You don’t have to talk with Kenny Fikes very long to fully understand the impact that his mother has played and, for that matter, continues to have on his life.
The resident of Knoxville – he’s Managing Director of Sydney Capital LLC – grew-up in Chapel Hill, NC where, as a youngster, he clearly remembers his mother fighting for individual rights and academics.
“I got a B in language arts in the seventh grade, and mom made me quit the football team,” Fikes says. “She explained that, if you were doing your best and made a C, I would not have made you quit. You weren’t.”
After four years of boarding school, he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania where he admits that “I played harder than I worked my freshman year, as evidenced by a first-year 1.67 grade point average.” That scared him, so Fikes went to summer school, played basketball and also worked full-time. There was not much sleeping those months, but he persevered, recalling his mother’s admonition.
That sense of achievement, but also with a clear purpose in mind, was clearly evident when we interviewed Fikes at his home in East Knoxville, an area that he is focused on assisting with the tools and knowledge that he has gained over the years.
A self-described “gregarious loner,” Fikes was a member of then Knoxville Mayor-elect Indya Kincannon’s Transition Team when we met him at the December 2019 “New Developments in Opportunity Zones (OZ)” forum hosted by the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, Knoxville Chamber, and Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.
Fikes, who bought his home here in January 2013, hopes to capitalize on the OZ program to bring affordable housing to East Knoxville. Helping people is an integral part of his DNA, tracing back to his mother and a diverse career thus far that includes investment banking, working for the Oklahoma State Senate, and founding Ubuntu Living Inc.
“A friend told me that I had stray dog syndrome,” he says, a clear reference to Ubuntu which provided individuals with a history of incarceration and multiple relapses the opportunity to live among sober fellows and begin a new life. “I made it a 501(c)(3), but never felt right asking for money, so I funded it myself.”
Since buying the house in Knoxville in 2013 and with a daughter enrolled as a sophomore at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Fikes has called Knoxville home even though his work frequently took him back to Oklahoma and Arizona. In early 2018, he stopped operating Ubuntu Living and today is working on what could be his most challenging project.
“Affordable housing is a crisis here,” he says. “I have experience in the space. While I’m not officially a developer, separately I’ve done every part of a project that a developer does, just not in one project.”
Saying he wanted to start small, Fikes started working on his first development last May. He bought land for “10 doors” (five duplexes) near the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Beal Bourne Street.
“After this project is done, having executed all aspects on several buildings in one project, I’m officially a developer,” he says. “Everyone talks about caring, but I’m putting my money where my mouth is. I’m committed to stretching myself financially but I’ve got to get help along the way.” That’s because traditional financing does not work for affordable housing.
After the interview, Fikes reported that he had purchased another existing 19 doors (a five-plex and a 14-plex) and had made an offer on a 21-unit complex. With the 10-door MLK project, he should have 50 doors by the end of this summer. That volume aligns with his vision of doing 20 to 30 annually over the next five years to meet the need for affordable housing.
“I hope to get this done in a significant way,” Fikes adds, saying it will be his contribution to his new hometown and, no doubt, recognition of the values his mother instilled in him.