Martin Kent approached the podium to speak at a September meeting of the Beaufort County Planning Commission — one of his first public appearances in the area.
Kent, bespectacled and tie-less in a button-up shirt under a dark blazer, opened a thick binder, filled with papers and file folders, and began.
“We believe we have a very important story to tell,” he said to the commission.
Kent launched into a monologue on the decline of the golf industry. He spoke deliberately, lawyerly. He quoted Tiger Woods and only occasionally looked down at the documents spread before him.
Behind him, heads began to shake. Faces registered varying degrees of skepticism and looks of confusion.
Kent couldn’t see the audience, but he might have felt the tension in the meeting room at the Bluffton library that evening.
The 46-year-old Virginian wasn’t there to talk about the future of golf. He was there to talk about the future of a single golf course.
Hilton Head National Golf Club.
Over the next several months the club’s name would become synonymous with one of the most controversial development proposals in the greater Bluffton area in recent memory.
The proposal, called a “mini-city” by some, would inspire more than 2,700 people to sign an online petition.
It would prompt a local shop in this staunchly conservative area to begin selling T-shirts emblazoned with anti-development slogans.
And, after a half-dozen more heated community meetings and presentations, negotiations eventually would collapse, putting any project on pause for a while.
But that night in September, Kent was hopeful as he extolled the virtues of this project.
The crowd, not so much.
To them, he was an unknown. A man from somewhere else looking to change the face of their community.
What does he know about Bluffton? What does he know about our values? Who is this guy?
Simply put, Kent is the president of Hilton Head National’s parent firm, the United Company.
He used to be an accountant.
Then he was a defense attorney.
Then a prosecutor.
Then he was top deputy in the administration of Virginia’s first governor to be convicted of a felony.
But before all of that, he was the only boy raised among sisters and cousins on an 800-acre family farm in southern Virginia’s Pittsylvania County.
As a kid on the family farm, Kent spent early mornings tending to cattle, corn and wheat. Then it was off to school.
You only needed to know two things about Pittsylvania County in the ’70s: That’s tobacco and textiles.
Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Todd Haymore
In the afternoons he could often be found fishing on the banks of a large pond his grandfather dug behind the farmhouse — the house where Kent’s parents still live.
“It was hard work. It wasn’t all sugar and spice and all things nice,” he told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette during an interview earlier this spring. “But looking back, I’m not sure I appreciated it as much then as I do now.”
Todd Haymore, a friend and Virginia’s Secretary of Commerce and Trade, lived on a farm not far from Kent’s before the two went off to college at the University of Richmond.
“You only needed to know two things about Pittsylvania County in the ’70s: That’s tobacco and textiles,” he said.
It was along country roads flanked by tobacco fields where Kent bonded with the man he considers to be his childhood mentor and one of his heroes: his grandfather.
When he wasn’t digging fishing ponds behind farmhouses, Dr. James Kent was a physician and the medical examiner for nearby Campbell County.
“This was back in the day when you got in the car and drove to someone’s home to deliver a baby there,” Kent said. “During his career he delivered about 2,500 babies. It was really incredible.”
As a medical examiner, “he would be called to a traffic accident in the middle of the night if there had been a fatality,” Kent said. “I traveled with him a lot as kid and saw a lot of things that most kids of 10 or 12 (years old) would never see.”
Kent recalled a particularly formative — and grizzly — experience on a trip with his grandfather.
“I still remember holding the arm of a mechanic,” he said, trailing off a bit as the details of the story seemed to flood back into his memory.
“A jack had come out from under a car, and it dropped on him,” he said. “It split his arm open, and the nearest hospital was an hour away.”
“So I sat there as a 10-year-old and held this man’s arm — he was bleeding pretty badly and in a lot of pain — as my grandfather stitched him up,” he said.
“That taught me a lot about the realities and practicalities of life.”
One of those realities is that life, careers and getting major development deals approved by local governments don’t always zip smoothly along a linear path.
While Haymore said Pittsylvania County was “a great place to grow up,” there was a common attitude among parents toward their children: “We want you to do something better than we did.”
“We were encouraged to go to ‘the big city’ to get an education if that’s what we wanted to do,” he said.
For Kent and Haymore, that big city was Richmond — about a three-hour drive from the tobacco fields and textile mills of Pittsylvania County.
From accountant to lawyer
Haymore, a year older than Kent, went off to school in Virginia’s state capital first.
When he was heading back for his sophomore year, Haymore’s father — who had a close, decades-long friendship with Kent’s dad — told the older boy that he’d “better be nice” to the incoming freshman Kent.
That turned out to be sage advice.
Kent graduated from the University of Richmond with an accounting degree and, in 1993, was licensed as a certified public accountant. He went to work auditing companies with the Virginia State Corporation Commission, an agency that regulates the insurance industry.
It was during one of these audits when he met Vonda Stokely, an employee in the communications department at an insurance company.
Kent was smitten.
“Of course I couldn’t ask her out during the audit; that would have been imprudent,” Kent said. “But on the last day of the audit, I handed her my business card.”
His phone didn’t ring.
“There were about six months that passed,” Kent said. “I guess maybe she lost the card and then found it one day.”
“We went out,” he continued. “One thing led to another, and now we’re married with three kids.”
As Martin and Vonda Kent settled in their domestic lives, Martin started making moves professionally.
His experience auditing and investigating companies had sparked an interest in the law.
So, he went back to school and earned a law degree from Mercer University in Macon, Ga. After passing the bar exam, Kent went into private practice as a defense attorney.
A couple of years into the job, Kent’s career trajectory shifted again when a particular case shook him to the core.
I told my wife that I didn’t think I could be a defense attorney for the rest of my life.
He said he was defending a client who, as a child, witnessed his father “come home from his job at a local manufacturing facility and shoot himself and his wife — literally in front of the kids.”
That client later abused a family member, he said.
The cycle of trauma was too much for Kent, who was just starting a family of his own.
“I told my wife that I didn’t think I could be a defense attorney for the rest of my life,” he said. “I decided at that point in time that this just wasn’t the right career path for me.”
He decided to combine his legal and accounting expertise, and in 2001 went to work for the Virginia Office of the Attorney General, where his focus was prosecuting white-collar criminals.
Enter Bob McDonnell.
McDonnell, a Republican state lawmaker elected in 2006 to serve as Virginia’s attorney general, would again cause Kent’s career to zig where it otherwise might have zagged.
The new attorney general tapped Kent to serve as his chief counsel, a position that thrust the prosecutor full throttle into the political arena.
It was part of his new job to help draft policies such as new organized-crime regulations and then “shepherd them through” Virginia’s General Assembly, Kent said.
His role at this point was not too dissimilar to the current mission to get the Hilton Head National property zoning request through the Beaufort County Council.
“I would have to go on a regular basis to the legislature and speak about various bills,” he said. “I enjoy that, but I don’t know if you’re ever completely comfortable in that environment. But it prepared me to be able to think on my feet, to anticipate the unanticipated — there’s always a curve ball that gets thrown at you.”
Kent said he went into state government service wanting to be a white-collar criminal prosecutor, adding, “I had no designs on getting into politics.”
But he soon found himself in “one of those ‘right place at the right time with the right people’ scenarios,” he said.
McDonnell ran for governor of Virginia in 2009.
He won handily and immediately went about putting his cabinet together.
Kent got the top spot as McDonnell’s chief of staff.
He was reunited with Haymore, who was appointed the head of Virginia’s agriculture and forestry agency, Secretary Agriculture and Forestry.
“We were both always at the office early,” Haymore said. “Maybe that’s got something to do with our our Pittsylvania County farm upbringing.”
Haymore is a baseball fan — specifically a New York Yankees fan. He compared Kent’s style as chief of staff to that of Joe Torre, the legendary skipper who led the Yankees to four World Series victories.
“He had a steady hand; you got to have an even keel to do that job,” Haymore said of Torre, and Kent “had that same type of steadiness.”
Almost to a man, Kent’s former colleagues in the governor’s office who responded to interview requests used some variation of the phrase “even-keeled” to describe his demeanor.
Tucker Martin, McDonnell’s former communications director, said Kent “doesn’t run hot or cold.”
“He was always the adult in the room,” he said.
Despite his calm disposition at the office, the long hours and frequent travel took a personal toll.
My wife held the family together.
“Now that I step back, I realize that I did miss a significant part of four years of my (kids’ childhoods) because I was at work 15 hours a day, sometimes six or seven days a week,” Kent said. “And when I was at home, I was sitting there on my Blackberry.”
While he uses an iPhone now, he said he’d prefer that old Blackberry if he could still use it.
Kent, who rarely watches television but enjoys popping in the occasional Indiana Jones DVD, doesn’t have a Facebook page or a Twitter account.
“I’ve got a LinkedIn account, and I only got that set up about three months ago,” he said, a hint of pride in his voice.
“I have found that social media can sometimes be dangerous. It can sometimes get out of control,” he said. “But I use email, texts and all that to the extreme.”
He has to text. That’s the way his daughters — who are 16, 13 and 10 years old — communicate with him.
During his tenure in the governor’s office, “my quality time with the kids during that time was to get up early and make their breakfasts,” Kent said. “We got maybe a 15-minute conversation at the breakfast table before I had to go work, but that was my way of catching up with them and (learning about) what they had done the day before in school.”
“My wife held the family together,” he said.
Other members of McDonnell’s cabinet said they had similar experiences.
Jasen Eige, head of the governor’s policy team, jokingly referred to the spouses as “work widows.”
If the day-to-day governance of the state was grueling, things inside the McDonnell camp grew exponentially more difficult in the waning months of the governor’s term.
“We thought it was our time to do our end-of-term victory lap,” Eige said.
In March of 2013, The Washington Post published an article alleging a series of potentially illegal gifts and donations to McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, from businessman Jonnie Williams.
Revelations began pouring out, including the fact that federal investigators were eyeballing the governor in a potential corruption case.
Subpoenas were flying around, and McDonnell staffers were pulled into interviews with investigators.
“There were some really, really tough days as the scandal continue to unfold,” Haymore said. “I think we all aged a lot that year.”
“But I can’t think of anyone better to be at the helm as all this stuff was unfolding,” he said of Kent, who was not implicated in any of McDonnell’s alleged misdeeds.
The McDonnells were indicted on more than a dozen charges just after the governor left office in January 2014.
After a lengthy trial, the couple was found guilty of public corruption charges and sentenced to prison. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, later vacated the sentences, and the McDonnells were not retried.
Kent, who testified at the governor’s trial, said McDonnell “had his personal issues, and he had to deal with those.”
“Was that one of tougher things I’ve had to deal with in my life? Yes,” Kent said. “But was that an experience to me invaluable on a personal level and a professional level? Absolutely.”
After the McDonnell ordeal, it was time for another change.
Kent and his family left Richmond and public life behind, resettling in Bristol, Tenn., about 200 miles west of the family farm where Kent’s parents still live.
“You can throw a stone over to the Virginia side (of the state line), which is where I work” at the United Company’s Bristol, Va., headquarters, he said.
Kent said he has tried to ingratiate himself into his new community. He’s joined the board of directors for the local hospital and the Boys and Girls Club chapter.
“He is a very analytical and detail-oriented person” who helped the Boys and Girls Club of the Mountain Empire acquire new facilities, attract new membership and develop a long-term strategic plan, said chapter chief operating officer Dick Collins.
Kent has been tapped to take over as president of the club’s board next year.
He became president of the United Company three years ago as the firm’s aging founder, Jim McGlothlin, began stepping into semi-retirement.
“He hasn’t sought out these positions; they always just seem to find him,” Tucker Martin, McDonnell’s former communications director, said of Kent’s seeming uncanny ability to attract high-profile, powerful positions.
Haymore agreed, saying, “I don’t consider him overly ambitious, … but when you’re the type of person he is, opportunities present themselves to you.
“He’s got the ability to do whatever needs to be done; that’s why the guy’s successful,” Haymore said. “I grew up on a farm, and if someone was working (to develop) a transformative project near my family’s land, he’d be the one I’d want running it.”
But does the Bluffton area need a transformative project?
Many, including members of the Beaufort County Council and Bluffton Town Council, argue the answer to that question is a resounding “no.”
The changes that the development could bring have the potential to “ruin Bluffton,” said County Councilman Tabor Vaux.
Vaux was the chairman of a County Council subcommittee tasked with negotiating a development agreement with Hilton Head National’s owners. That panel voted last week to disband, and negotiations have been tabled.
Kent, who was conspicuously absent at last week’s final subcommittee meeting, acknowledges he has “a lot to learn” about the Lowcountry.
“I’m a person who recognizes his weakness, and I want to learn more,” he said before the meeting. “And I’m going to do that.”
Kent has made about a half dozen trips to Beaufort County over the past six months to speak before planning boards and County Commission committees.
He relies on Bill Palmer, one of the course’s founders, to take him out to eat “at local places,” he said, adding. “I’ve told him I don’t want to go to the cookie-cutter restaurants.”
Palmer, a Belfair resident, said the pair have shared meals at The Farm and Calhoun’s in Bluffton.
If and when the development project gets underway, Kent said he envisions spending much more time in the area, “especially on the front end.”
“I’d love nothing more than to see this done, get a piece of property (inside the new development), and put a home down,” he said.
“But who knows? We’ll just have to see.”