By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
If you do a Google search on Rocky Stephens, you’ll find a number of “hits,” all related to a different entrepreneurial engagement.
His interests seem unlimited. The Texas native who graduated from Knoxville’s old South-Young High School and the University of Tennessee has a communications company that holds what he says are very valuable URLs for every state in the country. Stephens has a business magazine. He’s involved in the clothing business, owns a former shopping center, and is the force behind a tennis ministry.
As you can tell and we quickly learned, Stephens’ entrepreneurial pursuits are almost unbounded. What’s we found even more surprising was the fact that he started his entrepreneurial journey after an initial career as a broker with Merrill Lynch.
“Russ Hollingsworth and I co-founded Creative Artists Productions in mid-1990s,” Stephens told us in a recent interview. “Russ left for Cincinnati after a year, and I changed the name to Pinnekel.” The spelling varies between that more quirky version of the word and Pinnacle that sometimes is confused with the rapidly growing bank.
The duo’s initial focus was on video production, something Hollingsworth knew very well from his days with a local television station. Their start-up efforts also coincided with the rapid emergence of the internet, so Stephens began designing websites.
“I had a meeting with a client in Atlanta the day before the (1996) Olympics opened,” he said. The discussion that ensued caused him to start thinking about covering business news, so what did he do? He founded Southern Business a few years later. It is an online magazine that publishes monthly.
“I write and have some freelancers,” Stephens says of the magazine and its content that is focused on 16 states.
As he thought about ways to promote the magazine, Stephens secured his first URL under the “MyState” mantra. It was “MyStateTennessee.com.” After wondering how many other states might be available, Stephens started looking and ultimately acquired all 50 plus Puerto Rico.
“I have 52 digital media sites,” he says. Those are the 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the magazine. Believing that he’s sitting on a valuable asset, Stephens decided to commission a tee shirt to promote one of the states. It was Texas.
“That launched us into apparel,” he says. There’s a website where individuals can order clothing and other items.
The state specific apparel spawned another clothing venture with a father and daughter who were friends of the Stephens family. Both Bradley Jeans, named for Bradley Pierce, and Gemma Jeans, named for his daughter, are high-end, customized denim products.
“Just about everything we do (in apparel) is outsourced,” Stephens says. “The next step is to bring production here.”
In preparation for that, he’s bought the former Arrowhead Shopping Center, a 30,000 square foot complex just inside the Knox County line on the Old Knoxville Highway (if you’re from Blount County) or the Old Maryville Pike (if you live in Knox County).
Since everything is Stephens’ life seems to be connected, the Arrowhead complex provides an opportunity to expand on another, clearly non-profit initiative. It’s the Love All tennis ministry that is driven by a Bible verse found in Mark 10:43 – “Whoever wants to be great among you must become a servant.”
As Stephens tells the story, his oldest daughter (Kelly) was a tennis player, and the father would pick-up underprivileged students at the school she attended on Saturdays to help them learn the game. He and his family also began providing them food. Later, mentors joined the effort, providing help with school work while Stephens gave them tennis lessons.
“Kelly said we ought to turn what we were doing into a ministry,” Stephens said. That has now occurred.
“We take donations and hope to raise $150,000 to build two tennis courts,” Stephens said. Guess where he hopes to build them? On the highway side of the Arrowhead Shopping Center.
“I’m excited to get up every morning and grow something,” Stephens says. There are other initiatives in the works such as hotel development, but one can only imagine what other possibilities exist.