(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a five-part series about local entrepreneur, minister and philosopher Paul Cowell.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
Paul Cowell does not fit the stereotype of a serial entrepreneur, but this articulate and caring septuagenarian has eschewed many of the traditional approaches that others followed while devoting his life to making a lasting mark on the local region.
Many know the Roane County resident for his latest passion, just behind his faith and family. It is the Whitestone Country Inn on the shores of Watts Bar Lake. The property has an inn, cottages, restaurant, conference space, chapel and a number of other buildings that regularly host meetings, weddings, and “special visitors” who were the reason Cowell started the development about three decades ago.
“I went to a resort in the Adirondacks with my wife after getting married,” the interdenominational pastor says of the trip in the 1960s. The impact of this seemingly innocuous visit became a lifetime passion for the Jackson, TN native.
“I wanted to do something like it, but focused on missionaries and pastors,” Cowell explained.
Over the years, as he travelled on business and for pleasure, he recalls measuring rooms and taking notes about different venues. All of these observations came together in the Whitestone Inn which Cowell and his wife, Jean, opened in 1997. The property has been placed in a non-profit to ensure its perpetuity.
Among the hundreds of entrepreneurs with whom we have interacted over the years, Cowell stands out for several reasons. First, he is a pastor whose faith and passion have driven him over the years. Second, Cowell has taken much of the money that he has earned and turned it into something that will have a lasting impact on his community and those who are less privileged.
“Know how to make a small fortune with a country inn,” he asks in his characteristic manner? “Start with a large fortune!”
Cowell says he learned entrepreneurship at an early age. His father’s day job, as the old saying goes, was as a machinist at a cotton mill. He also built houses and had a farm.
“I saw him trying hard to do things better and cheaper,” Cowell recalls, an observation that clearly impacted the son when he moved to Knoxville in 1963.
“I came here with the expressed purpose of starting an independent church,” Cowell says, adding, “God called me to Knoxville.”
Christ Chapel Church was located on Cedar Lane. When it reached 400 members, the parishioners bought an old Methodist church building on Highland Avenue.
For Cowell, the pastor, there was one challenge: “I had no denominational support, so I needed to make a living.”
Over more than two decades starting in 1963, he bought and sold 14 businesses while still serving as the church’s pastor. The mix of enterprises ranged from a catering business and fleet of school buses to a print shop and software company.
Cowell is best known for a couple of these businesses, specifically the Book Warehouse, a company he founded, and Shop at Home, a company he turned into a success.
NEXT: The entrepreneurial journey of Paul Cowell starting with “remainder and returned books.”