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North Carolina's largest business group proudly serves as the state chamber of commerce


Executive Profile

The Personal Touch

Phil Kirk keeps a torrid pace as NCCBI president but still finds time for the little things that matter most

By Kevin Brafford

Leading figures in business, industry, education and other professions have been profiled monthly in the North Carolina magazine without fail since June 1948. All told, 429 men and women have had their lives detailed, from Payton Adams of General Telephone Company of the South in Durham to Steve Zelnak of Martin Marietta in Raleigh.

Until now, no president of NCCBI has ever been profiled. That has not been intended as a slight; indeed, it’s a reflection of the magazine’s mission to write about its members, not the paid association staff.

But in this, a March issue where the constantly changing challenges facing NCCBI, the state chamber of commerce and state manufacturing association, are examined (see story, page 62), there is no better time to write about Phil Kirk, who in December embarked on his 15th year occupying the president’s chair.

It’s a chair that might better serve Kirk if it had an ejector button, and that’s not a crack at his age (59). Rather, it speaks to the outrageous schedule he maintains — a succession of 12- to 14-hour days that might collapse a 25-year-old.

For the number of hours Kirk spends in meetings each month — he’s a member of more than 25 boards, commissions and committees — one could drive from Murphy to Manteo and back several times over.

Business North Carolina has named him the seventh most influential individual in the state, and he has been ranked the 14th most effective lobbyist of the 830 who are registered in the state.

When Kirk resigned as chair of the State Board of Education early last year, he did so in part because he wanted to catch his breath. It didn’t take him long to get his second wind, however, as he picked up the “slack,” so to speak, partly by making 245 member relations visits across the state.

On days when he is in the office, he responds or initiates as many as 100 e-mails. If you’re reading this story, odds are you’ve received an e-mail from Kirk that was sent before sunrise — he’s often at his desk before 6:30 a.m., his alert fingers busy at the keyboard. “Typing is probably the most valuable course I had in school,” he says.

Yet it is Kirk’s penmanship that probably leaves the most indelible marks on his many friends, associates, acquaintances and family members. Most of NCCBI’s outgoing mail has Kirk’s signature, and in many instances at least a few hand-written words have been added, always with an Expresso, extra fine black ink pen. Further, he mails cards or handwritten notes by the dozens each month. At Christmas, only Santa Claus has a longer correspondence list.

“It’s one of the things that makes Phil special,” says Leslie Bevacqua, NCCBI’s vice president of governmental affairs. “Personal notes, to friends and colleagues to congratulate them on special events or notable achievements in their lives, or to encourage them when things may be a little tough, those go above and beyond. They very much speak to who he is.”

As far as Kirk can remember, he has had an endless supply of energy. The oldest of three children born to Phillip James Kirk Sr. and Geneva Bostian Kirk, he was raised in a small community in east Rowan County. “People ask me where I’m from and I tell them Salisbury,” he says. “If they know where Salisbury is, I tell them that I’m really from Granite Quarry. If they know where Granite Quarry is, I tell them I’m really from Dunn’s Mountain. And if they happen to know where Dunn’s Mountain is, which isn’t very often, I tell them about Bull Hill — that’s the crossroads where I grew up.”

His father worked third shift as a brakeman and conductor for Southern Railway, while his mother was the lunchroom manager at East Rowan High School. “We had to be real quiet at home during the day,” Kirk recalls. “We had responsibilities around the house that we had to do; both parents taught us the value of hard work.”

Numerous relatives lived nearby, many of whom taught at various schools. “We had lots of aunts and uncles in education,” he says, “and I’m sure that influenced me at least a little bit. And one memory I have growing up is visiting my grandfather Kirk, who ran a grocery store in a black neighborhood in East Spencer. I remember as a very little boy, maybe 6 or 7, selling candy in that store. I didn’t get paid, but I got all of the candy that I could eat.”

Kirk has other fond memories. “Regardless of how much money we had, my father insisted that the family would go to Carolina Beach for a week every summer,” he recalls. “That was very special to all of us. Another neat thing was that we could ride the train free, and I remember going to New York to see baseball games at Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field.” 

Geneva made sure that Phillip, Ronald and Patricia attended Sunday school every week at the First United Church of Christ, where her oldest was an assistant teacher by age 12 — about the same time he decided what he wanted to be. “Until then I was going to be a minister,” he says. “Then I decided I was going to be a teacher. I didn’t feel like I had a lot of options — I knew, for instance, that I wasn’t going to be a good athlete.”

He discovered that when he was cut from a Little League baseball team that Ronald, two years his junior, had made. “My father had been a minor-league player who felt he was going to be called to the majors before he was drafted into World War II,” Kirk says. “While he was in the war, he hurt his knee and couldn’t play baseball any more.”

“When I didn’t make Little League, I thought my father would be disappointed. If he was, he never showed it. That always meant a lot to me, that he recognized there were other things that were just as or more important.”

One of those was hard work. The summer after he turned 13, he became an employee at McCanless Golf Club, logging 70 hours of work weekly for $20 in pay, splitting his time between the golf course and the adjacent swimming lake. “That was a lot of money back then,” he says.

By his last year at East Rowan, Kirk arguably was the busiest man on campus. The senior directory details an extraordinary eight lines of extracurricular activities, among them the debating club, public speaking club, student council, editor of the school newspaper, president of the Future Teachers Club, assistant typing teacher and recognition as the “most school spirited.” Fittingly, his chosen quote above his senior portrait read, “Nothing good was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”

He already had been accepted to Appalachian State University when Salisbury Post owner and publisher Jimmy Hurley came to the school one day. “He told me that he’d ‘let me’ work 40 hours a week and go to college if I’d go to Catawba,” Kirk says. “I had done some writing in high school for some daily newspapers, covering high school football and basketball, and had enjoyed it. And because my parents were going to have three in college at the same time, I decided to accept his offer.”

Kirk worked his way through college as a full-time reporter at the Post, remarkably graduating on time with his class in 1967 with a bachelor’s in English and secondary education. He taught journalism and English for two years at Knox Junior High, then was promoted to Salisbury High School.

While still teaching in 1970, he became, at 25, the youngest state senator in state history when he was elected to represent Rowan County. One day just a little more than a month after Kirk was re-elected in 1972, this time also from Davie and Davidson counties, the principal came to his classroom. “He said that Gov. (Jim) Holshouser was on the phone, and that he wanted to talk to me,” Kirk recalls. “The governor asked me to come help put his administration together. It meant that I had to resign from the legislature and from teaching school, but I thought it was the right thing to do.”

Holshouser was thrilled. “He was energetic and bright and he had the same passion that I did about some of the issues we would be facing,” he says. “Anything you needed done, Phil would do it.”

In 1976, Kirk became the youngest cabinet secretary in state history when he answered Holshouser’s request to serve as secretary of the Department of Human Resources. The following year, a new administration took control, and Kirk was out of a job. “Things were a lot more partisan around Raleigh then than they are today,” he says. “I did not even try for a job in the (Jim) Hunt administration, which is ironic considering what a good friend he’s become.”

“I had been Holshouser’s lieutenant governor,” Gov. Hunt remembers, “so I had a good view of Phil. I watched him and saw the kind of leader he was, particularly his energy and the enthusiasm for what he was doing. I knew he had the makings of being an exceptional leader.”

Others weren’t as perceptive. Kirk mailed more than 50 resumes, several of them to business leaders he considered friends. Only two or three even bothered to respond, and those didn’t bring offers of employment. “Not getting any kind of reply was devastating,” he says, “which is why now I always send a hand-written note back to someone who has sent a resume to me. I was unemployed for four months.”

At a friend’s suggestion, he took classes in the department of adult and community college education at N.C. State. “I had been out of college for 10 years, and I didn’t know what kind of student I would be,” he says. “But since I didn’t have a job, I had plenty of time to study and I was able to make two As.”

Kirk eventually took a job as vice president of operations for Moderncare Management Co., a nursing home management firm owned by Autry Dawsey of Whiteville, a longtime friend. “I think he felt sorry for me,” says Kirk, “but I also think he thought I’d do a good job.” Kirk wrote personnel manuals, developed brochures and handled public relations.

He’d been there only a few months when Gov. Hunt called and asked him to return to Raleigh. “The legislature had just passed a constitutional amendment allowing governors to serve two consecutive terms,” Kirk says. “He felt it was important to have a bipartisan campaign, so he asked me to be a co-campaign manager with Tom Lambeth, a Democrat who was head of Z. Smith Reynolds.”

Dawsey gave his OK, and after Hunt won in November, Kirk returned to Whiteville. But he didn’t stay long. Sen. Jim Broyhill, then serving in the U.S. House, asked Kirk to move to Washington, D.C., to serve as his administrative assistant, a stint that would last seven years. The day before he moved from Raleigh, he and Margaret Simmons went on a blind date to the Angus Barn.

“As strange as it sounds, we were set up by my first wife,” says Kirk. “Carolyn (Peck) ran the mansion for Mrs. Holshouser while I ran Gov. Holshouser’s office. We both worked extremely long hours and just sort of drifted apart. Carolyn called me in Whiteville and told me about Margaret. The first time I asked (Margaret) out, she turned me down — she said she was going to visit her mother. As reasons go, I guess that one was good. So we went to the Angus Barn, and the next day I left for Washington.”

He and Carolyn were the parents of two daughters, Angela and Wendi, and Kirk drove to Raleigh every other weekend to visit them and see Margaret. “We dated for five years before she said ‘yes,’” says Kirk of a marriage that has produced two daughters of their own, Ashlee and Allison.

Phil and Margaret moved back to Raleigh in November 1984 when he took a job as executive director of the transition team for Gov. Jim Martin. A month later, Martin asked him to serve a second time as secretary of the Department of Human Resources. “Those two tenures represented the best job I ever had, not because it was the largest department in state government (a billion-dollar budget and more than 18,000 employees), but because it was so involved with people,” he says. “There were more than 50 institutions in the department, and I felt like you could see that you were making a difference. For example, we got vending machines put into the (highway) rest areas, and I was proud to be a part of that. I also started the governor’s page program in 1973, which is ongoing today.”

Kirk was named Martin’s chief of staff in 1987, a position he held until 1989 when he was asked by a friend, Bryan Houck, to apply at NCCBI, which was looking for a leader to resuscitate an association that had fallen on hard times. “I was very familiar with NCCBI and the influence it had in state government,” he says. “That reputation, combined with the fact that it published the North Carolina magazine, made it an ideal job. I was reluctant to leave the Martin Administration with three years left, but this was a unique opportunity.”

NCCBI’s membership had dipped from 1,600 companies statewide to 1,100 and no retirement system for employees was in place. “The morale was somewhat low among staff,” Kirk recalls. “A lot of work needed to be done, but I thought there was a lot of potential.”

Today, NCCBI’s membership is around 2,000 after having peaked at 2,100, and the association represents 1.2 million employees in the state. One full-time and three part-time staff positions have been created. Further, NCCBI is highly visible throughout the state, its exposure enhanced during Kirk’s nearly six years as chair of the State Board of Education.

“I appointed him chair because we shared so many of the same views,” says Hunt. “He believed, like I do, that business and education go hand in hand. He was willing to do tough things to improve the high standards of education. He won’t give in just to get along — he stands up for what he believes in.”

It’s 5:45 a.m. and Kirk’s among those in a line of people waiting for the doors of Rex Wellness to open. One of his goals — he wrote down New Year’s resolutions for the first time — is to be there three mornings a week, walking on the treadmill and riding the stationary bikes, in part to work off the popcorn he’s eaten the night before at an N.C. State basketball game.

“During the past few years I’ve lost so many close friends and relatives that it’s made me look at my lifestyle,” he admits. “The events of Sept. 11 also have made me realize that every day and every hour is important, although there are many people who have heart attacks who don’t go at the pace I do.”

He is usually in bed by 10 p.m., and six hours of sleep sufficiently fills his tank. “I’d like to get more, but I just wake up. Years ago I used to just lay awake for a couple of hours, but I’ve realized that that’s a waste of time. I don’t get tired any easier now than I used to, but I have gotten more and more glad to see Friday afternoons get here.  I’m trying to learn to relax more — I find I have to plan my relaxation. I know it’s not ideal, but that’s the way I have to do things. I think I can change my habits, but I don’t think I can change the fact that I have to schedule those things.”

A passionate Wolfpack fan, he holds season tickets for football and basketball and has been known to call the school looking for the following year’s schedule just to get the games put on his calendar. He’s an ardent cook, particularly on weekends when he’s more likely to be in town. “Cooking is therapy for me — even the cleaning is,” he says. “I like it because you can see the end result. You cook, you eat and you clean it up. I don’t do fancy casseroles. I love fresh vegetables. I cook a lot of basic things.”

Regrets are few. “If I had it to do over again, I would have spent more time with my children when they were growing up,” he says. “I’m trying to do a better job with that now even though they’re older, and especially with my (three) grandchildren.”

Now, about those hand-written notes. Kirk says their origin dates to the eighth grade at Granite Quarry Elementary. “Jack Walters was the teacher,” he says. “There were more than 30 students in my class, and when the end of the school year came, he sent a hand-written letter personalized to each of us, telling us what we did well and how we could improve. It meant so much to me that he’d take the time to do that, and it’s stuck with me since.”

Hallmark has no better friend than Phil Kirk. “I have a calendar at home that has the (NCCBI) office birthdays, the family birthdays and the state Board of Education staff birthdays,” he says. A deacon at Ridge Road Baptist Church, he “has 12 families that I’m responsible for, so I have all of their birthdays, too.” Near the end of each month, he adds the birthday card list to a grocery shopping list. “I sign and address them all at one time, once a month,” he says, “and I put a sticky note on them with the date of when they need to be mailed.”

Sympathy notes were added to the mix after his father died in 1992 (his mother lives at Brighton Gardens in Raleigh). “It wasn’t an unexpected death — he had cancer,” Kirk says. “But I got more than 200 notes and/or cards, which just stunned me.”

He’ll be the first to admit that he’s occasionally stubborn and demanding and at times a micro-manager.  More so, he’s a genuinely nice man, one whose core is so solid, whose goodness so deep, that decades of 70-hour work weeks have failed to dampen his enthusiasm or harden his heart. Among his vast significant accomplishments, that may be most significant of all.

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Last Modified: March 01, 2004
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