All too often, people aren’t appreciated until they’re gone. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case for James “Jim” F. McKenna Jr., president of L.B. Smith, who passed away Nov. 5 after a lengthy illness. McKenna, 59, was able to know how much he was loved and respected by friends, family and – most of all, his employees.
McKenna was born on Jan. 2, 1943, in Robeson County, NC, the son of James F. McKenna Sr., and Hazel McKenna, and grew up in Guilford County. He attended Guilford County schools and graduated from Bessemer High School, a co-captain of the football team. He was named the most original of his senior class, which his sister, Dianne McKenna said, described him to a tee. “He could always turn the most simple thing into a joke. It was a nice way to look at the world.”
He married during his first year at East Carolina University, and graduated in just three years. During college, he worked for E.F. Craven while on his summer breaks. While studying to be a history teacher, he was asked to consider a job with the company and the rest is history. McKenna started at E.F. Craven in 1964, along with D.J. Hughes, currently the branch manager of L.B. Smith’s Raleigh location, as a sales trainee.
During this time, McKenna worked in the Durham area, then Greensboro, eventually becoming a general sales manager, “directing the sales trainees through the basic program,” said Howard Monroe, who started with Craven in 1974 under McKenna.
After a few years McKenna moved to Florida. By the early 1980s, he was back in Durham, starting his own used equipment operation. By the late 1980s, he was hired at L.B. Smith.
“I hired him. At the time, he had left a company in Florida and moved back to North Carolina. I learned about him through Ward McCreek. Soon after, we finally got together and he came to work for us,” said Lamar Light, past president of L.B. Smith.
That year, McKenna recruited Monroe to L.B. Smith. “He touched base with me in December of 1986 and asked if I would consider talking to him. That led to what it is today. He wanted me to help him reconstruct L.B. Smith,” he said. Monroe came on as an area manager and did what McKenna needed him to do. “As we grew, he said, ’If I need you to do something, I want you to be where I need you.’ ”
In 1988, Hughes came onboard at the company working in sales in western North Carolina. “He recruited me to come to L.B. Smith after he was working for awhile up there. The company decided to open a branch in Asheville and I came to work there,” Hughes said.
During his tenure at L.B. Smith, McKenna was promoted to vice president, southeast division; executive vice president of the southeast divisions; and eventually president of L.B. Smith in 1999.
Although the company is headquartered in Camp Hill, PA, McKenna continued to work out of the Charlotte branch.
Under McKenna’s leadership, L.B. Smith experienced phenomenal growth and success. He was instrumental in the company’s continued expansion in the southeast, with both product lines and locations.
L.B. Smith was a Terex dealer and took on Volvo under McKenna’s tenure. “He was able to get people in the south to believe in L.B. Smith again,” said Monroe, “The company had been in the south from the 1970s to 1981 and stumbled. When the Volvo account came, the company started expanding. Total growth to profitability was his thing.”
L.B. Smith then saw expansion throughout North and South Carolina and into Florida, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia.
“As he grew in the industry, he was recognized for his ability to make things happen and people admired him for it. That enthusiasm helped with manufacturers and customers,” Monroe said.
“He worked extremely well with Volvo to gain their trust and support, and brought corporate L.B. Smith and corporate Volvo together to where they are today,” he added.
Those who worked for McKenna cannot say enough about his leadership, managerial skills and camaraderie with both employees and customers.
According to Joyce Benoist, his assistant of 14 years, “He was one of the most creative, witty and personable people I’ve ever known…”
She added, “When Jim would come into a location of L.B. Smith, he didn’t stop at the manager’s office, but instead went back to the guys in the service department and talked with them. He loved people and he cared just as much for the mechanics, clerks and parts people as he did the executives. He just had that rare ability to see so much good in people. I had the utmost respect for him and his leadership because I saw it from his heart and I knew it was all sincere. He handled everything with the utmost integrity and that is why he was so well liked.”
“He was a great guy to work for,” Hughes noted. “He was very matter of fact – you knew where you stood with him and he was always fair. He had a real good insight to business.”
He continued, “Jim had a personality that made you want to work for him and made people want to buy from him. He was very well- respected by all the manufacturers we represented.”
Monroe noted, “From a managerial side, he did have that extra drive to get people to do things to make L.B. Smith a very reputable company in the customers’ eyes. He always had a sense of value for our customers.
“He was able to get a group of people together and create, in a very short period of time, a very respectable equipment house.”
According to Light, “He did a wonderful job disposing of some bad equipment – equipment that was overpriced. We went through some real bad times when interest was over 20 percent and no one was buying. He made a statement at the time, ’You know when times are good, I’m not as good as I look, but I’m sure not as bad as I look now.’… You remember some of the stuff you go through together in a company and sometimes you win. He was a winner.”
McKenna was the type of manager that let his employees do their jobs and grow and blossom in their own work. Also, he didn’t believe in the philosophy of the half-empty glass. “He would say, ’Don’t tell me you can’t do it, tell me what you can do’,” Monroe explained.
He also had a well-known work ethic. “When he had an idea and you would bring it into reality, he wouldn’t take the credit for the idea. Instead he would always give credit to those who did the work,” Benoist said.
“His big thing was that he wanted everyone to grow and be a better person. Hopefully they will learn a little something from him and be better for it,” Monroe commented.
McKenna’s smile and sense of humor often made people feel better just be being around him.
“He told so many funny stories, he was very quickwitted. His wife once said to me that never did she see him come into a room where he didn’t fill it with his presence. This, of course, was in a humble way, just part of his personality,” Benoist said.
Others also have some humorous tales of McKenna to tell. “The equipment business was his life and he devoted most of his energies to it but that didn’t translate to golf,” said Light. “He was a lousy golfer and that bothered him.” The first time McKenna participated in a manager’s meeting, they all went out for a round of golf. “He found a pair of blue shoes and everyone remarked about them. They ended up dryrotting and the soles fell right off. He never lived that one down.”
Another story is documented by Benoist. One of McKenna’s lifelong dreams was to have a Searay. “It was a big joke because three different times he grounded the boat. One time he set out for a two week trip on the ocean. One morning, I was sitting at work and he called and said, ’Guess where I’m at?’ He was sitting in his boat and had just grounded it in the channel in Myrtle Beach. He thought it was funny and would make my day. He was such a funny man,” she said.
One of his more serious hobbies was collecting civil war texts. Being a history major in college, he was a big student of the Civil War, according to Bill Howell, president of Equipment Data Associates. “He was once of our clients for the service that we offer. When I worked for CEG, he was an advertiser so we hit it off. He loved the tactics and seeing how the war applied to and changed society. I even bought him a few books over the years.”
It is quite obvious that he will be missed by all who knew him. “I consider myself very blessed and fortunate to have worked with the man over the years. Never at any time did I ever lose any respect for him. He was a dear friend and it was always a joy to do anything to be able to help him,” Benoist said.
“He was always quick with a smile and loved to talk about the latest happenings in the industry. I would go to him to swap stories,” Howell said.
“He was one of the good guys,” said Edwin McKeon, founder and CEO of Construction Equipment Guide. “He knew the business and was great with both the used and new side of equipment. He was a great manager and had a personality that did well with the contractors. He always was available and friendly to everyone.”
Monroe also noted, “I valued the fact that our paths crossed. It has made me a better person. I didn’t always agree with him and he didn’t always agree with me but we were able to discuss it and go forward. We were united in the same purpose and got the job done.”
He added, “A lot of guys have called today and mentioned what an impact he had with them and how they wouldn’t be where they are today without him. I hate what’s happened but we will go forward and be better people because our path crossed with his.”
McKenna was a 32nd degree mason of the Shriner’s Association and was a member of Muir’s Chapel United Methodist Church.
McKenna’s family received friends at the Lambeth & Troxler Funeral Home in Greensboro on Thursday, Nov. 7. A memorial and burial was held at Muir’s Chapel United Methodist Church the next day.
He is survived by his wife of more than 40 years, Ann; two sons, Patrick, who works at L.B. Smith’s Asheville branch, and John of Greensboro; his mother, Hazel McKenna of Greensboro; two sisters, Dianne McKenna of Greensboro, and Betty Titzel of Florida; and three grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to Hospice and Palliative Care of Greensboro, 2500 Summit Ave., Greensboro, NC, 27405.