Ron Kitchens arrived in Birmingham the third week of January. Since he came from Michigan, where he’d lived for almost 20 years, he didn’t mind seeing daffodils blooming already. Now that he’s had a minute to settle in to his new role as head of the Birmingham Business Alliance, we sat down to get to know him better. Here’s what we learned.
Bham Now: tell us a bit about who you are and why you’re here.
Kitchens: My name is Ron Kitchens, and I’ve been in economic development for a long time.
I grew up in abject poverty. Neither of my parents attended high school. My mom is 15 years older than I am and my father was 16 years older. My dad died when I was four. He was killed in an industrial accident, right by a sign that said “don’t do this.” But if you can’t read the sign, it doesn’t matter. My father was illiterate. He suffered from the same form of dyslexia that I have.
Growing up, I knew that the people who had what I wanted all had one thing in common: they had jobs. And so, I live by the belief that the greatest force for change is a job. This is why I have spent my life working on that.
Bham Now: How’d you get started?
Kitchens: I went to college to play football and got my knee blown out in the first week of practice.
I could barely afford to go to school. A mentor grabbed me and said “I’ll help you if you go into business, but you have to go to school part time.”
And so I did. I went into the convenience store business and ended up with 14 companies by the time I was 30.
But at age 21, I looked around and realized none of my friends could come home because there weren’t jobs. So I ran for city council, because I didn’t know who was responsible for jobs. I just knew somebody needed to do something about creating jobs.
Bham Now: tell us more about your time in local government.
Kitchens: I spent six years, ages 21 to 27, as a city councilman in my hometown. For the last three years, I was the elected president of the council, the mayor pro tem. I fell in love with the idea that you can bring business, philanthropy and government together. The name of the model is community capitalism.
You can use that to create jobs and change the fortune of places, people and institutions.
I’ve been doing that ever since, in Missouri, Texas and Michigan.
Bham Now: What do you do in your spare time?
Kitchens: My wife and I eat out a lot right now in Birmingham. Since the whole idea is to try new things, so far, we’ve only duplicated restaurants twice.
I love the outdoors—hunting, fishing and boating. I also read between 75-100 books a year.
Bham Now: what stands out to you about Birmingham?
Kitchens: Birmingham is a place that has a whole lot of “give a darn.” Look at the quality of the restaurants, the investments and even the problems—everything is being addressed with passion.
People care. That isn’t the norm in most places in America. We wanted to be someplace that has people who are passionate and love where they are and take action.
Bham Now: what are some of your favorites so far?
Kitchens: We went to Hot & Hot and got a bowl of bread. Jim Gorrie of Brasfield & Gorrie made all the bowls. You have a guy running a global company that employes thousands of people. But his passion is woodworking. And here’s a local restaurant that says “we want to serve grits made by a local mill and we want our bread served in a bowl made by a local artist.”
I love stories about people who are doing amazingly cool things.
I love the TV show Top Chef, and am so crazy about the fact that there’s going to be a Birmingham chef on there.
The great thing about being the new guy is that you get to love everybody. You get to be a fan of everything, and you get to be surprised around every corner.