People – December 2006
Calvin Phelps sees a bit of himself in Jeff Penn. Like that fellow, whose family started Penn Tobacco in Reidsville in the 1870s, Phelps is a tobacco executive. His Mocksville-based Renegade Holdings Inc. and its subsidiaries make cigarettes and filters as well as refurbish and sell cigarette-manufacturing and -packing machinery.
And like Penn, he enjoys traveling and collecting souvenirs. Penn built Chinqua-Penn Plantation outside Reidsville in the mid-1920s and filled the 40,000-square-foot home with European and Asian art and furniture. There’s a replica of King Tut’s golden chair. A stone horse dates to eighth-century Japan.
“My wife, Lisa, and I felt a kindred spirit with the Penns,” says Phelps, 45, who went to Chinqua-Penn on his first date with her. They bought the 22-acre property in July for $4.1 million from N.C. State University, which got it after Penn’s wife, Betsy, died in 1966. Phelps will open it for tours, private parties and conferences. “We were kind of looking for something along the same lines as George Vanderbilt when he built Biltmore. He wanted a working estate that would sustain itself.”
Phelps grew up in Clemmons. A guitar player, he began performing in bands at 13 and wanted to be a rock star. But his mother persuaded him to go to college. He earned an associate degree in electronics at Forsyth Technical Community College in 1982 and went to work at Winston-Salem-based R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. He left in 1990 with a colleague who had started a consulting company. Among their clients was American Tobacco Co., which had bought Penn Tobacco in 1911.
He started PTM Technologies in 1994. Now part of Renegade Holdings, it maintains and installs tobacco, textile and other machinery. Another subsidiary, Alternative Brands, moved from making herbal to tobacco cigarettes in 1999. It began as a contract manufacturer but now also produces its own brands, including Tuscon cigarettes and Hombre mini-cigars, at two Mocksville plants. A third subsidiary, Dogwood Filters, makes cigarette filters. He won’t disclose revenue for his 140-employee company.
Phelps and his wife plan to sell the impractical items from Chinqua-Penn, though they’ll keep some they like, including the Tut chair. He also plans to upgrade the plumbing and either air-condition the entire home or selected rooms. “You could easily take it and turn it into a private residence. But that’s not what the Penns wanted, and that’s not our vision, either. We want everyone to be able to enjoy it.”