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MORRILTON: Businessman honored for work, community endeavors

by Elizabeth Sharp | November 20, 2008 at 2:25 a.m.

— This year has been a big one for Koontz Electric Co. Inc. of Morrilton. Not only did it celebrate its 50th anniversary, but President and CEO Benny Koontz, 58, received an award earlier this month for his work.

Koontz was given the Earle Love Business Leader of the Year Award at the Morrilton Area Chamber of Commerce Annual Banquet on Nov. 3.

"I was surprised," Koontz said of receiving the award. "They hit me pretty good." But for those that know the quiet, soft-spoken man, it's no surprise that he was chosen for the honor.

"He's a lot smarter than he would say he is," said Koontz's sister Kathy Edgerton, 48. "He's just a very brilliant man. He's been able to find a niche for this business." Earle Love was a prominent Morrilton businessman who died in a plane crash in 1991, and a friend of Koontz's.

Long before he was president and CEO of Koontz Electric Co., Benny Koontz was a little boy living with his parents and siblings in Morrilton. His parents, Keith and Nancy, graduated from Morrilton High School and married soon after. They moved to Beaumont, Texas, after having Koontz but returned to Morrilton when he was about 5 or 6. They had four more children- Kenny, Juanise, Nancy and Kathy- and Koontz said his childhood was a pleasant one, mainly revolving around church and school.

"We grew up with not a whole lot, but we didn't know it, so it didn't really matter," Koontz said of his childhood.

When he was 15 or 16, Koontz faced one of his first major challenges: His mother developed some health problems, and as the oldest child, he had to become what he called a "second dad" to his younger siblings.

"I was close to them but in a different way, because I was always the mean one, telling them to clean up their rooms and cooking their meals," Koontz said.

Koontz also began working with his dad, who had formed a small electrical company upon the family's return to Morrilton in the fall of 1958.

This early incarnation of Koontz Electric Co. Inc.

consisted of nothing more than a single service truck and Keith Koontz's strong work ethic and professionalism as an electrician.

"I remember wiring a cotton gin, and that was when I was in high school," he said. "I was wanting to buff up and get ready for football. A lot of my friends were hauling hay, and I was threading pipe and conduit." But between all of the service calls and drivingaround together in the truck, Koontz said he learned a great deal from his father.

"[He taught me] to have integrity and be professional and to laugh a little bit along the way," he said. "I try to every single day. It's not about me, it's not about anybody. That's what's important."

Those early experiences gave Koontz the direction he said he needed once he reached college. While attending the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, he toyed with different careers, including becoming a lawyer. But as a sophomore, with many of the classes required to obtain a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering behind him, Koontz chose to stick with it. He graduated in 1972 and moved back to Morrilton with his first wife, Sandra, and their first child, Bryce.

It would be six years before Koontz resumed the work he began with his father in high school. In the meantime, Koontz gained valuable experience working with the Arkansas Kraft Corp., a division of Green Bay Packaging Inc. and briefly with General Electric.

"Arkansas Kraft gave me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn technically what it would have taken other people 15 years to learn in another environment because of the sheer amount of things I was able to be involved in," Koontz said.

That experience would come in handy in 1978, when some major shifts occurred in his father's life as well as his own. That year, Keith Koontz and his wife divorced and two integral employees at Koontz Electric Co. quit. With his father's personal life in a shaky state and his business' future uncertain, Koontz decided to leave his position at Arkansas Craft Corp. and come on as vice president of Koontz Electric.

"[My father and I] had a discussion, and I decided if there was ever a time I was going to work for my dad ... probably when he needs me most is now," Koontz explained. "The key factor was that he needed help, and I thought I could help him."

And the move proved not only an opportunity for Koontz to help his father; it represented a muchneeded shift of priorities in his own life.

"I didn't know anything about the outside world," he said. "I lived in this corporate shell. I had no major outside involvement with my community."

Over the next couple of years, Koontz said he and his father worked on making the company strong again before changing its direction from a focus on residential to heavy industrial work.

"After we patched up some holes and got our feet underneath us, we were able to tap into the things that I knew how to do well," Koontz said.

The '80s were a time of change for Koontz. In addition to getting a divorce and marrying his second wife, Paula, Koontz broke further from his corporate shell and grew more involved in economic development on both a city and state level. He figured prominently in the Morrilton Area Chamber of Commerce and the Conway County Industrial Development Corp., and in 1985, he was appointed by then-governor Bill Clinton to the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission and named Industrial Developers of Arkansas' Volunteer of the Year.

"I had always been in leadership roles in different things that I'd done in my life," Koontz said. "This is my community, and I wanted to see it grow."

Following a steady decade of development, the company had what Koontz called its "breakthrough project" and assisted in building the Lock and Dam Number Nine Hydroelectric Facility in Morrilton. In 1994, with the company at its strongest yet, Keith Koontz retired and passed on the company to his son, a change that they had been discussing and preparing for since the early days. But it also brought a new set of challenges for Koontz, including his father's death a year later.

"That set me back pretty good, because he was my confidante and my business partner and my best friend," Koontz said. "There was a hole there that I didn't have anybody to talk to and share the good times and the bad times. I didn't have a relationship with a close friend who would understand those things on a day-today basis."

Since then, Koontz hasn'tbeen immune to challenges in his personal life, either, including a heart attack shortly before he acquired the company and the heart arrhythmia complications in 2000. Koontz said its the faithful employees are the only reason the company's been able to stay afloat during the tough times.

"My people [have] been the secret to my success, and our success in our business," he said. "It's not equipment, and it's not luck. It's just having great people here."

Yet despite the hard times, Koontz Electric has continued to grow under his leadership. In the last two years, Koontz said the company has doubled its revenue; in the future, he said he sees Koontz Electric continuing to do what it's done well as well as pursuing wind farms and solar projects.

Edgerton has seen the company transform from her father's one-service truck operation to what her brother is in charge of today.

"When Benny took over the business, my dad did not have aspirations for it to be national or international- he just wanted it to be a good successful company in Morrilton and Conway County," she said. "I think that as [Benny] took his education and knowledge, they [realized they could] make this something sustainable for years to come. I'm sure he was looking at it as, 'This is what I want my legacy to be.'"

Koontz' eldest son, Bryce Koontz, 37, has broken into the family business and is expected to remain integrally involved after Koontz eventually retires. Until then, Koontz is keeping active, serving on the boards of the state Chamber and First United Methodist Church in Morrilton, as wellas hunting, fishing, and keeping up with his wife, his sons Bryce and Scott Koontz, 35, his stepson Nick Hardin, 30, and seven grandchildren.

But whether he's putting in hours at the office or attending his grandchildren's ball games and plays, Koontz is aware of the events and people- specifically his father- that have shaped him into who he is today.

"Things are finite," he said. "You realize you don't have an infinite amount of time to do things. It becomes a matter of time left - what you do with the time you have remaining. Every day is important, and every minute's important in every day."

River Valley Ozark, Pages 59, 63 on 11/20/2008

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