Special to the Register
His family roots run deep at Eastern Kentucky University.
When he crossed the EKU commencement stage in 1975, Craig Turner was following the footsteps of both his educator parents, Floyd County natives who later moved to Michigan. His wife, Madonna, who grew up in Pikeville, also earned a degree from Eastern.
But the newly elected chair of EKU’s board of regents and chair of its presidential search and screening committee isn’t looking backward. Mindful and appreciative of the university’s rich heritage but not bound by it, Turner says his alma mater must be open to change as it strives to become “more financially self-sufficient.”
As a successful Lexington-based businessman and entrepreneur, Turner knows a thing or two about taking on challenges. As the founder, CEO and chairman of MedPro Safety Products and founder and CEO of CRM Companies, he has welcomed and embraced change rather than merely reacted to it.
“I’m a risk-taker,” he said. “Challenges excite me.”
It’s how this EKU political science graduate with an already successful career in public service and industrial development – he headed the state’s efforts under governors John Y. Brown and Martha Layne Collins – explains his move to launch a firm in the mid-1990s that manufactures and distributes medical devices that protect the healthcare worker and the patient. When the federal Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act was passed in 2001, MedPro, now publicly traded, was positioned to capitalize on change.
In addition, CRM Companies, a commercial real estate development company, manages more than 3.5 million square feet throughout the U.S. The company owns and operates a variety of properties, including hotels, restaurants, and its facilities management group, and employs more than 400 people.
Turner attributes his business success on both fronts to “determination and self-confidence, a strong inner belief in my ability to be successful and make a difference,” as well as an insistence on transparency.
And it’s those very qualities that Turner carries into his roles at EKU.
“My goal as board chair is to help Eastern run more efficiently … create resources that give people the tools to do it better,” he said. “We have to figure out ways to be better stewards and concentrate on what we do best. We want to be sure our hallmark programs remain centers of excellence … and take the programs that aren’t working well and re-evaluate them.”
As he struggles to help the University cope with dwindling state support, it’s hardly the first time he has tackled adversity. Turner arrived at Eastern in 1971 on a basketball scholarship to play for then-coach Guy Strong, but a motorcycle accident his freshman year shattered his right leg and, with it, his athletic dreams.
“Like everybody,” he said, “I assumed I would be playing in the NBA. I had to learn to walk again. I came back and played, but I wasn’t the same.”
So he settled into academic life at Eastern, where he found the small classes and personal attention to his liking. “I found the faculty to be more like step-parents,” he recalled. “I was at a school that still took roll call, which, for my personality, was needed. I needed the structure. Somebody once told me my mind was like a NASCAR race because it never stopped. It’s very difficult for me to stop and think about process.”
In much the same way, Eastern must keep re-inventing itself to stay on top of its game, Turner said.
“Our tradition is something to build upon … but we must continue to be innovative, continue to be resourceful. We are surrounded by outstanding (educational) institutions. The competition is stiffer, so we have to figure out how we prove we can make a difference. This is a transformational time for us and if we pull the right lever, we’ll head down the right path.”
As chair of the university’s presidential search and screening committee, Turner is leading the effort to find the perfect leader for his alma mater.
“I’m looking for a leader who is dynamic … who has the ability to get people to follow.”
Whatever the future holds, Turner is certain it shouldn’t mirror the past.
“We must be accepting of change,” he said. “The unknowns are what scares everybody, but if we are transparent about our direction, people will buy into it.”
That’s why Turner took the unprecedented step recently to address academic and institutional support leadership of the university at a campus meeting. His remarks included a call for collaboration and cooperation in identifying where 10 percent of the university’s budget (or approximately $23 million) could be set aside, partly for salary improvements – he believes EKU employees are the institution’s greatest strengths – and strategic purposes.
Turner believes significant advancements and realignment are needed in EKU’s development efforts to establish a more robust financial base, including increasing fundraising and gifting to the university.
“Today is an example of the change I’ve been talking about,” he said shortly before the meeting. “I want the university community to see that this board is involved, that it really knows what’s going on. I want everybody to understand that this board is stepping forward to talk about ‘the elephant in the room.’ And if we don’t know what’s going on, then tell us.”