William B. "Bill" Kent has taken a company his dad started from scratch and built it into a multistate concern and he has sought a balance by combining his commercial pursuits with strenuous and dangerous sidelines.
The Odessa American reports as Chairman-CEO of the Kent Cos.' Kent Kwik convenience stores and a host of other interests, the 63-year-old Monahans native says the 24-7 nature of his corporation led him into martial arts and drag racing, which demand his undivided attention and provide a welcome distraction.
"It is a very complex business," he said. "It requires lots of hands-on management and supervision. Each store handles a lot of money and we have had robberies, internal thefts and control issues."
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Noting his 47 Kent Kwiks in Odessa, Midland, the Texas Panhandle, Waco, Oklahoma and New Mexico generate $425 million in annual revenues, he said, "Anytime other people handle your money before you do, you run across everything."
No longer a competitive karate fighter, when he was younger Kent fought as a 175-pound middleweight and a 195-pound heavyweight in 200-250 tournaments from California to Nevada, New Mexico and throughout the Southwest, winning numerous championships as a fifth-degree black belt.
"This guy would be trying to kick me in the head and I needed to see if I could kick him first," Kent said. "I fought often and loved it. I got beaten up and had broken ribs, but I still won."
He first got used to contact sports by wearing the Monahans Loboes' Kelly green and white as a football center and linebacker. His competiveness is from his dad, E.L. "Buck" Kent, a railcar traffic clerk for Wickett Refining Co. seven miles west-southwest of Monahans.
Naming Bill after company owner William B. Hassett, Buck eventually became company president and in 1957 founded Kent Oil and Distributors, from which the Kent Cos. were built.
Six years after Bill took a general business administration degree at Arizona State, Buck decided to sell the company and offered to let him buy it. "He gave me a price of less than eight figures and said, `I want all cash, I'm not going to finance it,"' Kent said.
"He was a great man but very tough."
With few assets, Bill persuaded men at three banks, principally Ron Fancher at Texas Commerce in Odessa, to loan him the money but then almost lost everything in the 1980s oil bust. "We had 14 convenience stores, six lube centers and a tire store and we hung on for dear life for a long, long time," he said.
"Over time, we overcame it. It would have been all over if Texas Commerce had failed because it would have gone to the FDIC. Now we have 1,100 positions but only 900-950 employees. Our target is to hit $1 billion in the next four to five years."
Based at 2408 N. Big Spring St. in Midland, Kent Cos. also own five Huddle House restaurants in Lubbock, Abilene, Monahans, Kermit and Gun Barrel City, south of Dallas; seven Kent Car Washes in Odessa, Midland, Big Spring and Colorado City; 16 Mr. Payrolls in Odessa and Midland; three Baskin-Robbins in Odessa and Midland; 14 Kent Lubes in Odessa, Midland, Big Spring, Abilene, Waco and San Angelo; and three Rustic Cafes in Midland, Haskell and Alamogordo, New Mexico. Annual revenues from those are about $75 million.
Kent and his wife Julie have three children and three grandchildren. He has two brothers and a sister.
Kent said his father was a resolute man who was a U.S. cavalryman in the 1930s and an Army Air Corps flight instructor during World War II. "He wasn't big on giving up," said Kent, whose late mom was Mary Elizabeth Green.
"He wasn't chit-chatty, but he loved to play poker and was a good card player. He was a boxer and a trick rider in the cavalry and broke his nose seven times.
"I don't ever remember my dad telling me I had done a good job, but I heard it from his friends. He was big on ethics. He taught us to give back to the communities because without the people in these communities, you don't have a company. If he gave you his word, that was the way it was.
"I don't know if I can ever measure up to him, but I'm sure trying to."
The elder Kent, one of nine children whose father died when he was 6, passed away in 2007 at age 95.
Working 50-70 hours per week, his son handles strategy and growth while President Terry Adkisson runs the day-to-day operations.
Kent is still a drag racer, though less so than he was before his business got so big. He once ran his 1,400-horsepower yellow dragster in 16 races a year and now competes half that often.
"I run in the competition eliminator class with carburetors and a manual five-speed transmission," he said. "I shift four times and run the quarter-mile in 6.40 to 6.60 seconds at 205 to 210 mph. I go from zero to 100 mph in 1.2 seconds.
"My brother Tom and I ran at Penwell when I was a kid and I got back into it at 35. Pennzoil has been my sponsor since 1993."
Asked if his hobby is dangerous, Kent said, "Yes, I have had a few accidents, but fortunately I have never been hurt.
"I've had bankers say if they were going to loan me any money, they wanted life insurance on top of it. But I have always said getting to the track is more dangerous than racing because we have roll cages, fire suits and neck braces. I use two parachutes (to stop)."
Kent and crew chief Kevin Pickens have competed at most of the major tracks in the country, winning at Phoenix, Dallas and Denver and in Louisiana. "I love doing it," he said.
"It's not like NASCAR where you get two or three hours and lots of laps. If you miss a gear shift or don't have a good starting line reaction, you've lost it. It's single elimination. Once you're beaten, you're out."
Pickens and the other crewmen move the car in an 18-wheel truck while Kent flies in at the last minute. "You work hard at concentrating because so much is going on with mechanical problems, the (pre-race) burnout, getting lined up in the right groove on the track and not letting the other guy play games with you," he said.
"My car is so fast that I can give the other guy a head start and take off and catch him. Racing is the best way I have to get away from business because the business is with me all the time. At dinner, at home at night, I'm always thinking about it."
He once was runner-up nationally in his National Hot Rod Association Division 4.
Kent's work-a-day duties include real estate buys, which he especially enjoys, and travels as a board member of the National Association of Convenience Stores and the Chevron Marketing Council.
"You work all the time when your name is on the checks and the fronts of the buildings," he said, explaining that all the food for area stores is cooked at the headquarters while new employees are schooled in an adjacent training center in which there's a mock store.
"It's all about the people. We centrally hire our people, which is not common in our industry, and do skill-testing because without good people, all we're doing is building buildings. Our starting pay for managers is $65,000 a year and some make over $100,000 with bonuses. Kent Lube managers make $75,000.
"My motto has always been that if we lose them, we need to turn them back better than we found them."
Kent still does karate workouts, focusing on flexibility and balance, and he has made a good recovery from surgery five years ago to fix a leaking heart valve.
Midland custom clothier John Philbeck said Kent "has a deep respect for his dad and the toughness Buck had.
"The best way to describe Bill is driven," Philbeck said. "He's driven to perfection. He has a genuine concern, first and foremost, for his family, for God and country and for his friends and he has a heart for his employees. He had the drive to pick up Buck's mantle for the Kent stores and carry them into a vision far beyond what Buck could have imagined.
"Bill is a guy of vision and commitment to overcome whatever obstacles stand in the way of making his dream a reality."
Midland banker John Grist said Kent "is an impressive businessman and a fine individual who has been extraordinarily successful.
"He is an experienced businessman who has had the good fortune of making the right decisions at the right time," said Grist. "He is also a disciplined person who carries a black belt in the martial arts. He is a big old strapping boy, so I think it would be ill-advised to mess with him. He works hard and plays hard.
"I called him to say I'd finance it if he wanted to open a truck stop at FM 1788 and Highway 158 and he said, `I'm already contracted to buy that property.'
"Our relationship has been one of mutual respect and friendship and I value that relationship with Mr. Kent."
Leeco Properties CEO Larry Lee of Odessa said Kent "is a great businessman who does a lot for the cities of Odessa and Midland and is a great partner with the Permian Basin Rehabilitation Center through the Kent Kwiks.
"Bill is a great friend who loves West Texas and always has great ideas for expansion," Lee said. "He is doing a major expansion in Odessa with a new store at Loop 338 and 191. I remember when his company was nowhere near as big as it is right now. It has had a steady expansion over the decades."
Keeping his company on track, Kent said, requires a clear concept of what it is and should become. "I surround myself with talented people whose skill sets offset mine," he said.
"The most critical thing is to define what we want to be, chart that course and stick to it. It's easy to go down the rabbit trails of hot new trends. Take the rifle approach, not the shotgun approach.
"I'm proud that my dad came from nothing to be a success and that the business has been owned longer in the second generation than it was in the first. I hope to take it to the next generation and keep the family feel and camaraderie, knowing people and families.
"My goal in life is to help as many people as I can and be more successful in this business. All you really have is your name and reputation."