Spring! It’s the time of year I look forward to most of all. While I spend my weekdays working at the chamber, I look forward to those weekends when I can travel down to our family farm in Rock Hill and work in the garden that I have toiled in for almost five decades.
My passion for gardening began as a little boy when my Grandfather Russell first had me plant watermelon seeds in his garden. At the age of seven, I was creating little hills with my small hands, dropping in my precious seeds, and waiting for that day when I could plunge my fingers into a delicious Crimson Sweet.
Granddaddy didn’t confess up front all the work that went into harvesting that plump juicy melon. Instead, over the years, he broke me in slowly. By the age of 16, I was helping both Grandfathers (Russell and Feemster) with their gardens. Typically, on Good Friday (but never rotten Saturday), we planted our seeds and sometimes our plants that yielded the corn, tomatoes, beans, melons, squash, cucumbers, and peppers that we hopefully harvested later that summer.
A few weeks ago, I listened as a couple of local entrepreneurs shared the challenges they faced with their small business and I couldn’t help but realize the similarities between those aspiring entrepreneurs and any determined farmer.
First and foremost, it all starts with that single seed. For many entrepreneurs it might begin with a credit card and a dream sitting at a kitchen table. I still remember Jim Engel, the President of Aquesta Bank, sharing how the Lake Norman-based bank started in the basement of his home. Like most entrepreneurs, he began with a vision, surrounding himself with a close knit team, facing challenge after challenge, on their journey to success.
Both the farmer and the entrepreneur will put in long hours and hard work and for a farmer the heat, weeds, and critters will challenge you every step of the way.
Bill Russell working the garden.
Farmers can usually recount the one good year versus all the bad. They must be patient and optimistic, realizing that perhaps next year can be better than this year.
As a farmer, you pray for good weather, and in some years it seems, the sweat and tears were about the only moisture that kissed the soil that whole summer. Yet, the risks should never be obstacles from pursuing your dream. They are merely steps along the way and we learn from each and every one.
Entrepreneurs face a new challenge every day. Challenges which require perseverance and creativity. There are no shortcuts to success. Instead, they toil each day, creating new relationships, and nurturing existing ones.
Perhaps there is no better example of entrepreneurship than Tom and Vickie VanWingerden who immigrated to Huntersville from The Netherlands. They started their business in 1972 with a 20,000 sq. ft. greenhouse on Old Statesville Rd. That 1 acre plastic covered structure has blossomed today into Metrolina Greenhouses which employs 725 people year round and another 600 seasonally. It is also largest single-site heated greenhouse in the United States at 162 acres under roof. Quite an accomplishment for a farmer and entrepreneur!
My grandfather was never a wealthy man. Just an old country farmer who toiled from sun up to sun down. Yet, he taught me a great deal – not just about farming, but life. Anyone can plant a seed, but it takes a farmer or an entrepreneur to envision what it can become. It takes passion, perseverance, and yes, luck. But in the end, the fruit of our labor is the harvest of hope.
Bill Russell, Huntersville
The above post ran as a column “Idea Exchange” in the March 29, 2017 issue of The Lake Norman Citizen Newspaper page 33.
The uncharacteristically warm days these past few weeks had me climbing into the attic to retrieve my summer clothes in anticipation of the spring and summer days ahead. Grabbing what I thought to be a box of summer shirts, turned out instead to be old scrapbooks and albums.
Mrs Hope – First Grade Class Finley Road Elementary, Rock Hill, SC 1966
Feeling nostalgic, I found myself perusing through a worn binder filled with grade school pictures and most of my early report cards. I laughed when I read the comments from my first and second grade teachers who cited “Billy is much too talkative” and “Billy is a really busy boy,” which was polite southern speak for “Billy simply cannot stay in his seat!”
The truth is I was a very bad student in elementary school and there is a real place in heaven for those teachers whose patience was extremely taxed teaching such an immature and talkative kid. It was not until high school that I hit my stride and found a love of history, political science, and writing. I have to admit, there are times I wish I could go back and thank those women who persevered with me. I wish I could express my gratitude to Mrs. Hope and Sellers whose names I still fondly recall fifty years later.
Education is the foundation of our economic and business development at the lake. Perhaps no single issue impacts commerce more than our workforce development. The strength of our American economy hinges on our public and private school systems as well as post-secondary education and vocational training.
Recently in a Chamber meeting of Corporate CEO’s and entrepreneurs, they pointed to a lack of a skilled workforce as a challenge to their success. They stressed it is critical that we develop our talent and prepare our young people who will soon enter the workforce.
This Thursday, March 16th, the Lake Norman Chamber will have an opportunity to hear from both our current and incoming Charlotte Mecklenburg School Superintendents when we host our Education PowerLuncehon at NorthStone Country Club. It will be an opportunity to thank Dr. Ann Clark for her service as well as welcome new School Board leader Dr. Clayton Wilcox.
The following day, Friday, March 17th, the Chamber will host a Focus Friday with our area Charter and Private Schools at the Chamber. Both events are a chance to hear how our educational leaders are developing our future employees.
This past week we have held School Career Fairs at both Pine Lake Prep (3/7) and Hough High School (3/8). It was a chance for area businesses to meet with students and help them prepare for their vocational future.
Future Business Leaders of America – Hough High School
Joseph Addison once said, “I consider the human soul without education like marble in a quarry, which shows none of its inherent beauties until the skill of the polisher fetches out the colors and makes the surface shine.”
Looking at those handwritten notes from my teachers brought a bright smile to my face and a little tug on my conscience. We can all mentor a student, provide a business internship, participate in a career fair, and donate to a school fundraiser. That is the responsibility we have to the future and the obligation we all have to the past.
The above column appeared in The Lake Norman Citizen (March 1, 2017 page 39) as Take Time to Mentor a Mind of the Young.
Bill Russell and John Kurti at a Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce AfterHours Event
Once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky, the Lord will place someone in your life who makes a lasting impression. Someone who quietly goes about their life’s work with little fanfare, yet leaves you in awe of the impact he or she makes on the lives in a community. John Kurti was such a man.
I met John in the late 1990’s when he owned a Mail Box, Etc store here at the lake. Somewhat like Sam in the old TV series “Cheers”, John would greet his customers with a smile. He wasn’t a man who simply mailed parcels – he knew you by name and you left assured your special package was in good hands.
John opened and sold several of the franchise stores and in doing so garnered a keen insight of how to market and manage a small business. Later, he served as a SCORE Counselor, the Small Business Group, who gives critical advice to both startup and existing small businesses. John often met his clients at the Lake Norman Chamber where I had the opportunity to watch him in action. He didn’t just impart lessons in entrepreneurship. He left his clients with the assurance that someone was in their corner. John cared and it showed.
John Kurti served three terms on the Lake Norman Chamber Board; longer than any other person in our 30 year history. He was also a founding board member of Visit Lake Norman and served that organization for 16 years before health issues plagued his final months.
John was not just a mentor, board member, and friend. He was often my roommate on chamber trips to Raleigh for Governor’s conferences and to Washington for legislative briefings. John was also one of three other chamber business leaders who accompanied me to Washington DC on a day none of us will ever forget – September 11, 2001. We heard news from then Senator Lieberman that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. Moments later, while exiting one of the Capital buildings, we watched in disbelief and confusion as black smoke billowed from the Pentagon and the nation’s capital was filled with panic and fear.
The four of us drove the ten long hours back home in silence, wondering how life in America had changed. John, himself a past Israeli Air Force officer, was no stranger to the face of terror. He reassured each one of us that life would go on, and our country would emerge stronger – and it did.
2002 Chamber Board Chair Chris Angelino and Karen, 1999 Board Chair Scott Hinkle and Business Growth Chair John Kurti
John had dealt with health issues for many months prior to the day he made his triumphant return to the weekly North Meck Rotary Club meeting. As his presence was recognized, members applauded. His face filled with pride as he waved an arm high in the air signaling his deep appreciation and his return to our club. There were hugs, laughter, and love as the Rotary friends he cherished all shared how much he had been missed. John had previously served as our club president, and his passion for truth, fairness, and service above self, knew no bounds.
Perhaps that was God’s gift to both John and his friends that day. One last chance to say how much we loved each other. One more hug before we said goodbye. Later, John passed peacefully away – just moments after our Rotary Club meeting ended. Just after the last toast and the last rap of the gavel. Now we all know, it signaled not only an end to the meeting, but a close to a chapter.
All of us would like to think our lives matter. That we changed hearts, righted wrongs, brought peace to those who struggle, and strength to those who fear. That we used the talents God gave us to make this community and our world just a little bit better. John Kurti did that and more.
I know one thing for certain. He left this world knowing how much he meant to all of us at Rotary. I also have little doubt that he was greeted by his father in heaven, who took John by the hand, with the words we should all long to hear…..”Well done my faithful servant… well done!”
January is a month of new beginnings. Some of us may head into the New Year lamenting the fact we came up short in our goals for 2016. Others of us plunge into the gym and say to ourselves this is the year I am really committed to getting in shape. Perhaps as a business owners, we look at 2017 as the year we will turn the corner and have “Our best year ever!”
Regardless of whether we were successful in hitting benchmarks set in the past or we came up short in our personal or professional goals, now is the chance to have a clean slate ahead and recognize that often the only limitations we have… are those we impose upon ourselves.
In 2017, the Lake Norman Chamber will focus on the entrepreneur – those men and women who shirk the traditional boundaries and institutions with a vision of creating something unique and innovative. It is that very spirit of entrepreneurship that has shaped the Lake Norman business community allowing us national accolades in magazines and media outlets. Whether it is a recognition as the most desirable suburban community, a great place to do business, or simply one of North Carolina’s Top Towns – it starts with a common vision and a commitment to fulfilling that goal.
As we work to create programs that foster entrepreneurship, we also acknowledge our 30th Anniversary as the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce. Our chamber was started in 1987 by business leaders with vision who saw our community, not just as it was, but the region that it could become.
I recently asked Lake Norman Chamber founder John Cherry, “Is the 1,000 member organization we have today, what you and the other business leaders envisioned three decades ago?” John replied, “We knew our real strength was working together. The Chamber has always been more than a networking group hosting seminars. It is an organization that promotes our story to other regional business and elected leaders to achieve our mutual objectives.”
At the Chamber’s upcoming Annual Gala on Friday, January 20th, we will recognize extraordinary individuals, businesses, and organizations who are shaping the very fabric of our regional community. That same day, we will also host Focus Friday with area nonprofits to discuss how we can work together to be the change necessary to tap the hidden talents of our citizens which elevate communities from good to great.
Howard Schultz, the chairman and CEO of Starbucks said, “I believe life is a series of near misses. A lot of what we ascribe to luck is not luck at all. It’s seizing the day and accepting responsibility for your future. It’s seeing what other people don’t see and pursuing that vision.”
Schultz would tell you, a successful entrepreneur may not even be able to count their failures. They simply regard their challenges as a stepping stone in their eventual journey to success.
As we all embark on a new year filled with unbridled opportunities, we will certainly be faced with near misses and perhaps a setback along the way. The great news is we don’t have to accept any short coming as a limit to our success.
2017 can be a year of renewed vision and commitment where there is simply no limit in what we can accomplish by working hard, working smart, and most importantly working together.
In the end, … it’s all up to us!
Last weekend, a longtime friend called to inform me she was moving to Colorado and hoped we could get together again before she made that trek out west.
Jill was one of the first people I met at the lake when I took over the helm of the Chamber in 1996. She and I could not have been more different in our political philosophies. She was a diehard progressive and I was clearly a conservative when it came to my beliefs and values. Yet, our love of the Lake Norman community and the potential of this region transcended our partisan differences.
As a reporter for the only newspaper in the area at the time, Jill and I were both involved in many of the milestone events for our area, such as the groundbreaking of the “New” Exit 25 on I-77 and the grand opening of Birkdale. Since she also served as president of the Lake Norman Jaycees and was active in both the Chamber and Rotary, she and I interacted a great deal over two decades.
As we sat together on her last weekend in town, we lamented how partisan, bitter, and angry politics have turned both nationwide and locally. Ironically, we also both remarked how glad we are that it will soon come to an end – at least until next fall! We spent the next two hours reminiscing friends we have lost here at the lake and celebrating how things have grown and prospered since we first met over 20 years ago.
As we started to say our goodbyes, almost on cue – a beautiful Lake Norman sunset burned brightly in the sky above The Port City Club. We watched as the sun slowly sank below the cool waters, glistening orange and yellow as the day gave way, surrendering to twilight.
We hugged one last time and she left for her new life out west. Driving home, I was reminded that during this season of Thanksgiving, how very fortunate and thankful I am to all of the many people like Jill who have profoundly shaped our community and my life. And, how much better the Lake Norman region is because of these remarkable individuals. I am also very thankful that unemployment is down, our local real estate market is thriving, and commerce is strong. The chamber continues to introduce new businesses to the Lake Norman market, engage new members and benefit from the immense dedication of our volunteers. For these things, we are immensely grateful!
Recently, the Chamber held a Public Safety Luncheon where we saluted our local Police, Fire, and First Responders for keeping our families and businesses safe. While riots and protests ensued just a few miles down the road, our communities were safe! For that and for the services this special group provides each day, we should all be relieved and thankful!
We also celebrate the growth of our Lake Norman Chamber Young Professionals who celebrate their second anniversary this month! This group is growing as we see more and more young adults get involved in their community. America can feel the power of her young people and nowhere is that more evident than Lake Norman.
Last month, we called on local businesses to help our Lake Norman Education Collaborative and you responded recognizing the need for businesses to partner with our public education. Thank you!
While I am thankful the campaign season is coming to a close – I am also very grateful to the men and women who both serve and those who seek political office.
As I watched Jill walk away, it occurred to me sometimes it’s the smallest of things and the people who have touched your life you cherish most of all. You may not remember all they said, perhaps not all they did, but you remember how they made you feel and the impact they have had on your life. It really is a lot to be thankful for.
On September 7th, I’ll be 57! To celebrate this milestone in my life, I have accepted the North Mecklenburg Rotary Club’s ZERO K Challenge. I know many of you are asking why undertake such an arduous challenge so late in life. Sure – it’s going to take some extra training to get into shape, to get my mind prepared, and not just compete – but actually take the Gold in the ZERO K.
That said, I am reminded of the Rotary Credo – Service Above Self. Sure, I could stay at home, preparing if not already getting started for the Carolina – Miss State Tailgating the following Day – September 10th. But you simply have to put community service first.
In a way, I have been preparing for this event most of my adult life. When some of my friends were running 3K, 5K, 10K… and yes, some competing in the Iron Man Marathon – I decided long ago I didn’t desire to be an Iron Man – I wanted to be a Sixty Minute Man.
While my buddies were out pounding the pavement in their sneakers, I was sitting back with a cold Brew listening to the Tams, the Catalinas, the Embers… and yes, the General himself and Chairman of the Board. Rather than sweaty socks and running shoes – I much preferred the sand under my feet, shagging to the tunes of my favorite beach music with a Carolina Girl.
I don’t take the Zero K Challenge lightly. I have already begun the difficult training required for the event which takes place September 9th 5:30-9 pm at the Oak Street Mill in Cornelius.
It begins which proper nourishment – a fried Bologna sandwich (three slices – extra thick) with Duke’s Mayonnaise piled high. It’s necessary to properly coat both sides of your bread with at least 4 to 5 teaspoons of the Pride of the South! I top it off with fresh jalapeno peppers and tomatoes from my garden and two slices of Vidalia onion. The onions and peppers should also be fried up in virgin olive oil. I use my Gandmother Feemster’s cast iron skillet to give it just that special flavor. Texas Pete also gives it a robust kick. Several splashes are recommended.
A good fried up bologna sandwich should be chased by a smooth brown liquor drink. For my northern friends who are unfamiliar with the term brown liquor – I mean a great bourbon. In this case, I’m training with Russell’s Reserve. No – its not my special bourbon but one that I really like – a single barrel bourbon from the fine folks at Wild Turkey. Some may ask would Jack Daniels work just as well?
Perhaps, but for training purposes I think bourbon over whiskey to get the mind right. Other preferred bourbons: Jefferson Small Batch, Woodford Reserve or Knob Creek to get the blood flowing.
Not everyone can expect to reach their maximum endurance in their first ZERO K and I don’t take it lightly. My experience in Pi Kappa Phi Fraternity at Winthrop and the United States Jaycees have helped prepare me for this moment – and yes, I feel up to the task. Many are called – but few are chosen.
So yes, I am competing – and I will take home the Gold in the first annual North Meck Rotary Club ZERO K Fundraiser to help raise awareness for the 9/11 Monument.
John Kepner, the president of our Rotary Club wholeheartedly supports my rigorous training and diet for the event. John might I add is also the owner of one of two Huntersville Funeral Homes and Crematoriums and he along with Sam James deeply appreciates the business.
So – are you up to the challenge? If so, Join us – you can register for the ZERO K here.
Ask anyone who knows me well and they will likely tell you I am a creature of habit. A typical work day begins with cups of coffee, looking through email, scanning the headlines of various news sites before I turn to social media and catch up with the unfiltered discussions of the day.
Last Friday was a day like many others as I perused Face Book, looking over the rants on I77, comments on the new Beach at Ramsey, and upcoming events over the weekend. I also took note of the birthdays and sent notices to those who were celebrating their special day.
That night was the annual Symphony at McGuire and for those of you who went, you may recall the brief intermission taken to allow for the bad weather to pass. I took that opportunity to check out Face Book on my phone and there, among the many posts, was one which said that Donna Mitchell was losing her fight with cancer. She was one of those who I had written happy birthday earlier that morning.
It was perhaps fortunate that the darkness had fallen on McGuire as the symphony began to play again. It hid the anguish on my face and the tears which filled my eyes.
I wasn’t particularly close to Donna or her sister Tabetha, though both are chamber members. They joined a couple of years ago with their business Cork & Canvas and celebrated their ribbon cutting at the Chamber.
It was on a January night last year that the two ladies sauntered up to my table at a Lake Norman restaurant and presented me with a cup of mint chocolate chip ice cream. Donna explained they were celebrating Donna’s daughter’s birthday. It was something they did each year to remember Destin who passed away in a tragic car accident a few years ago.
Last fall, I read a post on Face Book from Donna as she shared they had found cancer and she was being treated at Novant here in Huntersville. I asked Tabetha would it be okay to drop by and she indicated Donna would love it.
When I poked my head into the room, Donna was hooked up to an IV Machine. She apologized for how she looked as the chemo had taken a toll on her long locks of golden hair. But what I saw was the radiant smile that I remembered each time that we had met.
We spent the next hour talking about the highs and lows of life. Her low – the tragic death of her daughter. The pain of losing a child and the grief she carried. She had stopped painting, a gift she inherited from her father. But it was the love of her sister Tabetha who encouraged her to move to the lake and start a business with her that filled her life again.
Donna’s love of painting and Tabetha’s entrepreneurial spirit launched the Cork and Canvas painting parties as the two sisters helped people around the lake find their hidden talents.
Then the unexpected – the unwelcomed thief who steals moments and brings pain – cancer.
I followed Donna’s ordeal mostly through her posts on Face Book. When I recently read she was at Wake Forest and undergoing treatment, I thought about stopping by on my visits to Raleigh. But like so many of us, time also seemed to get in the way. Maybe next time!
On June 1st, I read a post where she spoke of her challenge and how much she appreciated the support of so many. I sent her a personal email encouraging her and reminding her she was in our prayers. She thanked me and then sent the little Smiley Face emoticon. That was our last chat and looking back, I cannot help but think how appropriate. It’s the smile I do remember the most.
The painter’s hands are resting now. Her canvass is complete. A life filled with the bright bold colors of love in the lives she touched and the light pastels that spoke to her lows. Donna was a wife, a mom, a sister, a daughter… and yes a painter. Her illness cut short our time together but it left a portrait not of an unfinished life, but a bright splendid painting of triumph over adversity and the realization to seize every moment with broad bold strokes.
Our last words at Novant was for her to get better so she could teach me to paint. Looking back on that moment, I realize she taught me much more than that. It was really a lesson in how to live.
We come to you with deep humility… in realization by your hands…. all things are made possible.
We give thanks for the challenges of our past which give rise to our entrepreneurship and innovation.
Give us clarity today that we might hear from other’s success.
Provide us vision – to see not what is JUST before us but what can be – when we work hard, work smart, and work together
Let us find confidence in rejection; purpose in our failure; patience in our trials;
AND success in our perseverance.
We ask all this in your name.