Take Me to the River

As CEO of one of our city’s largest real-estate firms, Kevin Adams knows what challenges are all about. But few can compare with the 679-mile journey of self-discovery he made last March.

Larry Kuzniewski

Among the movers-and-shakers of the Memphis business community, Kevin Adams needs no introduction. Cofounder of the CB Richard Ellis Group’s Memphis affiliate, Adams has been among the city’s most prominent commercial real-estate managers and developers over the past two decades.

Today, he’s the chief executive of CBRE Memphis, with scores of employees and 24 million square feet of office space to manage. Most recently, he was a key figure in the negotiations that helped convince Pinnacle Airlines to move its corporate headquarters from the airport to downtown, into the Commerce Square building. 

At age 51, Kevin Adams looks and acts at least ten years younger; clearly, the global economic challenges of the past few years have done nothing to dampen his spirit or enthusiasm for his work, his city, and everything around him. A top-notch athlete and a lifelong sportsman, CBRE Memphis’ CEO has always been up for challenges when they stare him in the face. Looking for a way to test himself physically and spiritually and recharge his batteries, Adams found the answer right outside his office window. 

“I have always been in awe of that river,” he says. “I can take a lot of pain and suffering over an extended period of time. I do know my limitations. I am an old football player with bad ankles, knees, and hips. Running is too hard on my bones and what cartilage is left.”

Once before, Kevin Adams had tested himself against the river, and it did not go well. Some 20 years ago, he shuttled two close friends across the bridge to Arkansas; they were planning to swim across the river back to Memphis. The night before, he decided to join them. Bad move. His friends had been training for a year and successfully made the crossing. Adams didn’t. The former college football player had not trained at all, and the result was his being hauled out of the river by a boat that was accompanying the swimmers.

His second river challenge was considerably more ambitious, and turned out considerably better. This past March, Adams paddled his 14-foot kayak 679 miles from Memphis to the outskirts of New Orleans, in a transformational trip that took 16 days. This time, he planned everything in detail, from campsites to conditioning to the equipment he carried with him. There were storms, lonely hours, and close calls with barges, sunken trees, and whirlpools that could drown a person or capsize a boat. And there was also the satisfaction that comes from pushing one’s self to new limits. It most certainly was the trip of a lifetime, one that Kevin Adams will certainly never forget.

Physical activity has always been a passion for Adams, who grew up in Houston, Texas, where he hunted and played football. His football team at Stratford High School won the state 4A championship in 1978 and was named national champion by several publications. Along with his Stratford teammate Craig James (later an NFL Pro Bowler and currently an ESPN analyst), Adams enrolled at Southern Methodist University. When SMU signed another star running back named Eric Dickerson, Adams moved from fullback to linebacker. Led by their “Pony Express” backfield, the Mustangs finished in the Top Five in the polls in 1981 and 1982. (The victories were overshadowed, however, by recruiting violations that led to the first and only imposition of the NCAA “death penalty” on a college football program in 1987.)

In 1985, Adams and Earl Blankenship started Interstate Realty, a Memphis real-estate services firm that affiliated with the CB Richard Ellis Group in 1996. After he turned 50 last year, Adams desired another special challenge, and found the inspiration for the trip of a lifetime. With the blessings of his wife Sara, whom he met at SMU, and their four children, he decided to try to turn into reality his daydream of conquering the Mississippi.

“This was something I wanted and needed to do,” he says today. “I wouldn’t call it a midlife crisis, but I found myself becoming sort of numb to everything around me, and all of the circumstances that are out of your control with family and work.

“This [trip] really recharged my batteries and gave me back my perspective. It was more than I expected mentally and physically, but the sense of accomplishment was, too.”

He spent four months planning the trip and getting in shape. He chose to do it in March because it would be neither too hot nor too cold, and there would be no mosquitoes. He estimated that it would take him 22 days to get to just above New Orleans, at which point the river is too congested with cargo ships, barges, and industry to continue.

His flat-bottomed kayak had a foot-controlled rudder, but was only partially covered by a skirt.

He carried 150 pounds of gear (Adams himself weighed roughly 200 pounds when he started the trip), including a tent, food for three weeks, a wet suit, clothing, a sail that he soon discovered didn’t work, a GPS, a Bible, a whistle, a bottle of ibuprofen, a camera, and a satellite messaging device that sent daily reports on his location to his family.

There was not much margin of error. If he had tipped over, the kayak would have taken on too much water and he would have had to abandon it and swim for shore. He never did, but he came close. 

The first day was ominous. The river was at 32 feet and rising, high for the season, but still well below the near-record crest of 47.8 feet Memphis experienced in May. The temperature was 40 degrees. There were tornado warnings in Arkansas as he paddled out of the harbor into the big river shortly before noon. 

Adams’ first thought was that it was “like an ocean.” Then the skies opened up, and with lightning flashing all around, he crossed to the Arkansas side, taking refuge in an RV park within sight of the Memphis skyline. It was only three o’clock in the afternoon, and he was exhausted after putting up his tent and crawling inside. He thought he had covered eight miles but it was more like three miles. He quickly learned the importance of his portable stove. 

“That Jet Boil saved me,” he says. “I could boil water quickly for noodles or coffee.”

The storm stopped the next day, and he began to get into a routine: up at dawn if the fog had lifted, make breakfast, pack up the kayak, and get his mental and geographical bearings. If he was in a remote area, as he usually was, he would put his garbage in a plastic bag and tie it in a tree where a hunter or passerby might find it and hopefully dispose of it; Adams certainly couldn’t carry it. He would paddle 40 to 50 miles until 6 p.m. and then find high ground, put up his tent, read the Bible, listen to music and to the sounds of birds singing or beavers slapping their tails, and make a video report for his family. 

The river current was moving at about six miles an hour. By paddling, he could make eight or ten miles an hour. He listened to music — Johnny Cash and Elvis were his favorites — but found hardly any time to relax and savor the scenery. The current was constantly changing his direction and position, because of the depth, dikes, bends, wind, and passing barges. Sometimes it would push him backwards, upriver, unless he paddled with all his strength. At other times, it wanted to sweep him toward a barge or to a side of the river where he didn’t want to go. 

“You’ve got to be alert all the time,” he says. “There was no time to mess around. You have to be focused on what you are doing. There are logs coming up from underwater and whirlpools and whitewater. When a barge is coming up behind you, you can’t hear it, so you’re constantly looking back. That’s why I had my music volume set very low and didn’t use earphones.” 

From the South Bluff or Tom Lee Park in Memphis, the river can look as smooth as glass between the bridges, but down below on that shimmering piece of glass, it’s an entirely different story. Adams learned to read “lines” in the river like a roadmap, to locate the main current. Twice he took ill-advised shortcuts, only to find that a swift chute could peter out into dead water due to trash and debris, forcing him to paddle back upstream for several hours. 

He was usually soaked, but his wet suit, booties, and wool long johns and socks kept him warm even when the heavy outer boots he started out with became so worn and leaky that he simply took them off. He brought a fresh change of clothes for each day, but wound up wearing the same thing the entire trip. By the time he reached Vicksburg, he was unshaven and so scruffy that when he stopped to walk to a gas station, drivers took one look at him and locked their doors.

He learned not to cross the path of an oncoming barge, no matter how distant, lest the current carry him into the danger zone. In a tight squeeze he would grab a tree on the bank and hold on until the barge passed. 

“There were times when a barge was coming and it was too late to turn back,” he recalls now, “so I was pushing and paddling as hard as I could. My mind was telling me it’s useless, you can’t go any further, and somehow you find the strength inside you and you do make it. It’s amazing what you can accomplish.” 

Whirlpools were another threat. 

“I would see hundreds of them daily. The best way to describe a whirlpool is like a toilet bowl. They just appear out of nowhere. Once I was looking down that thing and looking sideways at water coming into my boat. The trick was to get up a lot of speed and go right through them before they start pulling me down.”

Sometimes the river would cough up trees or hidden obstructions. One day Adams was enjoying a rare moment of relaxation when an enormous fin burst out of the water in front of him. He thought he was hallucinating, seeing a whale or shark, but it turned out to be a buoy on a chain. 

To combat boredom and fatigue, he would set up intermediate goals. The bridges at Helena, Greenville, Vicksburg, Natchez, and Baton Rouge were major markers, to which he would add others in his line of vision: Reach that bend and eat a handful of almonds. Two more miles on the GPS and take a drink of water.

When he talks about his Mississippi trip, Adams usually says “we” even though he was alone. He became his own invisible “friend.”  “I talked to myself out loud a lot,” he says. “I am a spiritual guy so I had conversations with God. I would sing my songs and think about my family and not stop until dark unless there was a lightning storm.”

Long-distance bikers and hikers often talk about the friendly strangers they meet each night and the camaraderie of the open road, but Adams’ river journey was, for the most part, a solitary one. He met a couple of curious river men in a flat-bottom boat one day who asked him a lot of questions about what in the world he was doing.

“Honestly, it was a little nerve-wracking. I didn’t know if they were good guys or bad guys or if this was a scene out of Deliverance or what.” Then one of the strangers offered him a Coke.

“They said, ‘You’re gonna make it,’ and that gave me confidence.”

Natchez, with its antebellum mansions on the bluff and park and restaurants “under the hill,” was the scenic highlight of the trip, but since he arrived alongside the town early in the day, he kept paddling rather than make another stop. 

Below that, after Adams passed Baton Rouge, the river became increasingly clogged with barges and cargo ships. He was able to make contact with his wife via his satellite device; he let her know his position and the estimated time for their rendezvous above New Orleans. 

At the Luling Bridge, where Interstate 310 crosses the Mississippi, some 25 miles above the Crescent City, New Orleans, he called it a day and met Sara for the return to Memphis. Adams felt utterly exhausted but, needless to say, he was more than a little excited to see his family again.

“A security guard came over and I had to explain why I was there,” says Sara. “Kevin had a full beard and it was so gray. My immediate thought was, ‘You look so skinny but so old!’”

“Many people have said they can’t believe I let him do that. My response is that I can’t imagine not letting him do something he felt so passionately about.”


Six months after the completion of his trip, Kevin Adams is back behind his desk, impeccably dressed and busy with the day-to-day affairs of CBRE Memphis, and with strategizing the public launch of another venture that he spearheads, Green Ballast, Inc. This company manufactures fluorescent electrical devices that are designed to harvest and store sunlight, thereby allowing users to reduce lighting costs in commercial buildings by as much as 70 percent. Adams has already signed up several major corporations as customers, and if all goes well, he hopes to take Green Ballast public sometime early in the new year. 

With that project now consuming so much of his time and energy, Adams’ long days and nights on the Mississippi seem, well, light years away. And while he’s glad he accomplished his remarkable river mission, he has no interest whatsoever in doing it again.

“Once you accomplish a goal, it is time to move on to the next one. There are too many great dreams and experiences to have, physically, mentally, and spiritually. 

“We all need to find purpose, balance, and happiness in whatever we choose and do. It is a glorious short life we have. Make the most of it.” 

Getting Down to Business

They were the Texas cowboys, hoping to make their mark in real estate in Memphis, a city with a downtown so dormant 25 years ago that a new building was dubbed “One Empty Place.”

Interstate Realty Corporation was founded in 1986 by Kevin Adams and Earl Blankenship, Adams a graduate of Southern Methodist University, Blankenship from Texas A & M. It was the forerunner of the CB Richard Ellis Memphis Affiliate, of which Kevin Adams is the chief executive.

Interstate Realty’s signature project was Morgan Keegan Tower, now a centerpiece of the Memphis skyline. They were also able to find tenants for One Memphis Place, the butt of jokes when it had but one tenant and had been taken over by the government-owned Resolution Trust Corporation. That put the young company on the map as work-out specialists.

“They were going to get involved in Memphis, and make it better,” says Memphis developer Henry Turley. The skyline at the time, he said, was “petrified.”

Today, the CB Richard Ellis Group’s Memphis affiliate specializes in real estate services and has 100 employees in Memphis and New York City. The company manages and leases 24 million square feet of space in the Memphis area, and has offices in downtown and East Memphis. It is 98 percent employee-owned.

A key moment in the company’s history came in 1997, when Adams and Blankenship nearly sold it to Coldwell Banker. “If we were going to have some reach in all the business lines, then we needed a national affiliation,” explains Adams. “The question was whether to sell the business or create a relationship with one of them.”

They decided at first to sell, but “my gut told me we were making a mistake,” Adams says. The affiliation with CB Richard Ellis (named for the Londoner who started the company, way back in 1773!) proved a good fit. Blankenship has since moved on to other business ventures.

Adams says that while the company has been by no means immune to the current real-estate slump, it has found opportunities to prosper by reworking leases, subleasing, and “blending and extending” its two Memphis offices to share space and lower costs. 

“We create revenue by maintaining real estate and transitioning,” he explains. “In bad times, things are being transitioned. In down times our business actually is very good. We like fluctuations. That is what creates transition and transactional fees.”

Over the past year, Adam has turned his attention to a new project. For $5.2 million, he acquired Green Ballast, Inc. a marketing company that owns the patent for a “smart” ballast for fluorescent lighting systems that “harvests” daylight, and uses a photo sensor to adjust the amount of electric current flowing to a light fixture. Adams says this can produce energy savings of up to 70 percent.

“Energy usage is obviously a big concern for governments and utilities,” Adams observes. “If you can reduce energy use during peak times you can get a bonus because utilities can resell that energy to someone else.”

The company will be headquartered in Memphis, but the majority of its business will be outside of Tennessee, which has relatively cheap power because of TVA. The ballast is now being manufactured in China.

“I want to get it back to the states,” Adams said. “And nothing would make me happier than getting it close to us.” 

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