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Of lessons learned and returning “home”

Ken Epps (MBA ‘02) A self-described nomad, Ken Epps (MBA ’02) planted some roots in Chapel Hill.

Here’s the story: Epps’ father was a career Navy man. The family thus uprooted regularly. Epps was born in Canada and calls Pensacola, Florida, home, but only because it’s where he graduated from high school.

He hadn’t planned to continue living a peripatetic life – hadn’t figured on joining the military. But the U.S. Navy beckoned with an undergraduate scholarship to Vanderbilt University, an offer he couldn’t refuse.

And so, here he is – a captain, commanding the Naval Supply Systems Command Fleet Logistics Center in Pearl Harbor – 27 years a Navy man, having seen the world, but not yet home.

Epps came to UNC Kenan-Flagler in 2000, having been offered a full-ride fellowship to the full-time MBA Program by the Navy. The only requirement was that he had to attend a top 20 business school.

At the time, he knew only a couple of things about UNC. He remembered being told by a high school teacher that if he wanted an Ivy League-type experience, UNC was well worth considering.

And then there were more recent impressions.

“Every time I met a UNC alum or heard about the School, everyone was so effusive in their praise and adoration for the School. I remember thinking, ‘What Kool-Aid are they giving these folks to drink?’”

When he visited, he found the “people and the dynamics of the program were very appealing.”

But an epiphanic moment yet awaited him.

Ken Epps (MBA ’02) “It was my first semester at Kenan-Flagler, and everything just came together for me one fall morning as I was walking back to my apartment in Glen Lennox. It just hit me – the special magic that is the University and the town. I got it. This big decision – where to go to graduate school – ended up being one of the best decisions of my life.”

Epps found at UNC Kenan-Flagler an “open and supportive network” and professors committed to their students’ success.

Professors like Jennifer Conrad, his first-term finance instructor.

“It’s a tough topic, and I remember being so inspired to master its intricacies just because of the passion she would display and her ability to convey complex topics in a way that we could all keep up with,” he says. “To this day, that’s seared in my mind.”

He came to love the “academic intensity” of the program, “but I also loved the sense that we were all in this together. The cooperation and the teamwork were like nothing I’d ever experienced before.”

Epps flourished in the program – he served as president of the MBA Student Association and was honored with the Frank Hawkins Kenan Award for Excellence at graduation.

Afterwards, Epps reported to the Pentagon where he served on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations. Throughout his career he has taken on challenging assignments and called on the knowledge and skills he developed at UNC Kenan-Flagler to deliver results.

Understanding the relationship between cognitive intelligence and emotional intelligence is one of life’s great revelations, and properly balancing the two translates to career success, Epps told the Navy Supply Corps Newsletter. “Once you get higher up in any food chain, pure intellectual firepower matters less than your ability to, one, be persuasive, and, two, build relationships and coalitions.”

Today he credits his UNC Kenan-Flagler experience with allowing him to hone his emotional quotient.

“I think that ethos really got built into my DNA during my time there,” he says. “And the way that’s translated into how I operate now has been a big part of my success.”

Epps helped launch a legacy of Navy Supply Corps officers attending the UNC Kenan-Flagler full-time MBA Program. “There were some other folks who I thought would be a good fit, and they ended up following me there,” he says. “Some wonderful people have come after me.”

As for similarities between the Navy and UNC Kenan-Flagler, Epps considers the Navy to be one of the nation’s premier leadership-development institutions. “We groom and develop leaders and we build very effective teams,” he says. “And I think the core essence of who we are and what we do in the Navy is exactly who we are and what we do at Kenan-Flagler.”

“You can learn to do fancy financial spreadsheets in Excel anywhere, but that EQ component that Kenan-Flagler focuses on a lot is really the key to developing great leaders – people who go on to be really exceptional – and honing that EQ and relational skills that are so important in the workplace.”

The younger Ken Epps couldn’t have charted such a future: 27-year Navy man, contentedly nomadic to date.

“The real success in life,” he observes, “is when you find the passion in what you’re doing. I ended up finding the passion in the work I was doing. I’ve made a life of it, and it’s been a wonderful life, a wonderful life serving my country – a wonderful life being able to lead young men and women and travel the world.”

Retirement will one day appear on the horizon, and, with it, a decision.

Epps – who served on the Alumni Council for several years – says that he and former UNC Kenan-Flagler MBA admissions director Sherry Wallace (MBA ’87) used to joke that he was so in love with Chapel Hill that he would return one day and assume her duties – to align his career with her retirement. Neither Epps or Wallace – now executive director of alumni community for the School – are retiring, but his alma mater still beckons.

“I can easily imagine a life for myself there in Chapel Hill,” says Epps.