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Weekend edition January 26, 2024 | Katelyn Keenehan

‘Progress requires risk’ | Kai Brown buys Burns Mailing and Printing through help from KAUL

Brown's 11-year working relationship and friendship with the Burns family blossomed, and he decided he wanted to continue the legacy of the company.

There’s been a change in leadership at one of the longest-standing printing and mailing shops in Knoxville. Phyllis Burns and her late husband, Ken Burns, started Burns Mailing and Printing in 1981, and Phyllis just handed over the keys to long-time employee, Kai Brown.

Kai Brown

“I want to honor the legacy of Burns and respect the community trust that we’ve earned through the decades of being in business, while continuing to earn their respect and trust, in turn,” Kai said.

His personal journey from 11-year employee to owner is one of persistence and dedication.

Kai’s story starts back on the West Coast. He worked at his first print shop in 1992 in Los Angeles, where he did different bindery and production tasks. When he moved to Tennessee in 1996, Kai pursued a graphic design degree that would allow him to grow his skills in the printing field. He had been working in the print industry in Knoxville for over a decade and a half, but it wasn’t until 2012 that he connected with Burns.

“The art director was impressed with my portfolio and skillsets. I was hired on the spot,” Kai said.

He worked in the design and prepress department at Burns alongside the art director, Angela Kites, until the opportunity presented itself to move into a management position.

“I became the print estimator/production manager and the owners’ right-hand man for the next seven years. During COVID, Phyllis opted to stay out of the shop for about 13 months and I oversaw most of the day-to-day operations,” Kai said.

Kai became increasingly connected to the company. His working relationship and friendship with Phyllis Burns blossomed, and he decided he wanted to continue the legacy of the company.

Phyllis Burns with Kai Brown

” The conversation of purchasing Burns evolved over several years and we put our heads together to develop a mutually beneficial game plan. Phyllis recommended that I reach out to the Knoxville Area Urban League (KAUL), so I did and they were able to help!”, Kai said.

At Burns, Kai had worked on a few printing and mailing projects for Dr. Charles Lomax Jr., the President and Chief Executive Officer of KAUL. Kai reached out to Dr. Lomax and he was quickly able to connect him with the Chief Operating Officer at KAUL, Felix Harris. Harris presented opportunities and guidance for small business funding through the Urban League. It was about a nine-month process.

When asked what advice Kai would offer to someone wanting to start their own business, he replied, “I would advise you to do all the research you can and to not give up – everyone has to start somewhere. If it is something you truly want, you should be logical, persistent, and dedicated. Phyllis left a quote by Frederick B. Wilcox on the wall for me that read ‘Progress always requires risk, you can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first.’ I think that’s fitting,” Kai said.

Through a small business loan form KAUL, Kai was able to purchase the business from Burns. He assumed ownership in November 2023. Kai hopes to continue to build the business while honoring the 43-year legacy.

“I’m very happy, I’ve wanted to own my own print shop dating back to the early 2000s. Now, that time is here,” he said

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