Courtesy of Bo Biggs
65 | secretary-treasurer, K.M. Biggs
Some folks talk about the importance of bipartisanship, but Biggs has lived it. A colorful figure in southeastern North Carolina business and political circles, he remembers when the number of fellow Republicans in his native Robeson County could meet in a phone booth. Over the years, he’s helped run a substantial family real estate development business and became a statewide civic leader, serving as a past president of the N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation.
In December, the N.C. State University graduate was elected chairman of the Golden LEAF Foundation, which was created after a national legal settlement with the tobacco industry over its products’ devastating impact on public health. The Rocky Mount-based group has distributed $4.6 billion over its 20-year history, mostly to tobacco communities that faced hardship from the industry’s downturn.
Biggs is secretary-treasurer of K.M. Biggs in Lumberton. It’s in one of the state’s poorest counties, based on household income. The business owns shopping centers, timberland, farms and other properties in more than a dozen Carolinas locations. The company dates to an early 1900s Lumberton dry-goods store that catered to rural customers. It prospered when farming did, lagged when it didn’t and diversified over the years. The family sold its tobacco land in the 1990s and early 2000s after the settlement that created Golden LEAF and the government ended tobacco quotas and price support. It shuttered its tractor dealership when farming turned sour.
“When my great-granddaddy began that store, we shoed your horse and made the pipes for your potbelly stove,” Biggs says. The family also had a grocery for many years. When it shed tobacco land, it invested in commercial real estate. “God’s been good to us.”
House Speaker Tim Moore appointed Biggs to the 15-member Golden LEAF board in 2014. “Being pro-business doesn’t mean being partisan,” he says. Being chairman will put a premium on that. Competition for grants sometimes triggers jealousies between regions and controversy over whether projects will benefit displaced farmers and hard-hit communities as intended.
Biggs points to cases that defied skeptics. In 2015, the fund awarded St. Pauls and Lumberton about $1.1 million for industrial-park water and sewer infrastructure that helped land a Sanderson Farms chicken-processing plant and hatchery. The Laurel, Miss.-based company has invested about $130 million and employs more than 1,000.
“Some questioned if that was a worthless investment,” Biggs says. “If we had not had that certified site in our county’s inventory, we never would have landed them. That’s what Golden LEAF does: provide necessary money for infrastructure in rural counties to help accommodate manufacturing and agriculture we’ve lost.”
Golden LEAF also offers $3,000 annual scholarships for college students living in tobacco counties. “We hope they’ll remember us when they graduate and come back and bring their skills in medicine, business, finance or whatever,” he says.
Biggs’ Robeson County credentials reflect an understanding of the importance of teamwork. The county, which has been battered by loss of manufacturers and flooding from hurricanes in 2016 and 2018, is nearly evenly split among Lumbee Indians, African Americans and Caucasians. “It makes for unique politics,” he says. “But we get along pretty good, and we get things done.”
Robeson County schools are rated poorly, which makes it difficult to attract new industries. “Certain industries, their CEOs and administrative staffs can’t quite get the confidence they need to come and live here,” he says. “That’s no criticism of the school system, but we haven’t built a new school [since] who knows when.”
Biggs is married to Gayla Graham Biggs, a Robeson County public defender. He’s a past president of the Lumberton Rotary and chamber of commerce. Biggs played trombone at Lumberton High School and 15 years ago, he picked it up again and now plays in local churches and elsewhere. Always fond of animals, his other duties have trimmed that hobby a bit. “I’m down to five dogs and three cats now.”
— Edward Martin