By Dennis Boone
The seeds of entrepreneurship in the Kansas City region have been planted early, as this years class of 20 in Their Twenties demonstrates. These young business owners and executives, hailing from sectors as varied as commercial realty, banking, non-profits, advertising, manufacturing—and even two of the citys professional sports franchises—have embraced the promise of entrepreneurship and are leveraging it for all its worth. Whether its at their own companies or applied on behalf of the organizations that employ them, all have demonstrated that business leadership is in their DNA.
Five Elms Capital
When it comes to entrepreneurship practiced at the start-up level, Ryan Mandl is the tip of the spear. He directs both new investment sourcing and business development for for Five Elms Capital, a venture capital/private equity firm that seeks out fast-growth companies. That means meeting with more than 1,000 entrepreneurs each year to assess competitive differentiators, sales and marketing processes, financial performance, opportunities for growth and, most important, whether Five Elms will invest. He sourced and co-led a deal with OrderUp, tripling the investmet when Groupon bought the in on-line food-delivery platform. He did the same with Field Agent, and sits on the board of that company, which provides in-store intelligence and market research to some of the nation’s biggest consumer-products companies. “I enjoy getting to work with fast-growing companies,” says Mandl, 28, because they “are shaping the future of our economy in Kansas City and other communities across the country.
Ryan Frye was barely old enough to buy a beer when he joined a start-up legal-services tech company in 2008. The founders at UnitedLex are the ones who should be popping champagne corks over that hire. Armed with a work ethic inspired by his father, Frye says, “I felt driven to ensure the company felt my value.” It has. In just seven years, he has developed software that revolutionized forensic imaging of computers subject to litigation, allowing a team of five to collect as much data as 100 people on the ground. He’s also been sent to China (twice) on a high-stakes investigation, as well as Denmark, Canada and Trinidad, he’s been an expert witness in multiple federal-court settings, and been deposed on behalf of clients regarding their data systems subject to litigation. Frye got where he is by blending his passion for innovation with classical entrepreneurial values: “My outlook on my role as a computer forensic examiner,” he says, “was ‘How can I do my job better, faster and cheaper?’ ”
Vision. Planning. Execution. Consistency. Austin Baier wields all of those as an associate for the Kansas City office of commercial realty giant CBRE. “When becoming a commercial real-estate broker, you are essentially starting your own business,” says the 28-year-old. “You have to establish yourself, your style, and your own differentiating identity in the market place.” He’s a 2009 University of Nebraska grad learned the basiscs a USFP Property Management, and LANE4 Property Group before joining CBRE. His first year in the business yielded 29 deals valued at $11.2 million. It was a success template he wouldn’t abandon. “By sticking to my plan,” he says, “I have completed 15 transactions for nearly $8.5 million in value through July of 2015.”
Not yet 30, Piero Ferrante has applied his passion for predictive analytics to such widely varying tasks as identifying at-risk clients new to the health-care system, for Blue Cross Shield of Kansas City; getting ahead of customer complaints by anticipating infrastructure failures for the Kansas City water department; and optimizing donation-bin placement for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Kansas City. He is now director of data science for C2FO, a Fairway company with an electronic trading platform that connects suppliers and buyers to create a more efficient market for working capital. Ferrante earned a degree in finance and management information systems at the University of Delaware, then a master’s in predictive analytics from Northwestern University.
Laura Boswell is the chief operating officer for Minds Matter, an Overland Park company that provides rehabilitation services for people with brain injuries. It’s primary funding comes through the state’s Medicaid-administration tool, KanCare, and anyone familiar with Kansas’ fiscal picture will understand the challenges she faces. To keep the organization competitive, the 28-year-old has developed such innovative solutions as working with insurers to produce value-added service contracts, and charted out an automated workflow and medical-records application for mobile devices, which could trim operating expenses by 30 percent. Her job allows her to apply skills learned with a degree in business administration and an MBA in finance, both at UMKC.
To be sure, 2011 was a pivotal year in Jordan Brunk’s career: He wrapped up a communications degree at UMKC, jumped into his executive MBA studies, founded Brunk Real Estate that September, and went to work at the social radar firm Infegy a month later. But 2013 could end up being the pivotal year in his life—he wrapped up that MBA, took on key new duties at Infegy and attended a charity event where he met the girl he’ll marry next month. At Infegy, he has grown the lead generation by 397 percent, and his current accounts yield 70 percent of the firm’s revenues. He also owns Brunk Real Estate, which seeks out and acquires distressed properties, then turns them around as residential housing, and revenues there are averaging double-digit annual increases.
Power Group/Cretcher Heartland
Scott Havens was still turning heads as a property/casualty producer for the Power Group when he saw early uses of voluminous data through the lens of an entrepreneur. He stepped out of a producing full-time because, he says, “after a few months of gathering and analyzing information on key demographics, I realized how large of an opportunity this would be.” He helped build a business intelligence team, gathering key information on over 20,000 companies and identifying those that would be a good fit for Power Group, which has since merged with Cretcher Heartland. That intel went to producer teams, and by 2013, nearly 10 percent of all new employee-benefits business was being generated from the new team. Entrepreneurship, says the 29-year-old, “is constantly looking at situations from different points of view and bringing the right people together to solve problems. Entrepreneurs do not run away from difficult projects, they are energized to create solutions.”
Genesys Systems Integrator
When GENESYS Systems Integrator, a manufacturing consultancy, identified an urgent need to restructure the way proposals were reviewed and developed, it turned to a relatively new hire from Iowa State University. Carl Kirpes stepped up and worked with company leaders to overhaul operations, putting to good use his twin degrees in mechanical engineering and in industrial and manufacturing systems engineering. He was the perfect fit for a company that advises other manufacturers on ways to improve operations. Though still only 25, he’s now vice president of operations, and since he signed on, profitability has risen 400 percent, 80 percent of projects are generating positive cash flow, and the company has topped 1 million man-hours without a lost-time incident.
Fry-Wagner Moving & Storage
Daniel Fry’s career at Fry-Wagner Moving & Storage started out at the bottom, int he warehouses and on the trucks, despite a fifth-generation pedigree in the family business. But a decade later, he’s business development manager at one of the best-known Midwestern companies in that sector. He’s only 26, but brings to the job a keen understanding of how the fate of a successful business is tied to the health of the communities it serves. “I look to do what I can to make the community and the city and country a better place for the next generation,” he says. He’s co-chair for Overland Park’s 2016 Star-Spangled Spectacular, supports the Ronald McDonald House and Red Shoe Society, and the Move for Hunger effort by Harvesters-The Community Food Network.
Business models can endure for 88 years; processes can’t. For Christine Vetter, channel marketing manager for Milbank Manufacturing’s PowerGen division, the challenge is finding new ways to maximize the reach of a marketing message for an electrical manufacturing and design company founded in 1927. As with the new CRM system for the vital PowerGen product line. She led that rollout from contract and scope negotiation to training and implementation. As a result, says the 28-year-old, “our division now has incredible visibility into sales processes, project opportunities, quotes and orders at any given time—functionality and insight that was near impossible to gain with previous fragmented steps and processes.” She also leads Milbank’s eCommerce initiatives.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling Jed Clampett’s jalopy or Doc Brown’s DeLorean, if it isn’t pulling ’em into the dealership to kick the tires, your on-line site isn’t driving sales. As eCommerce manager for Soave Automotive Group’s Aristocrat Motors, Kris Nielsen saw a need for a new strategy to follow up with prospective customers, infused a growing on-line response team with processes that embraced transparency and quality, and saw the share of sales from on-line prospects rise from 10 percent to 30 percent. Nielsen brings that same yen for innovative approaches to his other duties as customer-service manager, raising customer-satisfaction scores through tactics like creating an empowerment allowance to let the staff solve customer issues without management approval.
Citizens Bank & Trust
Ben Pepper’s definition of entrepreneurship hits all the right notes, like risk-taking, problem-solving and dedication. But he adds one more: “Creative leadership,” he says, “applied in a business setting.” He’s applying that in his own style at Citizen’s Bank & Trust, where he’s an assistant vice president in the commercial real-estate group. He’s engaged in the financing piece of the region’s thriving multi-family sector and redevelopment scene, particularly in the Downtown area, managing multimillion-dollar projects. He turned 26 just this month, but already has a solid business career as well as his own portfolio of single-family homes and agricultural land, thanks in part to what he’s learned on his day job and what he picked up by earning a master’s of entrepreneurship in real estate in 2014 (with a GPA of 3.93). He also has been appointed by Mayor Sly James to Kansas City’s Planned Industrial Expansion Authority, which gives him a closer look at where development incentives will be granted.
Influence & Co.
He hasn’t been in Kansas City long, but Ryan O’Connell is already making his mark as senior vice president of Influence & Co., a three-year-old firm that started in Columbia. The company helps executives establish their credentials as thought leaders by securing on-line publication of their work. It’s grown from a one-man shop with $300,000 in annual revenue to more than 70 people across the nation, topping $4 million in sales since he joined up. O’Connell himself has a track record of thought-leadership publication, earning bylines in Forbes, BusinessInsider.com, Blogtrepreneur, HR.com and other venues. He also was part of the team that helped to secure Kansas City as a venue for Techweek show this month, making it just one of six U.S. cities to land the event.
Kansas City Royals
Not many people can land a $7 million employment contract at the age of 22, but Salvador Perez did it with the Kansas City Royals in 2012. Now he’s on the cusp of something much bigger. The Venezuelan native who once found the concept of a million dollars almost unimaginable has what many consider the most under-valued contract in pro baseball, based on his performance. The team signed him as a free agent—a $65,000 deal—when he was just 16. Now 25, he is a rock behind home plate, a three-time All Star and two-time Gold Glove winner who caught 150 games last year (fifth-most in the pros over the past decade). His contract could eventually pay out nearly $27 million with incentives but the Royals has signalled interest in re-negotiating that deal this year.
Newmark Grubb Zimmer
Think about dots. Nick Suarez does, and because he can see the connections—and recognize that not all dots are created equal—he’s getting it done as vice president at Newmak Grubb Zimmer. “A large part of my business is trying to connect the dots to find the right product for the right consumer.” The keys to that, he says, are focus and persistence. It also helps to have some intestinal fortitude. “A great deal of sacrifice and risk are part of being an entrepreneur,” Suarez says, “because many times, in order to get off the ground, you have to risk everything” and not be afraid to fail. His own persistence has paid off with a hand in roughly $75 million in transaction value. He joined the firm in 2007 after graduating from Rockhurst University, and has been cited by Costar as a Power Broker, and as a top producer by the Regional Association of Realtors. He’s also a supporter of Catholic Charities, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and he is a regular volunteer for NGZ’s civic initiatives.
The value of relationships shines in just about everything Lance Pierce does. His consulting company, Karat Collaborative, helps businesses improve customer relations and in-house HR functions, and connects companies with customers through advertising, marketing and digital strategy, among other services. Outside work, he helps connect visitors to the best of this city’s assets through Airbnb (he’s hosted more than 300 guests via that on-line shared-housing site at the residential properties he owns). And he was instrumental in launching the Mid America Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, which now has 300-plus members. “The more you invest in helping other people reach their potential,” says Pierce, 29, “the further you advance your own discovery of your purpose in the world.”
You have to love someone who distills career guidance from … Yoda: “Do, or do not—there is no try.” Andy Pitts, an account director at Barkley, entrepreneurship is a verb of action, of doing, not trying. He’s been doing at the nation’s largest employee-owned ad agency for seven years and is one of the youngest members of the’s business leadership team, comprising executives responsible for improving Barkley’s culture, training, innovation and vision. His own accounts cover companies with combined annual sales of more than $1.9 billion, and all have posted sales growth over the past 24 months. His team has won numerous in-house and industry awards for its work. “None of these successes,” the 29-year-old notes, “would have been possible by simply trying.”
Emma Carttar Brooke
Lots of people take classes toward an MBA. Not nearly as many do it in Spanish. But, Emma Carttar Brooke has never been one to follow the path of least resistance. Her work on an MBA in marketing from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México came after graduating with highest honors from the University of Kansas with degrees in business administration, marketing and Spanish. Then she joined Global Prairie, the Crossroads-based communications firm, where she has risen to senior account manager at 27. Along the way, she has led a team in change management and executive leadership projects for a top global health-care company, provided strategic counsel to a Fortune 50 technology company, and managed and optimized social-media platforms other clients.
Kansas City Chiefs
Perhaps the purest form of entrepreneur is the one who takes only the natural gifts he was born with and goes on to unimagined success. Such is Justin Houston, who inspires awe in fans (and terror in NFL linemen and quarterbacks) as a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs. And not just any linebacker: This summer, he signed the biggest contract in the team’s 55-year history: for $101 million over six years, including a $20.5 million signing bonus and a $52.5 million guarantee. No linebacker in the 95-year history of the National Football League has ever commanded such a deal, which will keep the 26-year-old in service to the Chiefs through 2020, when he turns 31. But he earned it; last year, the three-time Pro bowler led the league in quarterback sacks, with 22.
Ashley Emmons takes to heart the guidance of the late UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who once said, “Never mistake activity for achievement.” She puts that counsel into action on behalf of clients at Wolfe-Sweeney & Associates, a ReeceNichols real-estate company, where she helped generate nearly $40 million in agency volume last year. Of those clients, she says, “I am here to represent and guide them through their life transitions, not just their transactions.” Because of that, she’s able to reap new clients from referrals made by previous buyers “who knew I cared about them more than getting a commission.” Nothing, she says, “is more satisfying than finding that perfect home for your clients, or selling their current home so they can move on to their next step in life.” Outside of work, she’s involved with the Global Orphan Project, is a 2015 Harvest Ball Society VICTORY Honoree, sits on the board of the Northland Young Professionals, is a Rotarian in Parkville, and serves on the planning committee for Saint Luke’s Foundation’s annual Vignoble fund-raiser.