This story originally appeared in the spring issue of Kentucky Alumni magazine. To read more, visit www.ukalumni.net/KentuckyAlumni.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 15, 2023) — J.P. Blevins had dreamed of playing basketball at the University of Kentucky since the fourth grade. His dad, John Paul, had constructed a basketball court in the backyard for J.P. and his brothers to play on. J.P.’s dad had played basketball at Western Kentucky University and so had his oldest brother, David. It became the theater of J.P.’s dreams — a place to do the work that would turn his dream into a reality.
J.P’.s dad had recognized his son’s talent early on and drove him from Edmonton, Kentucky, to Lexington to attend UK Men’s Basketball camps with Coach Rick Pitino. He was wise in exposing his son to basketball camps outside of his hometown and was always willing to put J.P. into a position to succeed.
Like many athletes, the path to that success required perseverance and there were times when J.P. doubted himself. He remembers one evening when those feelings of hesitation weighed heavily — was he good enough? He walked out to the court in his backyard. His mom, Martha, a lifelong schoolteacher who worked long summers in the yard, was out cutting tree limbs.
“You think I could ever play at UK one day?” J.P. asked her in a straightforward way. He wanted an honest answer.
She set her clippers down and wiped a band of hair off her forehead.
“You can do whatever you want to do if you’re willing to work for it and you believe you can do it,” she said.
The way she said it and the way she looked at him as she said it pierced J.P. ’s soul. It wasn’t the blind assurance that he would play at Kentucky one day, it was the assurance that he could, if he put in the work and believed in himself. It is a feeling J.P. has held onto ever since — a belief in himself, in what’s possible. This spirit of hard work and belief has guided his decisions on and off the court.
A dream come true
In 1998, J.P. joined the UK Men’s Basketball team. He had achieved his dream of putting on a Kentucky jersey and playing in Rupp Arena in front of his parents. Despite this achievement, he realized that the true value in his dream becoming a reality was the lessons he learned in pursuit of something bigger.
“Sports taught me what true commitment is,” says J.P. “I learned about work ethic and how to outwork other people. I learned how to be selfless and a good teammate.”
J.P. was a stalwart teammate during his time at UK — a crafty and hardworking guard. Then upon graduation, J.P. faced uncertainty again: “Now what?” He worked a variety of jobs — pharmaceutical sales, a stint in the Commerce Cabinet, public speaking and basketball camps.
Throughout college, J.P. had developed a thirst for knowledge around investing. He had big financial goals.
“The way I saw it, there were only a few ways to get to the financial place I wanted to get to,” says J.P. “1. Start or own a business. 2. Get to the top of your profession. Or 3. Invest.” J.P. knew investing would be his ticket.
J.P.’s dad had whetted his appetite in the investment game from a young age. They would discuss options and go together to their local broker and purchase small amounts of stock in John Deere, Coca-Cola — companies they had confidence in and knew weren’t going away anytime soon. Low risk. They both saw small successes that way. Seeing the value of his investments increase thrilled J.P. Still, he hungered for something more, something bigger.
“I got passionate about trading and the power of putting your money alongside someone you believe in,” says J.P. “I was the guy driving around in my car at 22 listening to Tony Robbins because I wanted to be better and to know more.”
J.P. attended seminars at Rupp Arena that featured speakers who discussed how they had been successful in their fields.
“I wanted to hear from people who had done it,” says J.P. “I made a commitment to being a constant and never-ending seeker of knowledge.”
Acquiring new knowledge became a practice for J.P.
“You are what you habitually do,” says J.P. “I adopted the mindset that there is no arrival, you are always growing and expanding.”
J.P. was growing a modest investment portfolio, educating himself in every way he could. When he came home at night, he spent hours combing through charts and studying setups that would yield the best returns on his investments. He was making strides.
Then, in July 2007, J.P.’s dad, John Paul, passed away at his home in Edmonton. He was known for his great humor, quick wit and entertaining storytelling. A 1967 graduate of UK’s College of Law, John Paul was a steadfast and much-adored attorney.
“He was who I went to for advice on big decisions,” says J.P. “I always knew he was leading me the right way. That was gone and I didn’t know where I was going.”
A life-changing opportunity
Around 2008, Jim Mahan, an old friend from UK Athletics, called and said he and his dad — Chip Mahan — were starting a bank in Wilmington, North Carolina. They wanted J.P. on board.
Jim had worked in the UK Athletics’ Center for Academic and Tutorial Services as a liaison between players and coaches during J.P.'s college career. Then there was Chip.
“Chip Mahan is one of the greatest entrepreneurs to come out of Kentucky,” says J.P. “Chip was playing the game on a different level than most people.”
They were starting a branchless bank that would lend to niche industries. J.P. was no banker, but Jim explained that the bank was putting a great team together and J.P. would be a great fit. Like in his backyard, in the company of his mother many years before, uncertainty flooded J.P. He was without his father’s advice on a big decision for the first time in his life.
“I said to myself, ‘Can I really leave everything I know and all the people who love me to go and do something I know nothing about?’” says J.P.
In keeping with J.P.’s life decisions up to that point, he chose challenge over comfort.
“When a great opportunity presents itself, even if you don’t know what you’re doing, say yes and figure it out,” says J.P. “If it didn’t work out, I could always come back to Kentucky. After much prayer, this felt like an opportunity I should leave my comfort zone to pursue.”
It took a couple of years to get all the right pieces in line. Then, in 2010, J.P. drove the 10 hours to Wilmington, North Carolina, with his golden retriever, Maximus, to work at Live Oak Bank. It was a first-of-its-kind branchless bank, providing lending and deposit services to businesses nationwide. He was 29 years old, knew only two people in his new town, and knew almost nothing about banking.
It was challenging starting from scratch. J.P. promised himself he would not allow himself to leave before one year in his new role. To overcome the immense homesickness he felt, he committed himself to his work.
“I was hungry to learn about lending,” says J.P. “I took credit memos home at night, I asked questions of people around me, I tried to be a sponge.”
His time as an athlete had prepared him to work hard and to work smart. It was all coming back to him.
“I was the first one at the office every day,” says J.P. “I smiled at everyone. I found the people who knew the most and I learned from them.”
His investment in his new role paid dividends when the bank asked him to head a team lending in several niche industries. Under his leadership, he grew a team that lent about $60 million in loans annually to approximately $400 million.
In 2018, J.P. accepted the chief revenue officer job at Live Oak. He had come a long way from his small beginnings in the trading world. He thought back to the first time he walked onto the court at Rupp Arena wearing a Kentucky jersey, the fight song roaring overhead and his parents in the crowd.
“Live Oak had had 20 people working when I went down there. We used to work with our dogs at our feet,” says J.P. “A few years later, we were ringing the bell on the NASDAQ.”
Live Oak currently employs over 1,000 people. It went public in 2015, bringing nearly $82 million into company coffers. In addition to the opportunity to invest in Live Oak, J.P. invested in the internally developed software nCino (Spanish for Live Oak). In 2020, nCino went public with a valuation of $7 billion.
Though J.P. admits he wasn’t an expert on the software, he knew he was in good company and trusted the people around him who had helped him expand his career. J.P.’s instincts had served him well when considering his major investments and the right people to bet on.
“Being exposed to all those guys in North Carolina was the education of a lifetime,” says J.P. “You get injected with the entrepreneurial spirit. I could have gone to Harvard to get an MBA and it would have paled in comparison.”
“It’s been the journey of a lifetime.”
He always returns to good habits, discipline and his faith. The habits that J.P. formed in his 20s propelled him when he was 35 and continue to be at the heart of his success. The compounded force and everyday discipline of those habits has had an enormous effect on the trajectory of his career.
Being a steward
This year, J.P. pledged a $500,000 gift to UK Athletics. Giving back is a spirit that J.P. has cultivated throughout his life, from coaching youth basketball to making gifts to his alma mater. He told himself a long time ago if he ever had the resources to make a difference that he would. The happiest people he has known throughout his life have been givers — of their time, their talents, their treasures.
He remembers attending a church service in college. A man was talking about how to develop the habit of giving early in your life. “‘If you can’t give $10 out of $100, if you ever have $10 million, you won’t give $1 million,’” J.P. remembers the man saying. That sensibility stuck with him for many years after the service.
“UK is a place where I lived out a dream,” says J.P. “Most of the dearest friends of my life I met at UK.”
J.P. recognizes the grace in the opportunities he’s had — he had two hardworking parents who loved him, a basketball career that opened doors early in his career and found himself in the right room with the right people over the years.
Making a difference at UK is the culmination of years of hard work that began on the basketball court and continues today on the stock exchange. To be able to give back in this way is an honor for J.P.
“When you give to things that have meaning to you, that are bigger than you, that outlive you, it does something different for your heart and soul that no personal achievement can do.”
In Edmonton, J.P. is in the process of building an endowment that will create more opportunities for kids from his hometown.
J.P. thinks often of his father, who didn’t have a father present in his life. He borrowed money from the church to put himself through law school and became the Metcalfe County Attorney for 34 years.
“My dad changed the trajectory of our family,” says J.P. “I want to help kids like him, who had talent, but no opportunity and weren’t exposed to new things.”
In his downtown Lexington office, J.P. had a mural painted of his childhood basketball court, where he spent the first part of his life putting in the work every day in pursuit of his first dream. It’s a concrete slab set back into a clearing of towering trees that have been there since before J.P. was born. It reminds him of what’s possible — that he can start small and achieve something great by working hard and being patient. For J.P., it’s a simple equation — hard work = success — but it’s nonetheless powerful.
He reflects on his childhood at big junctures in his life, a humble beginning in Edmonton, Kentucky. In his parents he saw models of work ethic, big-heartedness and being a part of something bigger than yourself.
“You don’t get to pick your parents,” says J.P. “And I had two great ones.”
J.P. is still dreaming big dreams, but those dreams have changed.
“I hope to steward well all I’ve been given to make a difference.”
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