Meet the Chairman’s Circle: Kelly Dobbins

As a young person Kelly Dobbins wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life.


She was born in Bowling Green, Kentucky, home of the Corvette Museum, “which I guess explains my love of Corvettes, even though I’ve never owned one,” said Kelly. She moved here with her family when she was just six months old, “so I’m definitely a Memphis story,” she said.


She started out studying commercial music at the University of Memphis. But when a professor told her she’d need to be able to repair the music equipment to succeed in the field, she decided to try something else. So she switched her major to criminal justice. She had been working as a bank teller and going to school full time, and she thought she might end up in security with the bank. A job never opened up in that department, so Kelly decided to go back to school for her master’s.


That’s when things started to happen for her. Her supervisor’s nephew was also pursuing his master’s in criminal justice. He suggested Kelly apply for a job with The Justice Network. That organization provides private probation, which helps clients develop constructive behaviors and gives judges and court administrators a cost-effective and viable alternative to incarceration.  


Kelly started as a probation officer and rose through the ranks. “I was the bookkeeper, I wrote operations manuals, did taxes – there wasn’t anything I didn’t do,” she said. “I learned so much. How to run a business. How to start a nonprofit. My boss was the boss, so I did all the work. It was great.” SHP_2603_Kelly & Madison Dobbins3


One of the many jobs she did at The Justice Network was drug testing for people on probation. “There was lots going on in the field – devices, methodologies were changing. I found myself really interested in it. Then companies started to contact us to do employment drug testing in addition to the criminal justice work we were doing,” she said.


The Justice Network did both criminal justice and employment drug testing for a while, but then Kelly and her boss decided it was time to separate the work. He kept the criminal justice drug testing at The Justice Network, and Kelly formed Mid-South Drug Testing to do drug testing for employers. “My boss from The Justice Network was very generous and let me take our 11 employment testing clients with me,” she said. “To this day we refer business back and forth.”


Kelly opened the first office of Mid-South Drug Testing in Memphis in May 2004. Just four months later, she opened a second office in Paragould to serve her Arkansas clients. Opening two offices in the early months of starting a business “is not something I’d recommend,” she said. “But we survived.”


Twenty years later those two offices are still open, and the company also has two on-site testing facilities at FedEx. Mid-South Drug Testing has 18 full-time employees, and Kelly is the president. She has a talented team, including her daughter Madison, that she’s grooming to take over the business someday. “People can send employees to us for testing, but our real claim to fame is that we come to you, offering 24/7 on-site drug testing,” said Kelly.  


Kelly is involved in her industry at the national level. She served as president of the board for the Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association, one of two national industry groups. Last year she spearheaded the merger of that organization with the other national industry group, the National Drug and Alcohol Screening Association. Now she is running for election to a seat on the board of that organization.


When asked about legalizing marijuana, which has been discussed by legislators in Tennessee, Kelly didn’t offer an opinion about whether the drug should be legal. She did, however, say that if marijuana does become legal in any way in Tennessee, there will still need to be a “safety carve-out” for drug testing for certain occupations like pilots, fire fighters, school bus drivers, police officers, forklift drivers and the like. “Our industry group has been working hard to educate legislators about the important of safety carve-outs so they fully understand what proposed bills might mean for businesses in Tennessee.”


The national industry group and the Chairman’s Circle are the two organizations she’s decided to focus her energy on. “I’ve been a Chamber member for years,” she said. “Amy Daniels (the Chamber’s chief communications officer) knew about my criminal justice background and my passion for public safety. As a business owner, I’m really concerned. Amy suggested I join the Chairman’s Circle and its public safety accountability committee. That work is so important to Memphis.” The Chairman’s Circle is particularly important to her, she said, because “If you have a seat at the table, you have a voice. But if you don’t have a seat at the table, you don’t have a voice.” The Chamber and the Chairman’s Circle in particular give investors a voice.


Kelly focuses her personal energy on serving the community through her work with the homeless. Mid-South Drug Testing supports the Dorothy Day House, which allows homeless families to stay together in housing, and offers nonprofits a reduced rate for drug testing. Her team has taken field trips to tour community organizations like St. Jude and the National Civil Rights Museum so her employees understand the good things happening in Memphis.


Kelly has two sisters and a brother. She is married to Laurence Dobbins and has two daughters: Madison, who works with Kelly, and Morgan, who lives in Hawaii.


Regarding Memphis, she said, “I’ve always been a Memphis-lover. I always talk great about my city. It’s the people and the hope. We’ve such a diversified community. We’re a small big town. Everybody is connected to everybody else. I went to a local high school, a local college. I started my business here. I want the next generation to stay here and do the same.”

About the Chairman’s Circle: The Greater Memphis Chamber Chairman’s Circle is a group of more than 160 C-suite business leaders working to spur economic growth, develop the workforce, and improve the business climate throughout the region. Learn more about the group and its task forces here and follow the Chairman’s Circle on LinkedIn.