2012 Laureates

Dennis Phillips

To say that Dennis Phillips has a strong work ethic is like saying Funfest is enjoyable. Over the years, his leadership in city and state government may have garnered all the press, but his work in the private sector has created relationships he treasures.

Dennis Phillips was born August 22, 1945 to Ted and Charlotte Phillips in Burnsville, North Carolina. He was the oldest of three children, preceding a brother, Richard, and a sister, Janice.

The Phillips family lived in the small town of Newdale, North Carolina, where Dennis' famed work ethic was instilled. "We didn't have clubs in school" he remembers. "We had acres of gardens and if we ate it we raised it. So we just didn't have the time to participate in after school activities like you do today."

What extracurricular activities there were for young Dennis even centered around work, through his membership in the Future Farmers of America. "When I look at schools now and everything they have, I smile," he says. "I never heard of soccer. Our biggest thing to be in was FFA."  So Dennis set about working hard at that, and became the 1962 North Carolina state FFA champion in the Tool Identification Contest.

After graduating high school, Dennis had a very clear idea of what he wanted to do. "I graduated from East Yancey High School on June 16, 1963 and entered the U.S. Air Force on June 17, 1963," he says. 

 Dennis spent the next two-and-a-half years as an MP guarding B-52 bombers on the cold tarmac of Loring Air Force Base in Maine. The romance of watching planes flying across the Carolina summer skies quickly gave way to the reality of watching planes sitting on the ground in the forty-below winters of northeast Maine. Because he had been a good typing student in high school, he was able to secure a desk job for his last 18 months. "Taking typing turned out to be the best move I ever made," he says, "because it probably kept me from freezing to death."

His work ethic stood Dennis in good stead with the Air Force. He was Airman of the Month half a dozen times and was Airman of the Year twice. 

Upon leaving the service, Dennis moved to the Tri-Cities, where his father had taken a job at the Burlington plant in Johnson City. Dennis was told that the only two things that he needed to know were that he should go work at Eastman and live where there was TVA power. So he found his way to Kingsport and applied at the chemical company. "They lost my resume," he jokes today. "I'm sure that's what happened because they never called me."

Instead, Dennis found a job selling insurance out of an office next door to Kingsport National Bank. The bank manager was about to depart, so Dennis walked into the branch and let it be known that he would be available to fill that soon-to-be-open position. Dennis kept going back to that bank until he was allowed to meet with banker George Carter, who told him, "Phillips, I might as well hire you because it looks like you're going to move in with us anyway."

Dennis started as low man on the branch's totem pole, filing checks in the bookkeeping department. By the time Dennis left Kingsport National Bank in 1974, he was the branch manager in Colonial Heights, the very job for which he had originally applied.

It was around that time that Dennis got a call from Bill Greene, Sr., who was starting Bank of Tennessee. Dennis took the opportunity to start at the ground floor in that business and became vice president and loan officer.

Working for Bill Greene, Jr., Dennis spent the next 13 years helping to grow the bank. It was during that time that he met a young woman named Bobbie, whose father owned Jim's Motorcycle Sales. She would bring the deposits for her family's business to the trailer on Cherokee Street. Dennis likes to say she begged her father to let her bring the deposits so she could see the handsome young loan officer there, but Bobbie may remember it differently. Regardless, when she went out with Dennis for their first date, it was the beginning of a romance that would bring about their marriage in 1977, the birth of their son James in 1980, and would continue to this day.

"Very few people would put up with what Bobbie Phillips has put up with, being married to me over the years," admits Dennis. "I'm a workaholic who feels like if you work anything less than eighteen hours a day, you're cheating the company."

But Dennis' dedication to work, and to the banking industry in particular, was catching the attention of people in high places. And in 1987, Tennessee Governor Ned McWherter called, offering Dennis the position of Commissioner of Banking. Twice, Dennis turned it down before eventually accepting. "I felt like if I went to be commissioner I would be letting Bill Greene down," Dennis remembers. "It was also a significant cut in pay. But Bill told me it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up."

Dennis stayed in Nashville for two years before heading back to Bank of Tennessee, eventually leaving the bank in 1990.

 "Fortunately," he says, "I had bought some stock and was able to divest myself and go into real estate. I can't remember a time I didn't want to own my own business."

The real estate venture was only Dennis' first entrepreneurial effort. Also in 1990, Dennis' friend Pal Barger suggested Dennis look into opening a franchised pizzeria in Kingsport. After buying the franchise, Dennis realized there were plenty of barriers to success in the pizza business. One such barrier was advertising.

"We kept trying different things," remembers Dennis. "We could not get our advertising to be what it needed to be to compete with the Little Caesars', the Pizza Huts, the Domino's. They had all the window signs. We'd order our window signs and it would take three or four weeks to get them. So we felt like if it was that difficult for us to get signs it must be that difficult for others to get signs. So we decided to open our own sign shop."

Concurrent to the sign shop opening, new pizza locations were opening in Jonesborough and Piney Flats as well. The process of hiring managers for all these new businesses brought Dennis into contact with two young men who would become his and Bobbie's informally adopted sons.

"Steve LaHair applied for the Jonesborough store" remembers Dennis. "He told us that he didn't know if he was going to come to work for us, and he needed to talk it over with his wife. I had never had that happen before, but he decided to come to work for us around 1991. We worked together until Bobbie and I wanted to get out of the business so we sold it to Steve and his wife, Trida. Similarly, at the sign shop, we sort of adopted another kid, Chris Thomas. Chris was also a hard-working young man, and when we got ready to sell the stores, there was never any doubt. We sold the stores to them without asking for a nickel down. And one of the proudest things I can say is since we've met them I don't think that we've celebrated a holiday without them."

For their part, Dennis, Bobbie and James have kept the real estate company, DRP Properties, growing and thriving. Today the Phillips' can be seen traveling together, enjoying University of Miami football games around the country, and seeing the world together.

Though Dennis has relaxed his business life considerably, his political career may end up being what's remembered as being the most important work of his life. That's because Dennis is the mayor under whom higher education came to fruition in Kingsport. The Kingsport Higher Education Center was an ambitious dream in the hearts and minds of community leaders when Phillips took office. Today it is not only a reality, but a recipient of the Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard University.

Dennis is quick to give credit to his predecessor, Jeanette Blazier. What I tried to do was take the many good things she had done and move forward with them. I took other people's ideas and led the charge to sell the bonds to make it happen."

Dennis also deflects credit for the funding of higher education in Kingsport to those who followed the charge he led. "The mayor gets a lot of credit," he says, "but the people that deserve the credit are the general public and the Board of Mayor and Aldermen."

Today, with the Higher Education Center having been joined by the Regional Center for Applied Technology, the Regional Center for Health Professionals and the Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing, Dennis says he looks forward to constantly improving on what's already been done.

And with the happy prospect of working more with his family at DRP as incentive, it's unlikely that Dennis will rest, even when he leaves office. "While I look forward to being mayor until my term is up, I look forward to no longer being mayor as well, in a different way," he says. "I'd like for James and I to do more business things together."

It should come as no surprise that he bristles when asked about the prospect of retirement. "I can never retire," he says flatly. "I will always find something to do." And that's only fitting for a man who has served his country, mentored business owners and created jobs in the private sector, led his community and raised a family – and all at a high level of success – because he's always been a man who simply loved to work.