Who Is Randy Boyd? Knoxville’s Least-Known Animal-Loving Multi-Millionaire Business Magnate Philanthropist.

In Cover Stories, News by Mike Gibson7 Comments

Consider the life of Knoxville business man Randy Boyd. But do so carefully, because there’s an awful lot to assimilate.

Boyd is an animal-loving multi-millionaire business magnate philanthropist who, by the way, owns a minor league baseball team, climbs mountains, runs marathons, and works for the governor. In discussing Boyd’s multi-faceted career, it’s easy to start off on one track, switch back onto another, only to wind up smack dab in the middle of some-place-else.

So maybe it’s best to start by sharing a Day in the Life of Randy Boyd. If for no other reason than his daily schedule offers a fair glimpse into most everything that is important to the former Radio Systems CEO and current Commissioner of Economic and Community Development for the state of Tennessee.

For Boyd, the day begins at 4:20 a.m.—that’s central time, as he’s been stationed in Nashville since the beginning of 2015, in his new role as state economic development czar. After taking Oscar—his year-old dachshund puppy, adopted from Young-Williams Animal Center—for a potty walk, it’s time for coffee and 45 minutes of email. Probably a communiqué, or three, from wife Jenny, back home in Knoxville (with three other pets), and Willie Wallace, the man who took over as CEO of Boyd’s Radio Systems in December of 2014.

By 5:30 a.m., Boyd’s morning workout has begun—he has home gym equipment set up in his Nashville apartment. It culminates with a 5-mile run, which keeps him in fighting trim for the 10 or so half- or full marathons he takes part in throughout the year. Then he’s in the office before 8, where he oversees a staff of 111, spread across the state. Most days, he leaves around 6 p.m., probably bound for “some kind of charitable or business event,” maybe an education fundraiser, or a Boy Scout function. Then it’s home again, hopefully in time for a 10:30 p.m. lights-out.

Boyd’s weekends are equally hyper-scheduled. He and Jenny trade off, meeting in either Knoxville or Nashville on alternate weeks. Sometimes there’s an out-of-state trip, maybe to one of the aforementioned distance races. And in-season, there’s usually a Tennessee Smokies baseball game, Boyd having bought the team from the Haslam family in 2013.

And that’s it, in a nutshell; or at least, as close to a nutshell as one can get in describing something as voluminous and unwieldy as Randy Boyd’s life—the life of a family man, pet parent, amateur athlete, team owner, business mogul, and burgeoning politico.

Did someone say politics? That discussion is unavoidable, given what is now his second role in the Bill Haslam gubernatorial administration. It’s led to speculation that Boyd might harbor political aspirations of his own, that maybe he has an eye on running for governor himself one day.

Local Republican pundit George Korda observes that Boyd is ideally situated, between his local renown and his recent appointments: “The best place to be is to have other people talking about you, without you having to talk about you.”

Boyd rejects the notion that he has any larger political aspirations. Mostly. “First, I’d need one vote, and I would not be able to get it,” he says, chuckling. “My wife would not support me.”

Yet somehow, that door still seems open, if only by a crack. Perhaps because the narrative of Boyd’s life seems to hold that there is always one more new project on the horizon, another mountain left to climb.

***

There are a few more things one should know about Randy Boyd—other than his schedule—all of which become evident over a few hours’ time, during a couple of audiences at the Jig & Reel, the Scots-themed Old City nightclub he and Jenny opened a few years ago at the corner of Jackson and Central.

Here is what you should know:

Boyd speaks in colorHe loves metaphors, catchphrases, buzzwords, pithy quotes. He talks about “B-HAGs” (Big Hairy Audacious Goals); “the power of empowerment”; “win-win-win solutions.” He’s full of illuminating little stories and anecdotes, all of which have that certain well-oiled quality that tells they’ve been shared a time or two before. Somehow, though, it never comes off as scripted.

Boyd is a cheapskate. Except when he is giving away millions of dollars.

As a college student at the University of Tennessee, back in the late 1970s (Boyd is now in his mid-50s), he took a full 22 hours most semesters, because, “like any cheap person would, I said, ‘You mean I can get 22 hours for the same price as 14? Well give me 22 hours then.” He also spent his first years of self-employment—with a sales and distribution operation in the mid-1980s that later morphed into Radio Systems—driving cross-country in an old van with no air conditioning, to save on gas expenditures.

Now a noted philanthropist, Boyd estimates his annual expenditures in helping disadvantaged students at Pond Gap Elementary School alone at roughly $200,000 per year. That includes air conditioning.

Boyd is neither an Eagle Scout, nor has he climbed Mount Everest“Those are the two most annoying questions that I always get,” he laughs. “And when I tell people ‘no,’ on both counts, and they look at me like, I’m sorry you’re such a failure.”

For the record, Boyd is a “Life for life,” Life being the rank just below Eagle in the Boy Scouts of America, an organization for which he has been a tireless advocate and volunteer.

As to the Everest question, Boyd explains that, “That’s kind of like asking someone who plays golf, ‘Oh, have you won the Masters?’ No, I haven’t won the Masters. I just play golf.”

Boyd does not believe in the dictum “Nice guys finish last.” Nor, by extension, does he believe that a treacherous heart is a prerequisite for success.

“I think the SOBs make the headlines because they are what they are,” he says. “But my feeling is that 95 percent of people who are successful do give back, and they are good people.”

Boyd is a Republican, but not much of an ideologue“I’m probably the most hated, disrespected, untolerated political entity in existence,” he says. “I’m a moderate.”

He supported Mitt Romney in 2012 (as a state co-campaign chair), but he refuses to take Barack Obama’s name in vain. For the record, he rates himself as “a fiscal conservative who believes that freedom should carry forward to social issues, too.” He is a staunch supporter of Common Core.

Boyd was there, finishing the race when the bombs went off at the end of the 2013 Boston Marathon.

He tears up twice during the course of two recent interviews—the first being a flickering moment of misty-eyed sadness over the memory of his first dog, Alex, a beloved childhood pet who went outside one morning and never came home.

The second and more intense episode comes on with his recall of the explosion, and the gut-wrenching agony of not knowing whether Jenny, waiting in the stands near the finish line, had been caught up in the blast radius. “There’s a rush of people around you, screaming, and everyone’s going away from the finish line,” he remembers. “But the biggest concern was my wife. She was supposed to be in the stands …

“And then you start rationalizing things. And you can’t make phone calls, because all the phones are jammed. So I went back to the hotel, hopeful that she’s there, and she’s not. And I still can’t call her.”

Jenny appeared back at the room 10 minutes later. “It was the scariest half hour of my life,” Boyd says. “Life is fragile.”

***

_DSC2373David Luttrell

As for the rest of Boyd’s life, the gory specifics of his ascent to benevolent moguldom, perhaps it’s best to begin as Boyd himself might begin—with a story. This one comes courtesy of Randy’s father, Tom Boyd, a successful businessman in his own right as founder of Fi-Shock industries, a long-running local electric fence outfit.

Tom Boyd set Randy to work at the Fi-Shock factory in his early teens—labor laws be damned—whereupon the enterprising youngster put his hand to nearly every job in the company at one time or another. Through college, he paid the rent working long weekend hours on the Fi-Shock assembly line.

“We had these molding machines in the warehouse,” Tom Boyd remembers. “Fifty-foot long machine, and your job was to pull a door open, replace the part that was inside, then shut it back. After that, the machine took about a minute to do its work. Meaning that if you were willing, you had time to do something else.”

Randy would study his college texts, Tom Boyd says, finishing homework as he manned the molding assembly line, studying for more than 45 seconds of every minute he stood at the press. “The way he saw it, why would you want stand still for nearly a minute,” Tom Boyd says. “He didn’t like to waste time.”

A South Knoxville native, Boyd was an overachiever from the start, a studious kid who made honor roll and played three or four sports in high school and carried on with multiple extra-curricular activities.

He graduated from Doyle High School a year early, at age 16, paid his way through UT—where he majored in industrial management—by working first on the Fi-Shock assembly line and then as a salesman for the company. He finished college early, too, at 19, a result of the heavy course loads, plus a few spring break correspondence classes tossed in for good measure.

His first job out of college was with dad—doing first international, and then stateside sales for Fi-Shock. Until 1983, when Tom gave him leave to go off on his own, try his hand with a product called Storm Alert, a tornado detection unit ventured by one of Fi-Shock’s customers.

With Storm Alert, Boyd learned an important business lesson. “It’s really difficult to create demand when there’s not any,” he laughs. “And nobody was demanding that product.”

But he learned something else, too—adaptability. With the tornado detection business foundering, Boyd decided to make a little money during down time by taking some Fi-Shock product on the road, selling on consignment to a handful of regional farm stores in search of a regular distributor.

Distribution proved a profitable venture—unlike the Storm Alert—and Boyd soon had purchased the aforementioned A.C.-free Dodge Maxivan for delivering product, and an old condemned tractor-trailer bed he converted into an office.

In the interest of thrift, he kept the company name—sort of—in order to avoid having to purchase new business cards or stationery. “We had been called the Storm Alert Company, but all the paperwork just said SACO,” Boyd says. “So I changed the name to Southern Agricultural Cooperative, Inc., and all the paperwork stayed the same.”

Boyd remembers his SACO sales pitch.

“We didn’t have any catalogs or brochures, but we sold these 18-quart plastic buckets,” he says. “So I’d fill a bucket full of product samples and go into the stores, and my schtick was I’d set my bucket down and say, I know my competition has fancy catalogs, but with me you don’t have to pay for fancy catalogs. All I’ve got is this bucket. And all the stuff is out in the van, so you don’t have to wait for freight. Then I’d quote a couple of prices that were exceptional.”

When he really wanted to impress: “I’d say we sold to 2,200 stores in 40 states. But the truth is that our revenue was only about $1.5 million. We were all just getting by.”

Then in 1989, one of his customers asked for something called the Invisible Fence, a sort of wireless pet fence.

So Boyd called up the Invisible Fence assistant sales VP, gave her the “2,200 stores in 40 states coast to coast” spiel. “She was very unimpressed,” he says. “She finally said, ‘Well, this is very interesting. Why don’t you write a letter explaining why you’d like to buy it from us. And maybe in six months, or maybe a year, we might call you back.’

“I still remembers thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to be able to be that arrogant to potential customers?’”

So rather than sell the Invisible Fence, he did the next best thing. The company’s patent was set to expire in one year. So Boyd says he purchased one of the systems, enlisted some friends, and sank his life savings ($26,000) into having the Invisible Fence reverse-engineered.

The Radio Systems fencing unit hit the market in 1991, and the rest is Knoxville business history. “Our goal was to sell 100 units a month at $250 each,” Boyd says. “The first month, we sold 3,000. In the first six months, we sold one million. We did five million the next year, and then nine, and 15.”

When Radio Systems hit $100 million in 2004—10 times the company’s 1994 sales level—Boyd set a goal to reach one billion in sales in 2015. It was one of those B-HAGs he loves to talk about, a Big Hairy Audacious Goal. Barring a freakishly successful year, the company will fall about $700-some-odd-million short. But Boyd says that’s okay.

“One of my favorite quotes is from Teddy Roosevelt: ‘Dare mighty things,’” he says. “It’s on a poster at my office at economic development. I believe it’s important to set high goals. You can’t set goals you know how to get to. You set goals that make you have to think in new ways.”

***

If Radio Systems, Inc. was to fall into wretched financial ruin next week, Randy Boyd would still be well-remembered as a philanthropist. “I don’t know where it comes from,” says Tom Boyd of his son’s numerous charitable endeavors. “He certainly didn’t get it from me. But he feels that if the community treats him well, he should give back. He’s always said that.”

But perhaps the best way to consider Randy Boyd, the philanthropist, is by looking at the effort which he now touts as his favorite, the Pond Gap Elementary community school program. “If you said you can only pick one thing in the community to support, at this point it would be Pond Gap Elementary School,” Boyd says.

His involvement came about, circuitously, from several other endeavors, beginning with his effort in 2006 to make Knoxville “the most pet-friendly city in America.” That happened at a charity tournament in Phoenix, when a speaker at the evening banquet noted that while animal welfare is improving in the U.S., “there are still backwaters in the world, like Arkansas and Mississippi and Tennessee.”

“I don’t know if this is true or not, but I felt like every eye in the room just turned and looked at me,” Boyd says. His response was to kick-start a culture change in Knoxville, a multi-pronged animal welfare effort that included building dog parks and promoting spay-and-neuter programs and pet-friendly legislation.

Along the way, he sought help from then-Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale, who was also Boyd’s neighbor at the time. “I told him I needed help in making Knoxville the nation’s most pet-friendly city, and like any good politician, he said yes to everything I asked for,” Boyd says. “Then when I was finished, like any good politician, he said, ‘Now I have a quid pro quo.’”

Ragsdale’s request involved his vision that everyone who finished high school in Knox County would be able to attend, at the least, a community college or technical school. The result was the creation—with Boyd, Krissy DeAlejandro, Tim Williams, Chris Woodhull, and Rich Ray—of Knox Achieves, a scholarship program that targets under-served high school students looking to extend their education, funded by a mix of public and private dollars. A principal donor, Boyd also serves as board chairman of Knox Achieves.

The program has been widely touted for successfully sending thousands of Tennessee high school seniors on for further education since its inception in 2008. It was the spark for the Tennessee Promise—now-Gov. Bill Haslam having served as an early Knox Achieves board member—and the state’s Drive to 55 program.

But Boyd says he wasn’t satisfied with aspects of the Tennessee Achieves model. “After a year of the program, I realized we had a problem,” he says. “We’re going to these kids their senior year and saying, great news, you’re going to college. And they’re saying, if only I had known, I would have prepared myself.”

Boyd is armed with a battery of statistics—about how kids who are two grade levels behind before they’ve reached their final year of elementary school will probably never catch up; about how those same kids have a much higher chance of being dependent on government programs, and of being incarcerated, by the time they reach adulthood.

The key to beating the odds, he says, is, “We have to do something early, in grade school.” His first idea toward that end was raising money for a new charter school. That changed when he met Bob Kronick, of the University of Tennessee’s community school program.

“Bob told me, in not so many words, ‘Randy, that’s a really stupid idea,’” Boyd remembers. “We don’t need anymore buildings—we’ve got plenty of those. What we need is more seat time. Pick a school, extend the hours, and make that school a hub for everyone who wants to serve these kids.”

Using the “community schools” model promoted by Kronick’s office, Boyd chose Pond Gap Elementary School in West Knoxville—a school with 340 “at-risk” children, and a 94 percent free or reduced-lunch student population. The Pond Gap community school took 90 kids—rated “most at-risk”—and provided them with an extra 3.5 five hours of school time, with dinner included.

A key element of the program was drawing other community resources—church groups, the Boys’ and Girls’ clubs, Friends of Literacy—to come in and provide additional services, many of which are geared toward the parents of children taking part in the school—GED instruction and healthy cooking seminars and fitness classes.

Mark Benson, director of UT’s University-Assisted Community Schools program, says that Pond Gap has “created an identity for the community. There are lots of struggling families there … Now we’re filling in gaps not just in education, but for other community needs as well.”

Benson says that Boyd dove into the program full throttle, coming to the school often to serve as a tutor, or to play pick-up basketball games with students after-hours in the gym. One student—12-year-old Joseph Tyler—called him out for a game of one-on-one on a particular afternoon. Boyd ended up volunteering as Joseph’s Big Brother, through the Big Brothers Big Sisters of East Tennessee.

***

_DSC2323David Luttrell

Boyd has a line he’s delivered more than once before, concerning his taking a position as a consultant on higher education in the Haslam gubernatorial administration in early 2013. “I tell people that the governor had two very important and unique attributes he was looking for. The first was that you had to be willing to work for free. And the second was you had to be totally unencumbered by knowledge of the subject matter.

“It wasn’t a very competitive job,” he continues. “No one was trying to elbow me out of the way to get it.”

Together, the two men created the aforementioned Drive to 55—a mission to take the state of Tennessee from 32 percent post-secondary attainment among all adults to 55 percent by 2025.

The education job was a year-long commitment. Boyd says much was accomplished, and much was left undone. Most notably, the rest of the country took notice, as President Barack Obama came to Tennessee to announce the creation of the nationwide program America’s College Promise, which seemed to nick a page or two from the Tennessee Achieves/Drive to 55 playbook.

Boyd says his new role—as commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development—is in many ways a continuation of the work he began as Haslam’s education consultant. “We’re revising our mission [in economic development] to something that more closely aligns with the Drive to 55 and higher education,” he says.

He talks about the need to “stop graduating kids with certificates and degrees for which there are no jobs,”; for supporting rural communities in their efforts to become more industry-friendly; to “make sure the people on the economic development side are aligned with higher education …

“When I talk to prospective businesses now, at least 50 percent of the conversation is about workforce, which goes back to education. Incentive money is nice, but workforce is the most important thing for a company that’s going to be here for 20 years. We’re never going to be able to outspend everybody with incentive money, but we can be the state that plays best as a team, the state where we’re most aligned with education and workforce.”

But his humble demeanor and self-deprecating humor notwithstanding, it’s clear that Boyd is a quick study now that he’s taken to the bigger stage of statewide political affairs. He has an obvious talent for getting over, politically, with his engaging chattiness, his stories and buzzwords and easy, knowledgeable patter.

It’s the same approach, perhaps, that made him an effective salesman, walking into small-town Feed & Seeds, still sweaty from riding with no A.C., with a bucket full of samples and a smooth line about business on-the-cheap.

That he might have political aspirations of his own some day seems to be a notion that everyone close to him acknowledges, yet dismisses in the same breath. “My wife [Boyd’s stepmother—Tom and Dale Boyd divorced in 1979] always says he’s the kind of person who should be running this country,” says Tom Boyd. “But I don’t know that he’d ever want to run for office. There are just too many bosses.”

George Korda, however, notes that Boyd’s role as economic development commissioner “has been sort of a ticket-puncher on the resume for people running for office in the past.

“When someone is in that orbit, has those connections, and has those kinds of resources, it’s a natural thing for people to start talking about them,” Korda continues. “And it’s natural for them to not stifle the conversation. Until they get to the point where they say, ‘No, I don’t want to do that.’ Or, ‘Yeah, that’s something I’d really like to do.’”

Wife Jenny Boyd anticipates the question concerning her husband’s political intentions, and answers without hesitating: “He won’t do it. I’m not for it.”

But then she adds that, “If he wanted to do it, that would be great. But I don’t think he will. I don’t know if I would like it at all … But I wouldn’t tell him ‘no.’ I want the best for him.”

Boyd, for his part, says that, though he likes public service, “I don’t like selling myself. It would be weird for me, telling people why I’m better than the next guy.

“I’ve been a little selfish in that I pick the things I’m most passionate about and go for those things. If you’re governor, you have to deal with all kinds of things. I like to pick my battles.”

See Also: Inside the Boyds’ Jig & Reel

Corrected: Willie Wallace (not “Watson”) is the CEO of Radio Systems Corporation. 

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