Irwin Kahn | Legacy of Leadership Profile

A profile of Irwin Kahn.

Irwin Kahn
(1912–1990)

Irwin Kahn was a builder of buildings and community. Columbia's skyline, the University of South Carolina campus, the Midlands, and the state of South Carolina are dotted with tributes to Irwin Kahn and M. B. Kahn Construction Company, Inc.

Today, the company is one of the state's premier general contracting firms and is ranked among the nation's 100 largest general contractors.

At the time of Irwin Kahn's death in 1990, M. B. Kahn Construction Company had erected more than 1,200 buildings throughout South Carolina and the Southeast.

Kahn was born March 17, 1912, in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of Myron B. and Ethel Kaufman Kahn. The elder Kahn left his native Russia when he was 16, bringing with him his carpentry tools and settling in Cleveland. Irwin Kahn's mother died when he was 3, and his father moved the family first to St. Augustine, Florida, and to Columbia in 1929.

After earning a degree in civil engineering from the University of South Carolina in 1935, Irwin Kahn joined his father's business, M. B. Kahn Construction Company. He started as an estimator, working in the field, and worked his way up through the ranks.

He was associated in business with his late father, brothers Bernard and Saul, both deceased, and his son, Alan.

One of the company's biggest projects was Columbia Mall, a 1.3 million-square-foot regional center that helped transform the once-rural Richland Northeast area of Columbia into one of the Midlands' most vital business and residential communities.

In 1959, Kahn founded Kahn-Southern, a subsidiary of Kahn Construction Company, to seek out industrial prospects for South Carolina. Kahn-Southern was innovative in the Palmetto State because it offered market surveys, provided industrial building sites, arranged financing, and built the structures.

Along with then-Governor Ernest F. Hollings and other business visionaries, Kahn was instrumental in the unprecedented growth of industry and business in South Carolina from 1959 to 1962.

During that period, Kahn served as chairman of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce Industrial Development Commission. He and Hollings and other business leaders promoted South Carolina abroad, resulting in a commitment of over $500 million in capital investment and the creation of 38,500 new jobs.    

Kahn was an owner and chairman of Southern Plastics, Inc.; Palmetto Radio Corporation, which owned WNOK-TV and radio station WNOK; Capitol Motors, Inc., an automobile dealership; and Kahn and Jackson, Inc., a water and sewer pipeline construction company.    

He served on the board of directors of American Filtrona Corporation and the advisory board of First National Bank of South Carolina.

Kahn served as general campaign manager for the United Way of the Midlands; he was a founding vice president and president of the Richland County Industrial Commission; and he was a member of the board of the University of South Carolina Advisory Council and Engineering School Partnership.

He was recognized in 1990 for his support and leadership of the Central Carolina Community Foundation.

A founder, treasurer, and board member of the Columbia Country Club, Kahn also was a founding member of the Summit Club and the Capital City Club in Columbia and the Blowing Rock Country Club in North Carolina.

A leader in the Jewish community, he received Israel's Bar Mitzvah Award of the Israel Bonds Committee in 1961. In 1972, he played a major role in the fund-raising, design, and construction of the Beth Shalom Synagogue on Trenholm Road, and in 1975, he received the American Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Torch of Learning Award. He was recognized by the Columbia Jewish Federation in 1986 for his lifetime of outstanding support of the annual United Jewish Appeal campaign, and in 1990, he received the Israel Bonds Committee's Lion of Judah award for service to the Jewish people.    

He was general campaign chairman of the United Jewish Appeal of Columbia, president and director of Beth Shalom synagogue, and president of the board of the Columbia Jewish Community Center and the Josiah Morse B'nai B'rith Lodge.    

In 1988, he received the Outstanding Achievement Award of the Columbia Contractors Association for displaying skill, integrity, and responsibility on a daily basis.

A friend once remarked of Irwin Kahn, "It was said of Christopher Wren in the great St. Paul's Cathedral . . . that if you want to see a man's monument, look around you. The same thing is true of Irwin Kahn; if you want to know his monument, look around Columbia."

While attending the University of South Carolina, Kahn met fellow student Katie Bogen. They married after graduation and were the parents of two children, Alan and Deborah. Irwin and Katie Kahn were married for 37 years. She died in 1973.

Six years later, he married Doris D. Krell, who has a daughter, Debra.

Irwin Kahn died November 1, 1990.

He was inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame in 1994.     

© 1999 South Carolina Business Hall of Fame