Mayor Evans: Do What You Love

‘Farmer of America’ reveals how passion, hard work can pay off

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Alexis Bechman/Roundup

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans offered students at Payson High School a summary of the lessons he learned in a career that started off in a family of migrant farm workers and led to becoming one of the most influential farmers in Arizona. At one point, Evans even got to write a check for nearly $1 billion, before retiring from farming and giving away millions. His advice to the students: Follow your passion.

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Alexis Bechman/Roundup

As Evans spoke, teacher Bud Evans recorded the event.

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Alexis Bechman/Roundup

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans addressed a business class at Payson High School.

From the humble roots of a migrant farm worker to the head of one of the largest family farming and agriculture enterprises in the country, Mayor Kenny Evans succeeded in life through hard work, dedication and innovation.

As a chairman, president, founder, director, even “Farmer of America,” Evans followed his passion and learned to capitalize on things no one else wanted to do. These traits took him far in life and even allowed him to write a check once for $967,145,275.17 — enough to buy out another company.

In a presentation for sophomores in Bud Evans’ World of Information Technology class, Mayor Evans discussed his life, career choices and why he eventually gave away his part of a multi-million dollar company to charity.

Mayor Evans’ speech is part of the Pursue the Passion program. Completion of the program allows Future Business Leaders of America students to qualify for the Arizona FBLA Pursue the Passion seminar in December.

The program’s goal is to get students thinking differently about career paths. Through interviews with career professionals, students gain career insight and how others succeeded.

Pursue the Passion started with a group of students who did not know what they wanted to do after graduation. They decided to buy an RV, drive around the country and explore career options by interviewing people along the way. After 16,000 miles, they had interviewed hundreds of professionals. Two of the students, turned the concept into a program into what it is today for the Jobing Foundation, according to the Jobing.com Web site.

Evans started the program in his class because he said too many kids graduate today not knowing what they want to do or settling for any job.

He hopes after students talk with successful professionals, they’ll be inspired to explore their interests and talents.

For their part of the program, students were invited to ask Mayor Evans questions about his life and career. Here are some of the questions:

Why would you want to be mayor?

Mayor Evans answered this question by asking the class to guess why they thought he would want to be mayor. One student suggested it was for the money. Evans squashed this idea quickly by stating he made more money in an hour at the time he retired than he will make the whole year as mayor.

Another student guessed it was to make a difference in the community.

“Help the community — what a novice idea,” Evans said sarcastically. However, this is exactly why he came out of retirement, to help the citizens of Payson.

“The town of Payson was going in a direction that I did not think was best for you,” he said to the students. “I wanted to make your future brighter.”

How did you market your campaign?

The first thing Evans did was poll residents to see what they wanted, were dissatisfied with and needed. He then asked them what they knew of him.

The first thing he realized was, “no one knew me.”

He took that disadvantage and turned it into a marketing slogan. He created buttons stating “Kenny who?”

“This got people talking,” he said.

The second thing he did was launching an Internet campaign, which he said was the first significant one in the Rim Country.

As residents visited his Web site, Evans kept track of where people clicked, how long they stayed on a page and how often they visited. From that data, Evans could push information out based on what people were looking at. For example, if a person visited the site and looked at his water page, he would then send them further information about water.

“I would send them information on that topic that they were looking at,” he said.

Why Payson?

Evans explained he had homes throughout the country, from La Jolla, Maui, Yuma and a ranch in New Mexico. As he traveled to his ranch, he would often go through Payson.

When Evans retired in 1995, his wife Linda told him she wanted to move to the mountains.

Linda told him, “For the last 30 years you have driven to the mountains and left me in Yuma — I am going to the mountains.”

It took Evans half a second to realize he was going with her and started looking for places. One afternoon, they drove into Payson, spotted a home and bought it on site.

How can students best use their high school classes?

Evans admitted he wasn’t always the best student in high school.

“I was a good student who was lazy. I did what I had to do to get a B, that was my goal in life.”

Students often do not want to appear too smart, so they aim low so their friends think they are cool.

“Friends come and go,” he said. “Your ability to learn in the future is based on how you structure your foundation and learn now.”

It took the wisdom of a mentor to change Evans’ outlook on school. Between his sophomore and junior year, the mentor convinced Evans to put a higher value on education and intelligence.

“I didn’t make another B the rest of high school and graduated No. 1 in my class at the University of Arizona.”

Evans graduated with a B.S. in agriculture from U of A in 1967 and went on to get his master’s in education from Rutgers University in 1989 and his Ph.D. in environmental science from Cook College in 1997.

With his education, Evans has worked with at least a dozen companies including serving as president of the Western Agricultural Insurance Company for 12 years.

In 1995, Top Producer Magazine named him Farmer of the Year. In 1995 and 2003, Arizona FFA named him Man of the Year.

After years of climbing the success ladder and building up his company, Evans retired and gave away most of it to charity.

“I had done things I wanted to do and created an empire large enough,” he said. “I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

After retiring, he was able to spend more time with his family including his four children and 10 grandchildren.

Best way to get started in a career?

Network.

You have to go out and meet people in the field you want to work in, he said. Your life and your career have to be tied together. He indicated with his hands outstretched, you cannot have your work over here and your life over there. To be successful you have to do something that makes you happy. And if you can do something that no one else is doing, do it better and you enjoy it, you are set.

(Residents can contribute to Payson High School’s Future Business Leaders of America program through the Credit for Kids program. Money is used to send students to FBLA conferences.)

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