3 questions with … Kim Duncan, retired exec, nonprofit leader

True, Duncan no longer leads Elements IV Interiors, the business furniture and interior design business that outfitted so many Wright-Patterson Air Force Base offices.

But that doesn’t mean she’s laying on the beach or hitting the ski slopes. You’ll likely find Duncan nowadays at a Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce event or working for Crayons to Classrooms, the Dayton nonprofit that — backed by people and companies that support it — tries to equip local teachers with at least some of the class materials they need.

A Miami University graduate, Duncan took her degree in interior design and moved to Dayton in 1979. She worked for someone else for about seven years before realizing she wanted to move into a sales role. That’s when the base became her customer.

She took the opportunity Wright-Patterson represented and ran with it. By 1990, she and three partners started their own office furniture dealership, which became Elements IV Interiors. They expanded beyond Wright-Patterson to customers who have offices nationwide and even abroad.

“I sold wherever the customers’ demands were,” Duncan said.

Before the Great Recession made itself felt, the company had up to 70 employees. Sales at one point were $20 million annually.

She retired at the end of 2012, achieving a longstanding goal of moving on when she turned 55. There’s more to life than one’s job, she thought. There’s everything else.

We recently sat down with Duncan to talk about life, work and crayons. What follows is edited and condensed.

Q: What paved the way for your retirement plan?

Duncan: “I was blessed to have a business partner … he (Mark Williams) came on as a sales manager and then became vice president with the company. He just had a wonderful devotion to the company. He acted like an owner. He was a manager. He was very concerned about the customers, the employees, the whole aspect. And I just kind of thought, this guy just has the twinkle in his eye that might be the way I can meet my (retirement) goal.

“Earlier I offered to him an opportunity to be a part-owner, just a small percent. It worked out great. He’s the owner now.

“Over time, we set up a succession plan. At that time, including myself and him (Williams), there was one other gentleman, there were three of us who were owners. …

“We had grown the company. We had gotten a lot of awards and recognition in our industry, and in the Dayton area. We had started doing some outreach. … That’s how I met these people (behind Crayons to Classrooms). There were a lot of things in place. I thought this (retirement) could probably work.”

Q: Is Crayons to Classrooms your home away from home these days? Tell me about your work here.

Duncan: “When I walked in here, it was totally not what I expected. I didn’t think it would be this brilliant and nice. Steve (Rubenstein, Crayons to Classrooms executive director) used to work at Target. What does that tell you? Now when I say that, that tells you it’s nice, organized, wide aisles, brightly lit, clean. If we go back in the warehouse, it’s equally as organized …

“We made it charity of the year (at Elements IV Interiors). As you know teachers, especially at Dayton Public Schools but at a lot of other districts in this area, they spend easily $1,000 of their own money, because the parents are trying to put food in their (children’s) mouths, clothes on their children, pay the rent, pay the utilities. They can’t be concerned about whether the child is going to school with paper and pencil.”

Q: By helping the teacher, you’re helping the students.

Duncan: “With the teacher’s first day (of the new school year), they say, ‘OK. How do you teach when they don’t have tools, students don’t have the tools?’ By helping the teachers, students don’t have to worry about that. …

“In a school building, when 70 percent or more of the children are on the free lunch program, that school building qualifies, and every teacher in the school building — not the whole district, but that school building — every teacher can shop here once in the fall and then once in the winter. They come twice. …

“They have to limit it (what teachers take). Because every day when they’re shopping here, there can be like 25 teachers shopping in one afternoon. It’s free. Of course, it’s after hours. They get done teaching at three o’clock, they set an appointment over a computer.”

Know someone who can handle Three Questions? We’re looking for behind-the-scenes-but-still fascinating Miami Valley residents with something to say. Send your suggestions to tom.gnau@coxinc.com.

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