East magazine Winter 2008 edition
Alumni Profile


Long-Term Interest

By Steve Tuttle


elly S. King ’70 ’71 has done pretty well for someone who still has the same job he landed right out of college. He’s still working for BB&T, except the little farm-lender in Wilson he joined after completing his MBA has grown to become the 11th-largest bank in the nation. And he doesn’t really have the same job. He started as a management trainee and now he’s president and chief operating officer, the No. 2 guy in a company with 30,000 employees.

He still hangs outs with two of his best friends from college. Of course, it would be hard not to bump into them because they also are BB&T executives. In fact, it was King and his two ECU buddies—plus a UNC Chapel Hill alumnus named John Allison and a Wake Forest grad named Scott Reed—who are credited with transforming the sleepy bank they all joined right out of college into the financial powerhouse it is today, growing from $250 million in assets then to $128 billion now.

Besides King, the ECU members of the “Fab Five,” as business writers dubbed the team that transformed BB&T, are W. Kendell Chalk ’68 ’71, who now serves as senior executive vice president and chief credit officer; and Henry Williamson Jr. ’68 ’71, who rose to become chief operating officer of the bank before taking early retirement in 2004.

“For 30 years we basically ran the company and for 20 plus ran it as a team,” King says as he gazes out the window of his office atop the BB&T tower in downtown Winston-Salem. “[Working with them has] been kind of like being in a small company, seeing a small company grow up and change.”

“Grow up and change” doesn’t adequately describe what the Fab Five accomplished. Just since 1989, BB&T has acquired 60 community banks and thrifts, more than 85 insurance agencies and 34 nonbank financial services companies. In that time BB&T evolved from a regional bank serving mainly eastern North Carolina to one whose footprint stretches from Baltimore to Key West, Fla. The bank how operates more than 1,500 financial centers in 11 states and the District of Columbia.

And King, who turned 59 in September, says the best may still lie ahead—for him and the bank.

Determined to succeed
Kelly King knew exactly where he wanted to go and how to get there when he walked off a tobacco farm in Zebulon, 10 miles north of Raleigh, and onto the East Carolina campus. A tall, lanky kid with a determined look in his eye, he had been preparing for college since grade school. He realized then that going to college would require him to take two jobs. One job would be to earn enough money to help his parents pay tuition; his other job was earning the top grades that would ensure he would be accepted.

“I had to borrow money and work to be able to go to school. Most weekends I went back home because I had a good job with a guy who ran a hardware store. I had all sorts of jobs to earn money when I was at East Carolina. I even sold vacuum cleaners. So I didn’t have a big social life.

“I enjoyed the academic side of college, the organizations like Omicron Delta Epsilon, the economics honor society. But the most meaningfully one was the Phi Sigma Pi national honor fraternity. Dr. Richard Todd was the faculty chair of Phi Sigma Pi, and it was just a good, wholesome experience. He always took the students under his wing. He and his wife would have the members of the fraternity over to their house; they were just like grandparents. It was a neat group of people.”

Todd taught history at East Carolina for 27 years before retiring in 1977. He and his wife provided financial aid to support 27 scholarships, fellowships and financial aid programs. Todd Dining Hall on College Hill is named for him and his wife.

King completed his BS degree in business at the top of his class and immediately entered the MBA program. “I knew all along I wanted to be in business. My inclination was I would go into marketing or sales. When I finished my MBA and started interviewing, I had offers with Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble and with the [federal General Accounting Office].”

But his friend Henry Williamson suggested a different possibility. “Henry had a connection to BB&T. He said to me ‘why don’t you interview with those guys.’ So I did and got a [fourth] job offer. Henry was offered a job there as well.

“But I was confused about which job to take. I talked to Fernie James, who was the placement director at ECU for many years.

I asked him what should I do. And he gave me great advice. He said, ‘Son, you should go to work for the company that has the kind of people you want to work with the most. You will like it better and be more successful.’ I said that makes sense and on that basis I picked BB&T.”

King and Williamson started work at BB&T in Wilson within 30 days of each other. Four years later they were joined by Chalk, another friend from ECU, who had been teaching at a community college since completing his MBA. Among King’s first acquaintances on the job were Allison, who had just gotten his MBA from UNC Chapel Hill, and Reed, fresh out of Wake Forest University’s MBA program.

King and his two ECU buddies, plus their two new friends, settled into the comfortable, routine life of small-town bankers. But it was a life and a lifestyle that was about to end.

Henry Williamson, Kendall Chalk and Kelly King at ECU’s BB&T Leadership Center
Kelly King on leadership

From remarks he gave recently to students at ECU’s BB&T Leadership Center

“What’s really interesting is how all of us [himself, Williamson and Chalk] stayed together all these years. Every one of them could have, and I’m sure probably did have, opportunities to become CEOs of companies a long time ago. But every person was willing to subordinate personal gain and personal fame to the team. There really was [a sense that] you’re here to achieve for the team, for the good of the whole family. And over and over and over again, I’ve seen times when people on that team, and others in our company, would do the right thing for the company, would do the right thing for the team, and it would not necessarily be in their best interest. And the irony of that I’m certain is, if you really do genuinely, in your heart, care about the success of others and if you really do care about and commit to a team to be successful, the team will be more successful and you’ll be more successful, too. But if you start out trying to manage for your own success and your own personal career at all costs, you will likely not do nearly as well in life as you could. And I can just about guarantee, you won’t be as happy in life as you could be.”
Revolutionary times
By the late 1970s King could sense that the world of banking was about to undergo a sea change. Industry trends were pointing toward consolidation, pushed by customer demand for more diverse banking services. King and the other young guns who had started their careers together began questioning whether BB&T would survive. Those concerns were on King’s mind when a rare opportunity presented itself. It was 1980, and King had been promoted to city executive in Raleigh. CEO Thorne Gregory dropped by King’s office one day to ask how things were going. “Not good,” he told the boss.

“We thought the company had to change to survive. We felt we weren’t going anywhere, and that it was not a good place for us to stay.” Gregory listened carefully and then set up a meeting with Allison, Chalk, King, Reed and Williamson to hear their suggestions. “We told him that if we remained stuck in eastern North Carolina, dependent on farming, pretty soon [BB&T] would be out of business. So it was about growth and diversification.

“Within 30 days he made some pretty big changes. He promoted John Allison [to president] and John became our leader in implementing these changes. We began diversifying and growing and continued on that path from that day forward.”

It was a gamble whose risks King only now appreciates. “As we started moving into Winston-Salem and Greensboro and Wilmington and Durham, and our business grew, we knew then [the growth strategy] was going to work. We didn’t have any doubts. We were very confident but in retrospect I guess we were cocky, which isn’t a great quality, but we were never in doubt. We should have been, but we weren’t.”

One reason the gamble on growth paid off is King and his colleagues stuck to BB&T’s long-standing philosophy of serving the community. During the early 1990s when King ran BB&T’s Raleigh operations he seemed to be always involved with worthy causes. He chaired the N.C. Rural Center, the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, the Triangle United Way and the N.C. Bankers Association. He even volunteered with the Raleigh Little Theater.

The theater “was the last thing I thought I would get involved with. But they offered some unique youth programs. It became clear to me that one of the things about theater is it stimulates creativity; when you are acting you are being creative. I thought it was neat for the young people to get that experience. Creativity is a very scarce commodity; that’s why I did that.”

In 1995 BB&T merged with Southern National Bank and moved its headquarters to Winston-Salem. King, Williamson and Chalk continued their rise up the corporate ladder as the bank spread into Virginia, Georgia and several other states. Williamson retired in 2004 as COO and King stepped up to fill the shoes of his old college pal.

Despite the pressures of their jobs, King, Williamson and Chalk remained loyal to ECU and gave generously of their time. Williamson co-chaired the $50 million Shared Visions fund-raising campaign in the mid 1990s. Chalk served on the Board of Trustees for several years. King chaired the Board of Visitors. The three were instrumental in creating the BB&T Center for Leadership in the College of Business. The center was established in 1982 with a $250,000 gift from the bank that was followed by a $350,000 gift in 1991, a $250,000 gift in 1998 and a $1 million gift in 2005.

A country boy with a hammer’
Some executives play golf to relax. Kelly King likes to drive nails. “We bought a place on Lake Gaston about 20 years ago and since then I have loved going up there on weekends with the family and the kids and building things. I built a boat ramp and a deck.

My friends from work see me up there and they say, ‘You sure don’t look like a banker.’ And I tell them, ‘I’m just a country boy with a hammer.’”

Juli Jenkins can attest to King’s carpentry skills. She runs the John 3:16 Center, a nonprofit dedicated to helping poor kids from disadvantaged families in Warren County, the area near King’s lake house.

She met King one Sunday at a church service near the lake. “At the time I really didn’t know who he was. I was just looking for volunteers to help us build a building where we could offer our GED classes and other programs. He showed up with a tool belt on and started working, and he wasn’t afraid of the dirty work, either.

“After we got the main building finished, we needed more space because so many kids were coming. So we built an addition, and Kelly was right up there on a ladder, hanging sheetrock. He is a very giving person of his time and energy. He is very encouraging, always telling us ‘you’re doing a great job.’

“He’s given up a lot of his weekends to get us going and you can tell it really makes him happy to know we have this place where children can come and be safe. He really enjoys watching the children. That’s what puts a smile on his face.”

Thad Woodard, president of the N.C. Bankers Association, isn’t surprised that King would work so hard. “I know it is his personal mantra that, ‘if it is to be, it’s up to me.’ As long as I have known him,” Woodard continues, “Kelly was always the first person to step forward and take the responsibility when something important was at stake.”

King divorced and remarried 25 years ago. His son, Ken, 29, works in corporate banking for Bank of America in Charlotte. Daughter Mary Ann, 22, is a senior at Appalachian State University.

He plans to remain at BB&T until he retires some years hence. “We have a lot of work left to do to develop our market, particularly in Florida. While we are a household name in North and South Carolina, we are not a household name down there. For right now we are focused on running a disciplined company. We want to continue being a high-quality, stable, conservative institution so that our shareholders don’t have to worry when bad times come around. The job isn’t done yet.”

In other words, he plans to keep his hammer and tool belt handy.