Following His Star
For incoming Alumni Association Executive Director Benny Suggs ’69, it’s all about doing the right thing and having fun along the way.
Interview by Rebecca Morphis
Columbus County native Benny Suggs ’69 has made a career out of pursuing his passions. After he graduated from NC State, his love for and fascination with planes led him to the Navy, where he spent 30 years, retiring in 2000 as a rear admiral. After that, he pursued his lifelong devotion to motorcycles at Milwaukee, Wis.-based Harley-Davidson, where he worked in management for the past decade. Now he’s left his job as general manager of the Harley Owners Group and Rider Services, which has 1.2 million members worldwide, to devote his energies to another passion: NC State.
After four decades away from North Carolina, Suggs joined the NC State Alumni Association as its executive director in mid-June. Some of his skills, like how to land a plane on an aircraft carrier, will probably be underused. But Suggs has learned more than a few things along the way that will come in handy as he aims to fulfill the Alumni Association’s core mission: engaging alumni and friends through programs and services that foster pride and enhance a lifelong connection to NC State.
When we talked with Suggs in early May, he told us why Wolfpack is the best team name, how his psychology degree helped his Navy career and why NC State was the only place that could tempt him to leave Harley.
NC State: How did you decide to come to NC State for college?
Suggs: I grew up in a rural community in Columbus County [and] later graduated from New Hanover County High School in Wilmington. Going to one of the Big Four schools was a dream as a kid, and State was my No. 1 choice.
NC State: Why?
Suggs: I was a member of the Future Farmers of America, and we had our state convention there every year. And to walk into Reynolds Coliseum, for me, was just awe-inspiring. I loved the campus. I loved the attitude of the people I met. It just had a real good feel to it. And, of course, I had some teachers who were NC State alumni, and they were terrific examples of leadership that NC State shapes. Also, I really liked the whole land-grant system and taking folks who, in some cases, have modest beginnings and giving them an opportunity to get a world-class education and supporting them throughout a lifetime. So while I considered Carolina, Duke and Wake Forest, State always came out on top. And I liked the [team] name, Wolfpack. I always thought that was cool.NC State: What made it cool?
Suggs: You know, Blue Devil, Demon Deac, Tar Heel, what’s all that? The Wolfpack really got my attention. It can be very formidable when a Wolfpack works as a team, and that’s what it’s all about. I think NC State teaches, obviously, how to excel individually, but also the importance of teamwork and credibility and values-based service and a community spirit. They really set me up for some good things to follow. And [NC State] does that for everybody who goes and does their best.
NC State: What do you consider to be your ultimate NC State moment?
Suggs: There are two. I remember I wore a three-piece suit the day I left my mom’s kitchen. And I took my suitcase, and I checked into Owen dormitory at NC State. My mom had these huge tears, and I did, too. I knew it was a life-changing event. I think your life is a series of significant emotional events that shape your value base — your whole frame of reference — and this was one.
The next [moment] was the day I graduated. I was the first person in my family, on my mom or my dad’s side, to graduate from college. (My dad was a lineman for the county, and then he worked electrical construction, building electrical systems and power lines. And my mom worked at a lunchroom in a local high school.) My granddad went out and bought a coat and tie; I don’t know if he had one before that. But he came up with my mom, my dad and my sister to my commencement at Reynolds Coliseum. The pride that they had and that we shared is something I’ll never forget. They were so proud, and I was so proud of them.
NC State: What in your upbringing helped make graduating from college a possibility for you?
Suggs: My mom and my dad and my granddad were a huge influence on my life. It was all about doing the right thing and doing it the best you possibly could. Failing is OK, as long as you gave it everything you had. You never hold back. And also never, ever compromise your values. Do the right thing. And even though we came from very humble backgrounds, so to speak, my mom and dad and my granddad and grandmother were great examples of people with real integrity. My biggest fear was letting them down, and I can truthfully say I don’t think I’ve done that.
NC State: You were a psychology major at NC State, but you joined the military after you graduated. Why?
Suggs: My family has a long history of military service, dating back to the Civil War, World War I, World War II and Korea. It was expected that we would serve our country in some capacity. That’s part of the culture when I was growing up. I had this dream of flying airplanes, and though I’d never had a chance to do that, I sure read every book I could get my hands on, and I built hundreds of models.
And, of course, the Vietnam era meant that if you finished college after your deferment, you could probably expect that you’re going to get held to some kind of service, military service especially. It was inevitable, so my last year at NC State I applied for Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps flight training, and I was selected for all three. I chose the Navy.
NC State: Why the Navy?
Suggs: Because I thought that being able to fly a jet aircraft on and off an aircraft carrier was something that very few people could achieve, and if I was going to do something like fly jets, I really wanted to be part of the best. Marine Corps, Air Force, Army — they’re all fantastic. But there’s something special about a naval aviator.
NC State: Tell me more about your time in the Navy. What was the biggest challenge you faced?
Suggs: The hardest thing that I had to do was to go in harm’s way with young men and women that I respected and was really concerned about. When you go into a hostile environment where somebody’s life could be at stake, it’s something you take very, very seriously, and you want to be sure that you’re doing it the very best you can to minimize the risk. At the same time, you’ve got to be bold enough to achieve mission success. It’s not worth risking those kinds of resources and precious lives; you should do it right and do it well.
I was in some really tough leadership positions when I was in the Navy — commanding a squadron, supply ship, aircraft carrier group, special operations command. You have to make some really tough decisions on occasions, more often than not. And it was always about what’s the right thing to do. I always thought that I would never, ever do anything to bring discredit or dishonor to the family and do my best to make them proud. And here’s the thing: NC State gave me the opportunity to do that. I got some fantastic opportunities to serve our country and work with some truly dedicated, very talented, brave men and women. And it worked out extremely well, and I was recognized and rewarded very generously. But without that love and respect and integrity that became part of my life as a youngster in rural North Carolina, and then going to NC State where it was cultivated, I don’t think any of that would have ever happened. I’m absolutely serious.
NC State: How exactly did NC State cultivate these traits?
Suggs: I was challenged. I studied. I worked hard. And I grew, I stretched a lot. I learned a lot. I think [what I learned as a psychology major] also made me feel a lot more inclusive in dealing with people, a lot more respectful, knowing that when you have people with a common vision and feeling a sense of ownership, it’s amazing how you can overachieve. [My time at the university] really broadened my horizons and made me think the sky is the limit; anything is possible. I think you really have that feeling at NC State — that anything is possible. That really excites me.
NC State: After you retired from the Navy, you joined Harley-Davidson as director of Harley-Davidson University, a dealer consulting and training unit. How did you end up at Harley?
Suggs: I wanted to do something completely different, and I wanted to come into the corporate world and see if I could have an impact. I have a great deal of passion and respect for Harley-Davidson; I’ve been riding them forever, it seems like, and I was very proud of what I knew about the company. So I walked in, in a director role and a very high-visibility role, as well. The leadership here at Harley quite frankly stretched a little bit [when they hired me]. I think what they were looking at was leadership experience and leadership credentials. I tell people I made the Bob Seger transition; I literally turned the page. Everything in my life changed. Now if I’d gone to work for the Department of Defense [or someplace similar] that would’ve probably been a very comfortable and very smooth transition. This was totally different, including the climate from Tampa, Fla., to up here on the tundra of Wisconsin.
NC State: Why did you want to do something so different?
Suggs: I was looking for a new challenge. I certainly had the right experience and connections to have an impact in the defense industry, [but] that wasn’t that appealing. This was where the challenge was — to go where being in the Navy or being an NC State guy or being an admiral meant nothing. It was: How can you perform and bring relevance to Harley-Davidson Motor Co.? How could I relate to the dealers and our customers in a way to make a positive difference?
For me, the one thing that made the transition rewarding was the amount of emphasis that they place on our core values [at Harley]. It’s about doing the right thing for all the right reasons; it’s not about stock prices, although we pay attention to all those kinds of things. It’s about integrity, being close to our customers, giving them good value for their hard-earned dollars, and then helping them experience the lifestyle that Harley brings. I’ve had a lot of offers to look at some other opportunities while I’ve been here; I’ve never even considered seriously a single one of them because I really love this company and the people that make it. But NC State was different.
NC State: How so?
Suggs: It’s a calling. I flew jets because it was a calling. The leadership opportunities [I had in the Navy] were callings. Harley is a calling. And NC State can trump the corporate world instantly.
NC State: What excites you the most about returning to campus as head of the Alumni Association?
Suggs: The most immediate feeling is a passion and respect for the university that I dearly love. [I’m excited] to have an opportunity to join and work hand-in-hand with some real professionals who love the university as much as I do. It’s a red-and-white, world-class team in my opinion. I’m impressed with [Chancellor Randy Woodson’s] commitment to provide leadership in a very stable way and take this university where it needs, and where it deserves, to go. I think we’re sitting in a very good position to truly excel. And to [be able to] come back and give back to the university, to me, is a tremendous opportunity and a privilege.
NC State: What did you learn from your career that you’ll bring to NC State?
Suggs: It’s about being successful, and it’s about bringing value to our customers and earning their respect and loyalty. There is a lot of that in the military [and at Harley], and I think there’s going to be a lot of that at the Alumni Association and NC State in general. It’s about individual connections with people.
NC State: Now, in the years since you’ve graduated, you’ve stayed connected with the university in a variety of ways. You’ve been involved with several university boards and been a member of the Alumni Association. Why is it important for alumni to stay involved with the NC State community?
Suggs: Being a part of the Alumni Association gives you that opportunity to stay connected. Even though I spent the better part of 22 out of 30 years in the Navy deployed — and 10 years up here in Wisconsin, a long way away from Raleigh — I always felt connected [through the Alumni Networks in places like Tampa and through communications tools such as the magazine]. Because I have a lot of pride and respect for the university, I care [about] what’s happening. I care about its future, where it’s going, because I see the impact it has on the students and their families. And to me, the Alumni Association provides that connection that represents value and relevance.
NC State: What do you mean by value and relevance?
Suggs: It reminds me all the time of what a great university it is and the impact it has on people’s lives. When I came back for board meetings, I would always try to carve out some time to drive on campus and park the car and walk on the Brickyard, or wherever, and get the feeling, the energy. It’s alive. There’s so much talent. The students are so optimistic. They’re getting a world-class education that gives them a tremendous opportunity to achieve and affect others. When I see these young students with the glint in their eye and so much promise and potential, and knowing the impact of NC State — for me that’s exciting. So the Alumni Association has provided that physical connection that [sustains the value and relevance of my own student experience].
NC State: What about the other side of the coin? How does alumni involvement benefit a university?
Suggs: A university can never have too much support. And the Alumni Association does a great job, and I think will do an even better job in the future, of staying connected for a lifetime with its graduates and their families. It has to happen. Obviously, there’s spiritual and financial support and respect, [as well as] helping leadership with proper direction. It’s been my experience that people listen at NC State. When I worked with Gen. [Hugh] Shelton ’63 and the other board members [of the Shelton Leadership Initiative], they really appreciated what [we alumni volunteers were] doing and they really appreciated our view and opinions. [Also] the chance to work with some scholarship programs and then watch the difference it makes in some young people’s lives is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever seen. The Caldwell Fellows scholarship program is one good example. I don’t think there’s a bigger contribution you can make [than supporting student scholarships] other than being a good parent.
NC State: What areas would you like to see the Alumni Association build on?
Suggs: Reaching out in a very positive way, perhaps in ways we haven’t in the past, to get more connected with more people. [Collectively] those people can make a bigger difference in helping shape and lead and support NC State. We’re blessed to have a good member base currently, but I think it could be even bigger. But then, too, in providing additional value and relevance to the people who already are members. What could we offer that would be very compelling and would earn people’s specialtrust and confidence and make them want to be a part of the Alumni Association? We’ve got a lot of work to do, but I think we can figure it out, and we can deliver. And supporting scholarship programs, particularly the Caldwell Fellows, is a fantastic opportunity.
NC State: Tell us a little bit about your family.
Suggs: I met this beautiful lady from Banner Elk, Kellie, at a bike rally in Myrtle Beach, S.C., shortly after I started at Harley. We got married in 2001. We have a beautiful 4-year-old son, Nicholas Gaston, named after my granddad. Obviously it’s a little bit late in life here, but Nicholas is the most wonderful thing that’s happened to me. After the things that I’ve experienced and where I’ve been, [I cherish the value of life] in ways that maybe other people can’t appreciate because they never had to risk it as much as I did.
[I am humbled by the] opportunity to take my family to North Carolina, where Nicholas will grow up in and around the NC State campus and be with other people who have the same passion and respect that I have for NC State. I think it’s going to have a tremendous influence on him, shape his whole value system, and hopefully provide him with lots of motivation and examples of what you can achieve if you work hard and you go to a great school.
NC State: What are three or four things that you always try to do every single day, no matter how busy you are?
Suggs: You try to achieve a lot of things, but — this may sound corny — but I try to do things correctly for the right reasons. And here at Harley and I’m sure at the Alumni Association there is plenty of opportunity to do that every day, in a very unselfish way. The other thing — I value my family. To show them love and respect every day is an opportunity that I don’t take for granted. I want Nicholas and Kellie to know how much I care about them, and how dedicated and committed I am to them. So I think that’s it — family, friends and integrity — in everything we do. And I like people to have fun with me doing it. [I think] there are five characteristics of really effective leaders — vision, passion and determination. And the last two I think are the most important. Those are a sense of humor and a heart, doing things the right way for the right reasons. That’s kind of the way I try to shape every day. If you get that right, integrity and credibility fall right in place.
NC State: One final question. Whatever happened to that model plane collection you had as a child?
Suggs: Oh, gosh, when I left to go to State I think Mom gave it away to some of my cousins and nephews, probably. They always thought it was kind of cool.
NC State: Have you ever missed it?
Suggs: No. I had real ones, with my name painted on the side.
Rebecca Morphis is the managing editor of NC State.
This Q&A appears in the Summer 2010 issue of NC State magazine, which is a benefit of membership in the NC State Alumni Association.