Six years ago, amid great fanfare, Joe Kimmel pledged $6.9-million dollars to Western Carolina University.

Based on that pledge, with payments expected to come in over an eight-year period, WCU went forward with a new school: the Joe W. Kimmel School of Construction Management, Engineering, and Technology.

Kimmel’s ability to pay WCU, however, abruptly ended in December 2009, when his company, Asheville-based Kimmel & Associates, went into bankruptcy. He stopped at $1.43 million — more than $5 million short of the original pledge to WCU.

The date of the last payment isn’t known. WCU would not release the payment schedule.

Chapter 11 bankruptcy afforded Kimmel and his wife, Cynthia, legal protection to try to reorganize their finances, both personally and for Kimmel & Associates. The company recently came out of bankruptcy proceedings. But it remains unclear whether Kimmel will, or even would be allowed under terms of his bankruptcy emergence, to fulfill the remainder of his promise to WCU.

The Kimmels said they had $7.2 million in personal assets and $15.8 million in liabilities. Kimmel & Associates listed $2.1 million in assets and $7.2 million in debts, according to federal bankruptcy filings.

Kimmel did not return a phone message seeking comment, with an employee at his company declining on his behalf.

 

Construction industry crashes

Kimmel & Associates is an executive head hunting search firm founded in 1981 that is focused on the construction industry. Kimmel & Associates could at one time — and did — boast of a national client base of more than 100 companies.

Pairing a construction-management school at a university seeking national prominence in the field with a construction head-hunting firm must have seemed a match made in heaven — particularly given Kimmel’s nearly $7 million dowry.

With an additional $3.5 million in matching state money secured as a result of Kimmel’s generous gesture, WCU promised to create a first-class educational program.

“We expect this pledge, combined with additional public and private support, will result in a school that will place Western on par with the nation’s finest institutions of higher education in preparing students for careers in construction management and related fields that are critical to the emerging economy of the state and the nation,” Chancellor John Bardo said in a press conference at the time.

Kimmel generosity didn’t stop with WCU. He and his company made contributions to numerous organizations in WNC, including the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Asheville Art Museum, Buncombe County Medical Society’s Project Access, Humane Society, Center for Diversity Education, Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministries, Meals on Wheels and the Fine Arts League of Asheville. Kimmel also established in 2004 a fund that provided $1,000 scholarships for students in construction fields.

“Giving and serving is the nucleus of the world, when the world is right,” Kimmel noted in a company newsletter as he reflected on his donation to WCU.

That was then; this is now. The world, at least the world according to Kimmel & Associates, soon wasn’t right.

Not even close: The housing boom, which seemed to promise ever-increasing profit margins to a construction industry left almost giddy by that prospect, instead crashed. Kimmel and his firm saw business dry up, virtually overnight, as builders were forced to put their measuring tapes up and hammers down.

In 2007, Kimmel & Associates was pulling in gross revenue of more than $19 million, bankruptcy documents show. That number dropped to $16.4 million in 2008, and by the following year, the company had dropped to $8.6 million.

Kimmel & Associate’s gross monthly income in 2009 still amounted to $625,000. But, with total monthly expenses coming to $626,047, Kimmel’s company was $1,047 a month in the red.

“Collapse of the construction industry” is the single reason given as a contributing factor in Kimmel & Associates fall into bankruptcy, according to documents.

 

School nuts & bolts

Today, the Kimmel School offers six degree programs in two departments: construction management and engineering and technology. There are state-of-the-art laboratory facilities; and about 300 students enrolled to take advantage of them.

The Kimmel contributions have gone toward endowments for distinguished professorships, student scholarships and program support for the construction management program, including allowing students and faculty to expand their participation in academic competitions, national conferences and industry meetings, said Bill Studenc, a WCU spokesman.

WCU landed a big-name, politically connected dean in March of 2008 when Robert K. “Bob” McMahan Jr. came on board. An astrophysicist, McMahan came to the university from his previous position as then North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley’s senior adviser for science and technology.

It wasn’t just WCU that Kimmel & Associates left in the lurch. UNC Asheville, where six of Joe and Cynthia Kimmel’s seven children attended school, built the Kimmel Arena — the health and wellness center was the result of a $2-million pledge from the couple. Last year, a UNCA official told the Asheville Citizen-Times that half that amount had been received.

 

WCU optimistic

A full assessment of the Kimmel School financial outlook is difficult to ascertain. When asked directly whether the school would be given a different name to more accurately reflect the true giving-picture, Clifton Metcalf, WCU vice president for advancement and external affairs, responded in a written statement:

“The university has taken a long-range view in our relationship with Kimmel & Associates,” he said. “We have been confident that Kimmel, one of the nation’s premier firms in recruiting executives for the construction industry, would rebound as economic conditions improved generally and as construction activity, specifically, accelerated. That appears to be happening now, and there is no intention to rename the school.”

Metcalf’s assessment of Kimmel & Associates’ ability to fulfill its pledge might be more hopeful than realistic.

The bankruptcy plan called for Kimmel and his wife to sell their $1.2 million in gold jewelry and 100 acres in Madison County, plus turn over to debtors the leases on two properties — the business itself on Page Avenue in Asheville, and a beach house in Folly Beach, S.C., used by customers and employees. Even leases on the company’s fleet of cars were up for grabs.

The bankruptcy of one of Western Carolina University’s largest supporters will hurt the school’s fast growing construction management program.

In 2005 Joe Kimmel, owner of Asheville-based Kimmel & Associates, pledged nearly $7 million over eight years to the construction management program at WCU, which was named the Joe W. Kimmel School of Construction Management Engineering and Technology.

Both Kimmel and his company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in late December. Bankruptcy filings often affect philanthropic commitments as creditors seek to recover their investments.

WCU spokesperson Bill Studenc said delays in receiving the promised Kimmel gift would likely affect the number of scholarships the program can offer.

“Delay in fulfilling commitments planned in the Kimmel gift will mean that fewer student scholarships and less program support will be available during the interim,” Studenc said.

WCU Chancellor John Bardo said the school’s primary focus in the matter is the welfare of the Kimmel family, whom he called “close friends of the university.”

“Our current concern is for the Kimmel family and their employees,” Bardo said. “As one does with family, we will take the long view of this trying time. We wish them all the best. We will stand by them in every way we can, and trust that there will be a brighter day in the world economy soon.”

WCU’s construction management school was started in 1999 and offers an undergraduate B.S. degree and an online masters degree. Currently, 300 students are enrolled in the two programs.

Robert McMahan, dean of the Kimmel School, acknowledged that the current economic climate is difficult for the construction industry, but he said the program is still growing.

“The construction management program has been growing steadily over the years, and we anticipate that trend to continue,” McMahan said. “Freshmen entering the program in the fall will not be preparing for employment this year, but for opportunities available in four years. We anticipate that as the economy improves, the construction industry will be one of the areas to benefit most greatly from the turnaround.”

McMahan said graduates of the Kimmel School have done well finding jobs during the recession.

“Obviously, the construction industry has been affected by the economic downturn,” McMahan said. “But what we have seen is that graduates of our construction management program continue to be able to secure the jobs they seek in the industry because of the valuable mix of skills they acquire here at Western Carolina.”

Kimmel & Associates is one of the largest recruiting firms in the country specializing in placing candidates in the construction industry.

As industry experts warn of a worsening international shortage of construction professionals, Western Carolina University and one of the nation’s largest personnel recruiting firms are teaming up to boost the number of college graduates prepared for management positions in the construction industry.

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