through problems.” He’s given them a lot more than advice, building the benefits package to include long and short term disability, retirement, 401K, and an incentive program.

But it was his mission to build a culture of success as well as a fiscally sound agency. “I firmly believe that if people are given the proper tools and support they will want to succeed.” And that didn’t just mean for his employees. It extends to all the individuals Goodwill Industries serves. Wylie explains, “With sweat equity the success belongs to the person. Rather than giving them a handout, we give them a hand up. Last year we served 9,000 people and placed 2,000 in full time permanent jobs.”

He’s also beaming with pride at the agency’s latest honor. “We also just won [a designation] as a best place to work by the National Safety Council, the only Goodwill ever nominated!”

On a more serious note, he explains how he sees this chapter in his career. “I always worked very hard and didn’t see how the rest of the world was living,” explaining that sometimes it takes a smile and a little attention to get people on the right track. “This is not the highest paying job I’ve ever had, but to see the staff growing around me and the people we’ve helped, that is a lot better than money.”


See 10 other posts submitted by Lydia Dishman. Find articles, people, and videos related to: barker, Bon Secours St. Francis, business person of the year, Clemson University, Goodwill Industries, Innovation, kent, Kent Worldwide, leaders, Pink Monogram, rutledge, smith, wylie