If only making paper poppers was lucrative, Eric Kean would have had the market cornered at an early age.
Let’s just say the first grader, today a Principal at The Lee Group that aligns people with businesses so both can succeed, was a champion at creating folded pieces of paper that make a sonic boom when airborne. Doing so while a teacher has her back toward the class can be particularly funny — or not. It was the kind of mischief that prompted the principal to deliver an edict.
Paper poppers would be forever-more forbidden!
And yet — “I had just finished making the biggest paper popper of my paper-popper-making career,” Eric recalls. “It used a big sheet of paper, the oversized kind.”
Once the principal was out of sight, Eric did what was natural. He let the paper popper fly, creating a sizable bang.
As amused as his classmates were, neither the teacher nor the principal managed a giggle.
“You did what?” his father asked, aghast. “After the principal had just come in?”
Then there was the time when Eric was a little older and his family lived in Germany — they moved often given his dad’s 26 years in the Army. Eric realized just how valuable his stuff could be. Gathering his toys, he bunched them together in a picnic blanket, laying them out in a communal market area in town. American toys were novelty items for young Germans. And whoa! What a payday for Eric when he sold off an old skateboard — a SIMS – the iconic brand at the time.
“You’re doing what?” were the exasperated words from his father.
While Eric’s mind was always percolating, he rarely applied it to anything academic. School bored him. Homework was something to do at the last minute. Studying? Later, Man.
The aha moment wasn’t some stodgy, serious talk between father and son. Eric was a high school sophomore. It was late fall, and he was headed to fish in a Newport News neighborhood pond on a Sunday.
His father, in the back yard raking leaves, didn’t look up from the task. “Homework done?”
Not yet, Eric answered.
“Study for exams yet?”
Bob Kean set the rake aside. Looking at his son who had a tackle box and fishing pole in hand, he told him that the nagging from him and Eric’s mom about grades was over. “Maybe college isn’t for you,” Bob mused. “There’s lots of other things you can do. I’m not going to fight you anymore. You’ll be fine. It’s just not what we envisioned but you’ll be fine. We’ll always love you. . . .”
Bob returned to raking.
Eric froze. My dad really thinks I’m a loser. A failure.
That was a turning point. Eric’s grades improved along with his drive. Eric did envision himself in college. In fact, he planned on attending Virginia Tech, where his older brother, also named Bob, was an undergraduate. Eric loved to draw and draft actual blueprints for building houses. Architecture seemed like a sure major.
“I designed my own neighborhood called Barrett’s Cove,” Eric said, recounting details about a master plan that had a mansion level all the way down to affordable homes. Barrett was picked as it sounded nice plus it was Eric’s middle name.
During a visit to his brother at Virginia Tech, Eric casually mentioned to his brother’s roommate the plan to study architecture.
“Hope you like the library,” he was told.
Um, no. Truth be told, “I hate the library,” Eric said. “If there’s any place you could have sent me other than jail, it would be the library.”
Nor did Eric enjoy math, and at the time, demand for architects was low. His dad chimed in later with this. He didn’t think Eric was mature enough to live nearly five hours away. Spend your first year close and if you’re in a good place, transfer to Virginia Tech.
Eric didn’t argue. He never became a Hokie because after freshman year at Christopher Newport University, he didn’t want to leave. He earned a marketing degree. He joined a frat. He went on to be the president of the CNU Alumni Society’s Peninsula Chapter and still serves on the Luter School of Business Board of Advisors.
Eric took a circuitous route to The Lee Group, initially managing a ski shop after graduation until that business closed. A fraternity brother working at The Lee Group suggested Eric would be a good fit in staffing and recruiting.
It wasn’t on Eric’s radar. “But then I saw one of his paychecks,” Eric says.
That was April 1999. Not quite seven years later, Eric and another employee, Walt Graham, bought the company that has since evolved into one of the nation’s premier staffing and executive search recruiting firms.
The company headquartered in Newport News with offices in Chesapeake, Virginia Beach and Richmond, prides itself on transparency, authenticity and integrity – core values Eric embraces.
The Lee Group offered an unforeseen opportunity – it’s where he met his wife, Michele. Today the two are parents to daughter Tali, a competitive dancer, and a cat named Lino. Once-budding architect Eric designed the oasis of a home they share that includes particularly nice outdoor space.
“His lawn looks like Busch Gardens,” says Adam Peters, a colleague at Lee Group Search. “Eric is always talking about grass around the office — giving advice on lawn care.” As for career advice, Eric keeps it simple. “Listen to and really embrace the song ‘Everybody is free to wear sunscreen,’” he says. Among one of many nuggets you’ll find by listening: The race is long but in the end, it’s only with yourself.
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