RepCorner: Only the Best

Edition: March 2012 - Vol 20 Number 03
Article#: 3944
Author: Laura Thill

Mediocre is not in his vocabulary. In fact, when Chris Kinney sets his mind to something, he settles for little short of perfection. That means providing top-notch service to his customers; helping build top-quality housing for Habitat for Humanity; even earning the top-level belt in Taekwondo.

“My goal in life has always been to reach the top,” says the Georgia-based Henry Schein field sales consultant. So, about five years ago, when his then 6-year-old son, Gabriel, convinced him to take up Taekwondo, he quickly set his sights on earning his black belt. Following in Gabriel’s footsteps, however, was no easy feat, notes Kinney.

Discipline and respect

“We lived near the Taekwondo studio and passed by it frequently,” Kinney recalls. “Gabriel would always ask us to stop and let him watch the kids. I took him into the studio in December 2005 and discovered the owner was a local police officer and an acquaintance from high school,” Kinney continues. “Gabriel began taking Taekwondo in January 2006, immediately after he turned 4 years old. My wife, Tracy, and I wanted someone other than parents and family teaching him respect, control, and self-discipline. I grew up in a military family and these beliefs were instilled from birth. After meeting with the owner and instructors, I knew they shared our teaching philosophy.”

The martial art turned out to be a perfect fit for Gabriel. “He was well disciplined and immediately showed signs of great technique and precision,” says Kinney. “He showed respect for his instructors and was always keen on listening and following their directions. There was nothing he wouldn’t try. For instance, when he was asked to break boards during a fundraiser at the local mall, he stepped right up to compete with boys and girls several years older than him.”

Indeed, his son advanced quickly in Taekwondo, “often catching the eye of guest judges during testing for belt advancements [due to his willingness to] complete the forms without the assistance of a senior instructor” says Kinney. “Kids under the age of 10 can use a senior instructor to help them during form testing. The senior instructor completes the motions along with the child, who can follow along. Gabriel stopped using a senior instructor after about one year of Taekwondo.”

By the age of six, Gabriel was close to completing his black belt. “I watched him complete his first-degree black belt just before his seventh birthday,” recalls Kinney who had just begun his own Taekwondo training several months earlier. “Watching my son complete all nine Songahm forms, along with the self-defense, the one-steps and the board-breaks [that accompany] each form, was one of the proudest days in my life. Gabriel was – and still is – the youngest student to receive his black belt with no assistance from an instructor.” The experience also proved to be a great motivator for Kinney, who went on to earn his first-degree black belt 2 ½ years later, together with one of his physician customers.

Although there was little doubt in Kinney’s mind that he would succeed in earning his black belt, he admits the process was a challenging one. “The hardest thing for me to learn was control,” he says. Growing up, his retired Lt. Colonel father taught him to box, he notes. “During weekend trips to the bases with my father, [we would] box. But, I never learned to control the strength of my punches.” He quickly learned that in Taekwondo, is it critical to control the strength of one’s punches and kicks.

“In the beginning, I did not know this and kicked my instructor really hard during sparring,” says Kinney. “He returned a punch to my chest, followed by a kick to my head.” As he rearranged his headgear (“I was looking out the ear hole!”), the importance of control became clear to him. “Similarly, when you are being defeated while sparring, you must control your anger and stay focused on the mission at hand,” he says.

The experience taught him to “respect his body, his intelligence and to [adopt] an unwilling submission” necessary to achieve the goal at hand, says Kinney. The expectations in Taekwondo are to test for – and advance to – a new belt level every two or three months, he explains. Some belt levels include several phases of testing, and each level of advancement is increasingly difficult and entails more steps. “I learned about myself and the limits of my body,” he says. “Having always been fairly versatile during my high school sports day, I knew that to be successful I would have to stretch my body and push it to its limits. In the beginning, I focused on being able to kick a target over my head. Because I am able to do a complete split, I can easily kick a target above my head, [and this] comes in handy while sparring. I stand 5 feet 7 inches and most of my competitors are 6 feet tall. Like my son, I learned to respect my competitors.”

Habitat for Humanity

Years before Kinney was building self-discipline and control, he was building homes for those in need. While a student at University of Georgia, he participated in Habitat for Humanity (a volunteer project designed to help build affordable homes for those in need) through his fraternity. In 1996, when he was asked to join the board of directors as treasurer for the Dublin-Lauren County (Georgia) chapter, “I was greatly honored,” he recalls. Today, he is the family selection chairperson and also serves on the site selection and construction committee. (Kinney’s wife was hired as the executive director in 2000 and continues in that role today.)

Through his work with Habitat for Humanity, Kinney has learned to accept and appreciate people’s differences. “You deal with a number of different personalities while working on a Habitat house,” he says. “The future homeowner may have a different socio-economic background – with different priorities and family issues – than yourself. You also find that volunteers have different – if any – construction expertise when they arrive at a jobsite.”

Kinney’s responsibilities include scouting potential properties for future home construction projects and helping run application seminars for potential home recipients. “Once applications are collected, we review the applicants’ need and financial eligibility, before conducting a home interview,” he explains. At the home interview, he and his team determine applicants’ need based on substandard or overcrowded conditions. They also assess applicants’ ability to repay a zero-interest mortgage on a Habitat home.

As construction chairperson, Kinney is responsible for overseeing the project, together with the contractor. “I also assist with training volunteers on proper technique and safety [protocols] on the job site,” he says. “If volunteers are giving up their Saturday morning to come out and participate, then I will put a hammer in their hands and oversee the process. My responsibilities are to insure that each and every volunteer is safely working to not endanger someone close to them.” He also makes sure the volunteers are following the construction directions appropriately. “You do not want a wall where a door was supposed to be!”

Once he’s satisfied that construction is off to a good start, Kinney straps on a tool belt and gets to work himself. “Construction takes approximately 14 weeks (volunteers work Saturdays only) from the beginning to end,” he explains, noting he makes it a point to be at the job from 7:30 in the morning to well past noon, regardless of how many volunteers show up. “I am typically the last person to leave the worksite after ensuring that all of the tools are put away and the supplies are documented for the following weekend work day. I assist with every aspect of the construction phase, from pouring the cement to handing over the keys to the homeowner.”

The work may sound long and strenuous, but for Kinney, the payoff of seeing local families safe and happy makes it very worthwhile. For instance, he describes one home visit with a future homeowner applicant as one of his most “moving” experiences. “I met the single mother during the application seminar and was very pleased she passed the financial criteria for a home visit,” he says. “I knew of her children from one of the local high schools. Her youngest son was a standout on our local high school football team. [During the home visit the committee members] sat in the living room of the house in which she was raising her two sons, her daughter and her grandson. I surveyed the room and noticed that all of the windows were covered with plastic and duct tape and that the front door had a towel shoved under it. When I asked the mother about this, she proceeded to tell me that the air flowing around the windows caused the home to become very cold at night and the duct-tape kept the cold and animals out! She had the towel under the door to prevent roaches and mice from getting in. We proceeded to the kitchen, where she grabbed my arm and directed me along the wall. The floor in the center of the kitchen was soft and about to collapse. The stove was held up using two-by-four wood strips.

The woman’s two sons shared a room that was so small, only one of them could dress at a time, Kinney continues. “The boys each had a plastic chest under his bed where he protected his clothes from mice. The floor in the bathroom was similar to the kitchen, with holes and soft spots. The family could not use the front door because the roof overhang was falling in and it was too dangerous.

“I returned home and cried while describing this family’s horrible living conditions to my wife,” he says. “I could not believe that people in my own community lived in such bad conditions. The spirit of the mother and the family was amazing, and I prayed to God for a quick solution to their home problems. Even while living in these horrible conditions, the daughter was attending college and both boys had been accepted into college. They were placed in a new Habitat home and on the day of dedication, the grandson slept on the floor. The homeowner recipient told me that was the first time she had ever seen him sleep on the floor (due to mice and roaches). My heart was broken forever that individuals actually were forced to live this way, with no means of leaving. This is the reason I do what I do for Habitat for Humanity.”

Working for Habitat for Humanity also brings together his family, Kinney adds. “Tracy is still the executive director,” he says. “She is the only full time employee there and responsible for every aspect of running the non-profit affiliate, from collecting payments from homeowners to processing bank transactions. She oversees fundraising events and promotes our local affiliate in print media and at speaking engagements for civic groups and churches.”

Kinney’s son, Gabriel, is too young to work on project sites, but he, too, does his part to be involved. “He has become very familiar with all of our partner families and has helped with all of the fundraising events,” says Kinney, who, with Tracy, teaches Gabriel that it’s not the house one lives in or the school one attends that makes him or her a good person. “Gabriel has become friends with many of the Habitat homeowners’ children and every Christmas, he looks through his toys and uses his own money to purchase Christmas gifts for the children of our partner families. We are teaching him to give back to the community we live in, and he is learning many life lessons.”

Working with customers

Like his son, Kinney believes he too has learned some life lessons through his volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity. Many of these lessons apply to his work as a sales rep, he points out. For instance, just as he works with people from various backgrounds, with different priorities and personalities, when volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, so he must be a true team member at work – and find the right solutions for a variety of customers, all with different goals.

Similarly, Taekwondo has taught Kinney greater respect not only for himself, his family and friends, but his customers as well. It’s also taught him to be persistent. “When you are tired and ready to throw in the towel, [Taekwondo teaches you to] reach deep inside yourself and find what you are made of,” he says. “If you don’t continue to fight, you will go home that evening knowing you were whipped by your opponent.”

Working in sales can be very similar, he notes. “Customers will love you and everything will be going along perfectly. Then you [encounter] that one customer who makes [negative] comments about your product, your service, your company or your competition.” It’s at these times that Kinney has learned to “reach deep down [inside myself] and discover what the issues are, find that solution and win a customer for life.”