From high school drum major to Duke Energy to owner of his own company and chair of the Western Carolina University Board of Trustees — plus a few stops in between — Bryant Kinney has led a life of sheer leadership, no ifs, ands or buts about it.
But ask him about his affinity for leading and he deflects. It’s all about others, he insists, especially the folks in Murphy, where he grew up, who simply gave him opportunities to prove himself.
“I’ve been very blessed. Quite frankly, I think it was the people around me. Not only my parents, but the people in the community,” said Kinney, principal of Kinney Public Strategies, a consulting firm. “They gave you a chance to succeed as a kid. They let you make mistakes and fix them. Whether that was the adults around you, the people in church or local employers, they’d shake their finger at you and say, ‘I don’t want to see that again,’ and you’d say, ‘OK, I won’t.’ And that’s kind of how it worked. I had the good fortune to work with great folks like that throughout my career and to have tremendous support from my wife Brenda and family.”
Brenda Kinney is a 1983 WCU alumna.
Kinney, who graduated from WCU in 1982 with a degree in emergency medical care, has made the most of those opportunities offered by others, such as serving on the Board of Trustees since 2015 when he was appointed by then-Gov. Pat McCrory. He was reappointed by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors in 2019 and has two years left on his four-year term. He served as vice chair from 2017 to 2019 and as chair from 2019 to 2021, a position which ended in June.
As he prepared to leave his leadership role, Kinney, WCU’s Alumni Spotlight for June, looked back at a Board that met each challenge with grace and professionalism and at a university that continues to move forward in the spirit of its mountain heritage.
“The last four years as vice chair and chair, my goodness, supporting Chancellor Belcher during his illness, and ultimately managing through his passing away to co-chairing the chancellor’s search committee with former chair Pat Kaemmerling to being chair and having brought Chancellor (Kelli) Brown in, all of those were challenges,” he said. “What I have witnessed has been an organization that never misses a beat, period.”
Kinney credits mountain sensibilities as the key to WCU’s continued trajectory as a comprehensive regional university with a tremendous impact on the local and regional economy. “When I was at Western, a lot of the staff were also volunteer firefighters for Cullowhee, or they were this, or they were that. That’s just Cullowhee, you get it done. It’s a mountain thing. You’re six and a half hours from Raleigh. You just go get it done, you work together. That’s Western,” he said.
He cited WCU’s staff for quickly adjusting its graduation plans last month to accommodate Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision to lift all mandatory capacity and gathering limits, social distancing requirements, and most mandatory mask requirements hours before one of WCU’s first commencement ceremonies was to begin. “They reset seating in Ramsey Center, added the opportunity for general admission tickets, and they did it all in two hours. That’s who Western is,” he said.
Kinney’s reacquaintance with his alma mater came after his Board appointment, and he was surprised by the changes he saw. “After I graduated and moved away and started raising a family and got incredibly busy, I lost contact a good bit with Western,” he said. “Coming back and being engaged on the Board has really been eye opening for me as to how far Western has come academically, socially and culturally.”
Kinney spent his early career in emergency management working for Cherokee County and the state of North Carolina before moving over to Duke Energy. He spent more than two decades serving in various leadership roles, concluding his Duke career as vice president of regulatory and government affairs for its Carolinas operations. After retiring from Duke, he started his own consulting business. With his diverse background, Kinney has been impressed with WCU’s ability to meet the region’s needs, no matter the call. “A pandemic hits, Western sets up a vaccination clinic that does what, 20 percent of all the vaccines given by the UNC System? That’s Western. There is nothing in my opinion that school can’t take on and be successful,” he said. “But it has to have resources from Raleigh. You’ve got to have money for salaries and infrastructure.”
As Western North Carolina’s star continues to rise, Kinney believes WCU will provide the talent to staff new industries and the expertise to guide its growth. “Whether it’s travel and tourism or whether it’s high-tech industries, Western is going to be a supplier of that talent and help continue to build the economy of Western North Carolina and North Carolina, and quite frankly, north Georgia, east Tennessee and even upstate South Carolina.”
Kinney is confident that WCU will be in good hands as it adapts to meet future industry and educational demands, because the Board knows its role in supporting the university’s success. “What you know from business and industry is to have great people and leave them alone and let them do what they do best,” he said. “When they need you, step in and help. And when you may see something from time-to-time that needs a tweak here or there, suggest it. We’re not there to manage as a Board. We’re not there to manage Western Carolina University. Western Carolina University has experts in teaching, in facilities, in leadership, in executive leadership. Those skills are there.
“The thing I learned is our Board is not a Board that directs. It’s a Board that assists, and when you’ve got the excellence that I believe we have at Western, that makes life a lot easier as a Board member.”