Inside Track: Leader prevails despite the odds
Kitchens rises from poverty and dyslexia to carve out a career creating jobs.
When Ron Kitchens was elected alderman in his hometown at age 21, he had never heard the term “economic development.” But he had already decided the greatest force for change in this world is a job.
Kitchens — now CEO and senior partner at Southwest Michigan First in Kalamazoo — was born in poverty to teenage parents, Ron Kitchens Sr. and Judy Kitchens, in Los Angeles.
Neither parent attended high school, and his father suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia that prevented him from learning to read. Working since the age of 12 to support his widowed mom and sister, then his wife and two sons, Ron Kitchens Sr. died at the age of 20 in a foundry accident when Kitchens was 4 and his brother, John, was 2.
When Kitchens was 5, his family then moved to Ozark, Missouri, where his mother had relatives. They moved back and forth between Missouri and California so many times that Kitchens attended 13 different schools before sixth grade.
Eventually, he was diagnosed with a form of dyslexia in which he sees words as pictures instead of as individual letters, making spelling and word recall difficult but gifting him with the ability to spot patterns.
Bereft of her husband and with no education, Judy Kitchens supported her sons mostly on welfare throughout their childhood.
Kitchens said he feels fortunate this hardscrabble existence had positive outcomes for him.
“Without a lot of adult examples, you learn to be your own guide. So, I learned to study what others do. And I had great advice along the way: ‘Look and see how successful people act, react, how they spend their money, what they do with their lives and then look at how you can implement that in your own life,’” he said.
While attending a Future Farmers of America competition at Southwest Missouri State University — now Missouri State University where Kitchens eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in public administration — high school age Kitchens decided to check out the library, where he encountered The New York Times for the first time.
As he picked it up, the paper fell open to the weddings section, and Kitchens was fascinated to see so many seemingly wealthy, successful people. He saw patterns emerge in case after case. The couple went to college, their parents went to college, they served on boards and they had professions.
Kitchens talked his local library in Ozark into getting a subscription to the Sunday New York Times so he could read the weddings section — and the other parts — every week.
“It showed me, oh, these people — if this is the premier newspaper in the premier city in America — what do their lives look like? How did they get there? Where are their parents? … It kicked me off on this life of looking and researching and observing and going, ‘OK, I know how to make that process work in our own organization or see value in it for my own life,’” Kitchens said.
“I think that’s one of the biggest skills I developed, and it really has served me. If you made me claim a superpower, that would be my superpower.”
At the age of 18, Kitchens was planning to play college football on scholarship until a knee injury sidelined him. With tough talk and help from a mentor, he decided to work while going to college part time and stick with it until he finished, so he could have a better life.
That mentor and several others helped him go into business while he studied. He bought Gas Shack Inc. convenience stores in Ozark, and for the next six years, built it into a global wholesale business.
During that time, he looked around his hometown and saw another pattern — friends leaving and not coming back after college because there were no jobs.
“I didn’t know what to do about it, but I couldn’t imagine that there wasn’t something that could be done,” Kitchens said.
There was a city council election — or board of aldermen, as Ozark calls it — and Kitchens decided to run without ever having been to a city council meeting.
“I thought, ‘Well, it must be government that’s supposed to fix this.’ So, I marched myself down and got the application, I went to the local café at lunch, I got 20 people to sign my application to run for council, I went back to turn it in, and I was on the ballot.”
Kitchens said he “won by a landslide,” then added with a grin that he ran unopposed.
After serving three two-year terms as an alderman, he ended up as president of the council and mayor pro tem.
“It was this great experience of learning that government could create an opportunity for jobs but couldn’t really create them,” Kitchens said. “I learned that business could create them, but there needed to be more done. The government doesn’t have all the resources to do it.”
With that in mind, having already sold his business, he left Ozark and went to Warsaw, Missouri, where he developed that city’s first economic development department, staying from 1991-95.
Now, three decades later, Kitchens still is passionate about one goal: creating jobs. A glass plaque opposite the elevator at the Southwest Michigan First economic development agency reads: “The greatest force for change is a job.”
“That’s what I’ve dedicated my life to,” he said. “It became really clear to me that we can take business, government and philanthropy — and philanthropy is really community — and merge those together to create a virtuous circle. That means that we’re going to create jobs for people wherever people are at.”
Kitchens didn’t always have a handle on the path to sustainable job growth. During his time as owner of Gas Shack, he told his mentor and banker he was excited to pay off his loan because it meant he could hire more people. The banker told him something he’ll never forget.
“He said, ‘You care more about jobs than you do about profit.’ And I said, ‘Oh, now you finally get me!’” Kitchens said.
“He said, ‘I didn’t mean that as a compliment. I think that’s a problem. You’re going to leverage things, the economy will go bad, something will go wrong, and you’ll lose all of this, and everybody that you have hired is going to lose their jobs. We have to find you something where you can do what you’re great at and passionate about that doesn’t put other people at risk.’”
Fast forward 28 years and Kitchens has led economic development activities resulting in billions of dollars of investment and tens of thousands of jobs in Warsaw and Moberly, Missouri; Corpus Christi, Texas; and Kalamazoo.
In 2010, he founded Catalyst University, a leadership development company under the Southwest Michigan First umbrella that has trained more than 60,000 leaders.
For Southwest Michigan First, he also oversees a blog and a podcast on leadership and 269 Magazine, which tells “the region’s positive success stories surrounding business expansions, entrepreneurship, leadership, philanthropy and quality of life.”
This year, he authored a book, “Uniquely You: Transform Your Organization by Becoming the Leader Only You Can Be.”
Kitchens said in the field of economic development, the phrase “A rising tide lifts all boats” often is repeated, but it’s not always true.
“If you don’t make sure that you’re lifting everyone up into excellence, everyone into capacity building and you aren’t integrating everyone together — if a community isn’t great, if local government isn’t great or schools aren’t great — businesses will move, the jobs will move and everything will collapse. … Everybody’s interdependent.”