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July 06, 2021 | Tom Ballard

Randy Boyd sparks entrepreneurial thinking and success in many sectors

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another in our series spotlighting entrepreneurs who grew very successful businesses in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region. Today’s focus is on Randy Boyd, the current President of the University of Tennessee System, who has demonstrated how to spark entrepreneurial thinking and success in many sectors of the economy.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

In any sector of the economy – private business, government or education, Knoxville’s Randy Boyd has demonstrated a keen understanding of how to not only bring entrepreneurial thinking to an organization but also the all-important follow through actions required to be a successful executive.

The Founder of Radio Systems Corporation, best known for its brands such as PetSafe and Invisible Fence, spent more than three decades growing the enterprise into a global giant, generating hundreds of million dollars in annual revenue. We captured some of his thoughts on the start-up journey in this early 2013 article when Boyd shared the insightful lessons he’d learned in growing the company during a meeting of the old Tennessee Valley Technology Council.

But Radio Systems, which was acquired by Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, an international private investment firm, in May 2020, is just one part of Boyd’s entrepreneurial journey that has expanded over the last 15 years to include:

  • Helping launch knoxAchieves and later tnAchieves that championed last-dollar scholarships, along with mentoring, for high school graduates to help address the Volunteer State’s goals of getting 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by the year 2025.
  • Serving State Government as a Special Advisor for Higher Education for then Governor Bill Haslam, followed by stints as Commissioner of Economic and Community Development and Chair of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission;
  • Purchasing the Tennessee Smokies minor league baseball team that is now one of five minor league teams that Boyd Sports LLC owns outright along with partial ownership of the Memphis Redbirds;
  • Serving as President of the University of Tennessee (UT) System since late March 2020 after a 16-month period as Interim President; and
  • Championing most recently two different initiatives to strength the economic future of the community – the Techstars accelerator and the development of a large private development in East Knoxville that would be anchored by a new baseball stadium.

Along the way, Boyd and his wife (Jenny) became philanthropists, contributing to a number of causes in Knoxville and beyond, particularly those involving the education of young people which have become their passion. For example, the former Philips Consumer Electronics building that houses the Strawberry Plains campus of Pellissippi State Community College (PSCC) is named for them after the Boyds made a major gift. The Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) was renamed the “Boyd Center” after a major gift, and the “Boyd Venture Challenge” in UTK’s Haslam College supports promising young entrepreneurs.

So, with his passion that links education with economic opportunity and vitality, we wanted to gain Boyd’s insights from those various perspectives to help those local residents who might be thinking about starting a business here or for those thinking about relocating to Knoxville to do so.

He offered two key recommendations.

“Number one, I built a network of colleagues and mentors in the community,” Boyd said in reference to the early years of growing Radio Systems. Those individuals included Bill Franklin, Founder of Industrial Electronics Inc.; Ron Nutt, one of the Co-Founders of CTI Molecular Imaging Inc.; and Otto Wheeley, a UTK graduate and former Deputy Chairman of Koppers Company who retired to help launch new companies out of research developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and North Carolina’s Research Triangle.

Boyd was one of the beneficiaries of Wheeley’s advice and assistance that he always recalls fondly, including one of the favorites sayings of the Macon County, TN native: “If you ever see a turtle on a fence post, it didn’t get there on its own. No one gets there on their own.”

Wheeley reminded Boyd that there were a lot of people who want to help young, aspiring entrepreneurs, so don’t hesitate to reach-out and ask.

Ironically, one of those with whom Boyd sought help was Don Johnstone, President and Chief Operating Office of Philips. We say ironic because the company was located at the time in the PSCC-owned facility that now is known as the “Jenny and Randy Boyd Building.”

“Don advised me to put together a really strong, independent board . . . those who will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear,” Boyd said in reference to the second recommendation he would offer those starting new companies.

As far as the recently announced Techstars accelerator, he says it will “help expand our ecosystem” by bringing in 30 companies from around the world over a three-year period. A key goal is to convince some percentage of the 30 to decide to stay here and grow their company because of the assets that the region has.

To achieve that goal, the community has to do its part, leveraging the significant investment that UT, TVA and Oak Ridge National Laboratory are making to bring Techstars here.

“Make an active effort to reach-out to them (the Techstars start-ups),” Boyd encouraged Knoxville area business leaders, adding, “This is hopefully a significant spark for the community.”

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