50 Kansans You Should Know




If we’ve learned one thing from four years of rounding up subjects for our annual 50 Kansans You Should Know feature, it’s that a common virtue of those good people is the quality of determination.

We at Ingram’s can relate to that. After all, we sit just a few hundred yards from the Sunflower State’s eastern border. It rubs off—or maybe it just comes in with the western winds. So when we tallied up the 150 people recognized in the first three years of this feature, we realized something was missing: Blanket coverage of the state. 

Kansas being what it is—a state with vast swaths of farmland and prairie only occasionally broken by a stretch of urban development—its limited numbers of population centers can skew one’s perception of the state’s residents. While we’ve been able to introduce our readers to many characters unique in their own ways—yet bound by shared values—those chosen to date represent just 36 of the state’s 105 counties.

Now the combined residency of those 36 counties comes to more than 2.1 million, in a state of 2.8 million. But it’s hard to believe that a state as geographically diverse as Kansas is lacking in subject matter across an expanse of 69 counties with 700,000 other souls.

So, more determined than ever, we dug into additional resources this year to extend our reach across a state of 82,276 square miles. And we indeed moved the needle a bit—adding many more counties in this year’s tally.

Better, but we’re still not satisfied. After all was said and done with the 50 Kansans You Should Know for 2014, a thought occurred to us: It’s easy to identify one-of-a-kind individuals in a city of 385,000, like Wichita, or even 21,000, like Hays. But you can miss out on a lot of interesting and intriguing people in Kansas by dialing into Google alone. You need to do it with determination, networking, and getting behind the wheel to check out those nooks and crannies where unforgettable characters live.

So here’s our promise to you: As Ingram’s continues its march across the state with its Destination Kansas project this year, we’re committed to some serious name-taking. All of you in Wallace County (population 1,517), take note—we plan on being in the neighborhood before long. And we’re all ears. 

 

Gene Camarena
La Raza Pizza, Wichita

Most people who secure a Harvard MBA don’t put it to use at Pizza Hut. But Gene Camarena isn’t most people, and he wasn’t working in the kitchen—the Salina native started working for the parent company founded by two titans of Wichita entrepreneurship, Dan and Frank Carney. 

It was, says Camarena, “my first and only job after Harvard.” “I became a franchisee in 1991 with restaurants in the panhandle of Texas,” from that beginning, Camarena has overseen the evolution of La Raza Pizza, one of the 150 largest Hispanic-owned businesses in the nation, now with restaurants in Texas, New Mexico and Indiana. He’s also been involved in business holdings including banking, real estate and hotels, as Marriott Hotel franchisee since 1995.

Despite those far-flung interests, Camarena is firmly rooted in the Air Capital of the World, a city that means much to him for its entrepreneurial culture, and much to his family. “My wife’s family was in Wichita and we made the decision to stay there for family reasons,” Camarena said. “Having the entrepreneurial activity in Wichita as well as a number of quality Pizza Hut franchisees was a positive.”

After high school in Salina, he earned a degree in accounting and business at KU in 1979, then moved to Wichita, where he’s been since, save for two years at Harvard. He has two grown daughters and a wife of 25 years, Yolanda.

An avid KU fan, Camarena is able to enjoy the advantages of executive management, the access afforded by living in the heart of the nation, and a quality of life that encompasses smaller-town feel and big-city amenities. And he’s able to devote time to philanthropic causes.

“I spend a lot of time with my family,” he says, “I do travel for business often as well as for the boards I work on. Our other business holdings are also generally in the Midwest which makes Wichita a great base to travel from.”

One of those is with a middle-school boys’ class at Holy Savior Academy. “Most of these boys are from lower income families and often single-parent households, I work with them on building basic business knowledge and the importance of education for success in life.”

“My hope is these young men will learn that that great things are possible through hard work, discipline and self-confidence.”

 

Reggie Robinson
Washburn University, Topeka

Military discipline, public policy, higher-education instruction and legal acumen: Reggie Robinson is the complete package. An Army brat who toured outposts around the world before finishing his childhood years in Salina, he’s the director for the Center for Law and Government at Washburn University. There, his passions and expertise combine to influence the next generation of public-sector leaders—among others. “The thing the center can do is connect with those students who may come to law school with a different set of ideas about what it means to lead.” Public-sector leadership, he says, can come in myriad forms once someone has a law degree—with a government agency, in a statehouse or Congress. “There are all kinds of ways to use that degree to engage in public policy.”

Robinson has raised two daughters with his wife Jane, a nursing-school teacher, and has an extensive public-service resume of his own. He was president and CEO of the Kansas Board of Regents from 2002 to 2010; was chief of staff to former KU chancellor Robert Hemenway before that, and taught at KU’s law school. And that was after returning from Washington, where he was a special assistant to Attorney General Janet Reno.

 

Mollie Carter
Sunflower Bank, Salina

The product of an urban-rural upbringing divided between Salina and Kansas City, Mollie Carter made it to the big-time in financial services, working for John Hancock Financial during most of her 13 years in Boston. But life, as it tends to do, placed a decision in front of her back in 1997. “My first daughter was born in Massachusetts, but we moved here when she was six weeks old,” recalls the CEO of Salina’s Sunflower Bank. “I loved Boston and was having a great time there, but I knew the Midwestern values were something I wanted to instill in my children.”

The pace here suited her, and in ways that go beyond navigating traffic for a day-care pickup run. “Growing up in the Midwest, in a funny way, creates a broader perspective,” Carter says. “Being part of “flyover” country is special because you not only know what others are flying over, but you know a fair amount about where they are flying from and flying to. 

A graduate of Shawnee Mission East, she spent a year in boarding school in Colorado Springs before heading east to earn a bachelor’s in economics at Dartmouth and an MBA from Harvard Business School. In 1995, while living in Boston, she joined the board of her family’s bank in Salina, making monthly trips back for board meetings for two years. She was able to serve as bank chairman from Kansas City until 2005, when additional duties as CEO and president compelled the move to Salina. As the top executive of a community bank, she’s twice earned recognition as one of the 10 most influential women in her field from U.S. Banker magazine.

 

Stephen Anderson
Kansas Policy Institute, Wichita

As a rule, Kansans are up for a challenge, but even for a guy who’d worked with numbers his whole career, Steve Anderson ran into a different sort of beast when Gov. Sam Brownback named him his first budget director in 2011.

“We had very little money in the bank—the prior fiscal year had ended with less than $1,000 in cash on hand—and the Kansas Legislative Research Division had projections that said we were facing a $500 million budget deficit” for the coming year. “My office had to spend a large amount of time dealing with cash flow issues that were ever present those first few months just to ensure that we weren’t bouncing checks.”

Despite an outcry that pro-business tax policies would worsen that dynamic, Brownback pushed them through each successive legislative session since. Result? “The state is now $118.4 million over estimate for FY-2014,” Anderson says, and barring a global economic issue, should bolster a large ending balance for this fiscal year, currently projected at $700 million.

A native of Manhattan, Anderson earned an accounting degree from Fort Hays State University and his MBA from the University of Central Oklahoma. He also earned 19 teaching certifications, including advanced-placement math and physics. He and his wife have a daughter and two grandchildren, and among his business interests, he is still a partner in the accounting firm of Anderson, Reichert and Anderson in Osborne. Before leaving Brownback’s Cabinet last summer and joining the Kansas Policy Institute, a free-market think tank based in Wichita, Anderson was an integral figure in turning around a bleak financial picture.

 

Russ Meyer
Cessna Corp, Wichita

There’s a good reason they call Wichita the Air Capital of the World. Roughly half the nation’s general-aviation aircraft—and one-third of the world’s—are built there, and that’s after the loss of an anchor like the Boeing Co. There’s almost no good reason why the citizens of Wichita haven’t voted Russ Meyer Jr. king for life: In the 31 years that Meyer served as its chairman, Cessna Corp.’s assembly lines pounded out 67,000 aircraft. more than any other company in the world.

Just a year after joining the company as executive vice president in 1975, he made the leap to chairman and chief executive officer, and held both titles until retiring in 2005 and taking the title chairman emeritus. Meyer has been an outsized influence in the aviation industry overall, including three stints as chairman of the board of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. He has enough industry honors to overload a 747, and has been a powerful advocate for developing incoming generations of pilots through the “Be A Pilot” program, credited for producing tens of thousands of new pilots and generating demand that yielded a $200 million economic impact.

After earning his degree from Yale, the Davenport, Iowa, native, spent three years as a jet pilot in the Air Force and three more in the Marine Corps Reserves, logging more than 17,000 hours of flight time.

 

Sheila Frahm
Former Senator, Colby

In four decades of public service, Sheila Frahm saw it all: from school board to U.S. Senate. “December 31 was the end of 40 years of my public-service career,” Frahm says of her duties with the state Board of Regents’ Post-secondary Education Technical Authority. Hailing from the fourth generation of a Thomas County farm family, she earned her degree from nearby Fort Hays State University, and not long after marrying Kenneth Frahm and becoming a mother, she started scratching a public-service itch by serving on the local school board. “I always served form the very beginning on education committees, starting with local board of education” and continuing through the state board of education, Kansas Senate, the lieutenant governor’s office and as Secretary of Administration.

Her rise through the political hierarchy reached its zenith in 1996, when Bob Dole left the Senate to pursue his presidential hopes. Gov. Bill Graves designated Frahm as his replacement, and for 147 days, she worked side by side with Nancy Kassebaum to represent the state in the Senate before losing a special election to Sam Brownback.

“It was certainly a highlight of my life, no question,” she says. “And it certainly broadened my perspective. Now, when I hear a news report on KANU early in the morning, I have to wonder what the rest of the story is.”

 

Joe Suhor
Suhor Industries, Overland Park

When Joe Suhor walked across the stage in the ballroom of the Overland Park Sheraton last June to pick up his award as one of Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year winners in the Central Midwest region, he was 36 years and nearly 900 miles from his first steps on an entrepreneurial odyssey.

That began in 1977, when the new graduate of Delgado College—with a degree in architectural engineering—signed on with Acme Marble & Granite Co., then moved into sales and engineering roles with LaClede Steele. In 1986, less than a decade after college, he acquired the company he was working for, Sloan Enterprises, which specialized in burial vaults. Thus was born Suhor Industries, where he remains chairman and chief executive officer today. 

Shortly after becoming a business owner, he joined the board of another prominent burial-vault maker, Wilbert, Inc., eventually buying Wilbert Funeral Services in 2011. The Ernst & Young honors last year recognized the dramatic growth that has made Suhor Industries one of the Top 100 private companies in Kansas City.

 

Sheahon Zenger
University of Kansas

He grew up wanting to be a coach, and reached that goal early, joining the staff at Drake University after graduating from Kansas State in 1988. Today, Sheahon Zenger is still rubbing elbows with coaches, including a pair of nationally known names working for him in Bill Self and Charlie Weis.

But as athletic director at the University of Kansas, Zenger is charged with overseeing basketball, football and 14 other athletic programs with a combined budget of more than $70 million. He was named to that role in January 2011, with a mission to revive a football program that had slipped back into irrelevance. Zenger’s strategy for doing that was by hiring Weis, the well-traveled veteran of pro stadiums and college campuses who brought instant name recognition to the program. Indeed, after a 1-11 debut, Weis coached the Jayhawks to a 3-8 season last fall, and their first Big XII victory in three years.

A successful program would nicely complement a basketball program that has won at least a share of 10 straight Big XII titles under Self. 

Zenger’s coaching background includes seven seasons on the staff of Bill Snyder at K-State. After briefs stops at South Florida and Wyoming, he returned to Manhattan and began his career in administration. After four years as an assistant there and five in the AD’s chair at Illinois State, KU came calling. 

 

Case Dorman
Fiorella’s Jack Stack BBQ, Overland Park

When he became the top executive at Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue, Case Dorman brought a little something extra to the job: A first-hand appreciation for the crew washing dishes and busing tables.

“The Jack Stack in Martin City was my first job at 16 years old,” says Dorman, who was raised there by a single mother of four who showed him a tireless work ethic, perseverance and fortitude. “I got to experience every job in the house,” including working the barbecue pit, he recalls.

In a leadership role, that experience carries over into providing not just jobs, but careers—with benefits like health and dental insurance, dental, retirement plans, life insurance and—yes, even in the restaurant industry, paid vacation time, etc. In the ’80s and ’90s, Dorman notes, the business lacked the glamour of Top Chef celebrity.

He also helped turn barbecue from a blue-collar dining experience into something much more. “We envisioned a barbecue experience where you could have a great craft beer or cocktail to compliment
your meal or even a wine paired with dinner,” he says. “The traditional authentic brick oven barbecue was
the hook, but the goal was to be a great restaurant.”

 

Linwood Sexton
Hiland Dairy, Wichita

Kansans are known for their work ethic, but Linwood Sexton is taking that concept to a whole new level. At 87, a full 22 years after most in his age cohort began drawing Social Security, Sexton still shows up for his daily shifts in the sales office of Hiland Dairy.

He’s looking forward to June, when he’ll mark his 60th anniversary with the dairy and its predecessor, Steffen’s Dairy. “I’ve cut back on the hours some,” he quips. “I’m supposed to go home at noon, but don’t always make it” with his roster of clients that includes schools, restaurants and larger institutions. 

Speaking of institutions, Sexton qualifies as one in his own right. Fully 10 years before anyone had heard of Brown v. Board of Education, Sexton was shaking up the world of rac-ially divided education in Kansas—in the classroom, and on the playing field.

He helped break the color barrier in Missouri Valley Conference athletics in 1944, an era where he had to make other sleeping arrangements on road trips, when he was barred from staying in the same motels or dining with his Wichita University teammates.

Worse, even though he was one of the nation’s leaders in rushing yardage as a running back, Sexton was denied his true potential because he was forced to sit out games in Tulsa and Texas. Despite that, he was named all-conference three times, and also lettered for WU’s basketball and track teams.

The university retired his number, 66, even before he graduated, and was in the first class inducted to WSU’s Hall of Fame in 1979.

 

Stephen Minnis
Benedictine College, Atchison

Add up the pieces: Law degree. State prosecutor. Private legal practice. State regulatory director for 14 years at Sprint Corp. So of course Stephen Minnis is president of Benedictine College today—sometimes, you get to the perfect fit by an indirect path.

A native of Kansas City, Kan., Minnis split his youth between Wyandotte County and St. Joseph, where the family moved when his dad took a job at Missouri Western. And that’s where the first link in his Benedictine connection was forged. At Bishop LeBlond High School, he says, “all my teachers were either Benedictine sisters or graduates of Benedictine College, so it was natural that I would go to Benedictine College for school.” And he did, graduating in 1982, picking up not just a degree, but his wife, Amy before heading to Washburn Law School.

With J.D. in hand, he started in the Johnson County District Attorney’s office, where he would work with some of the biggest names in recent Kansas legal cirlces. And after going into private practice and working for Sprint, the Benedictine link resumed, with a role on the board of directors for 12 years. When Dan Carey left in 2003, Minnis won the job. Since then, he says, the staff, community and supportive Catholics have made big things happen at Benedictine: Enrollment is up 75 percent, 10 residence halls have opened, the campus has a new $21 million academic building and a satellite campus in Florence, Italy has been opened; new programs in nursing and engineering are in place, and a $50 million fund-raising campaign beat its target by 40 percent.

 

Christie Brungardt
Fort Hays State University, Hays

Determination and resiliency. They show up in a lot of personal stories of people from Kansas, particularly those raised on a farm, like Christie Brunghardt. Those early years near Anthony, in Harper County, were about “learning how to work hard, integrity, not depending on everyone else,’ Brunghardt says. “For me, being the oldest daughter of six siblings, it impacted me over my lifetime—I always felt a sense of responsibility about everything.”

The determination factor showed up in Brunghardt’s life when she earned her Ph.D. at the age of 54. “After having been involved in starting, owning and operating several businesses for 15 years, I decided to go back to school to get a master’s degree in Organizational Leadership,” she says. That’s when Fort Hays State offered her a a full-time teaching job in the Department of Leadership Studies, which eventually piqued her interest in a doctorate.

The resiliency factor came through under the most horrific circumstances any parent could imagine: In 2008, her 20-year-old daughter was killed by an older boyfriend in Lawrence. Processing her grief, she and her husband started Jana’s Campaign, a non-profit aimed at raising awareness of domestic violence issues, and 1100 Torches, an effort to encourage people to get involved in volunteer work 

 

Gregg Marshall
Wichita State University

Wichita is a city teeming with captains of industry and high-rolling entrepreneurs. But no one—repeat: no one—is the talk of that town in 2014 quite the way Gregg Marshall is. In just seven years,
he’s taken a purported “mid-major” basketball program at Wichita State and turned it into the winningest team in the land over the past two seasons.

Last year, the Shockers sneaked up on the rest of the country, announcing their presence with authority in a stunning NCAA Tournament upset of No. 1 Gonzaga. This year, Marshall has upped the ante, driving WSU to the first undefeated regular season in the U.S. since Nevada-Las Vegas turned the trick in 1991. At 34-0 and heading into this year’s NCAAs, the Shockers have a record 111 victories over the past four years. Not bad for a Southern boy who ventured outside of his native region to take the WSU job before the 2007-08 season. A native of Greenwood, S.C., he went to high school and Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, graduating with an economics and business degree in 1985.

He paid his dues as a coaching assistant at various small Southern colleges for 11 years, then took over at Winthrop College in 1998. By 2006, his 15th-seeded team was on the brink of beating No. 2 Tennessee in the Big Dance, then proved it was no flash in the pan by beating No. 6 Notre Dame as an 11-seed a year later, setting the stage for the WSU job offer. Measured improvements in the Shocker program marked the run-up to last year’s headline-making. WSU won the NIT Championship in his fourth year, and cracked the Associated Press Top 25 in 2012.

How far can the Shockers go? Hard to say, but this is certain: Marshall is now one of the hottest coaching prospects in the country.

 

Andy Myers
Pittsburg State University

Andy Myers spent his youth outside Indianapolis under the guidance of two parent-educators. That nurtured his scientific curiosity, and in Indiana, “if you wanted to major in science or engineering, Purdue
was first on the list,” says Myers, now the director of the Kansas Polymer Re-search Center at PSU. “I thought I wanted to be a physician, but met all sorts of creative, intelligent people at Purdue.” So he stuck with chemistry, and after being exposed to research, the hook was set.

“I knew that was what I wanted to do,” he says. His work at the polymer center is a hat tip to his grandparents, who all had some connection to farming, he says. “We work on agricultural feedstocks as an alternative to petroleum as a starting material,” Myers says. “My grandfathers would have understood and appreciated the story of soybean oil to new products, even if they didn’t know what a polymer was.” 

A professional relationship with scientists from the center took root in 2000, and after being invited to visit, the new building in Pittsburg, “I saw so many opportunities and saw that PSU had made a huge investment in polymer research, and I thought, ‘I want to be part of that.” 

And it was so. His role, he says, entails “building connections between technical areas, between disparate people, and be-tween science and business.”

One might not think of Southeast Kansas as a research center, but the building he works in, Myers says, “is as good as any research facility I’ve been in. …It’s got everything you need to do a high level of research in a safe and inviting atmosphere.”

He considers himself lucky to work with talented and creative scientists, and most of them, Myers says, have worked in the polymer industry, so “we appreciate and value the economic aspect of technology. We’ve been successful in transferring technology outside the university, and have a mandate to continue to work towards that goal.”

 

Shane Cordell
Little River High School, Little River

In small-town Kansas, they may have a passing interest in the Chiefs—or, if you’re far enough west, the Broncos. The sport’s fan’s blood really starts to boil, though, with the program right there in town, and that means high school football and basketball. And that’s why Shane Cordell could probably be anointed King of Little River without many complaints.

For 34 years, Cordell has labored on the sidelines of his alma mater, coaching football for 29 years and girls’ basketball for 34, and doing a bang-up job at both. His football teams won three state titles (in seven championship-game appearances), and his overall record there was 204-94. He topped that with basketball, where the girls have gone to state 14 times, won four straight titles, posted a state-record 91 straight wins, and this past season, pushed his victory total past 600. He even had a pair of state-champion track teams.

“Sports are very important to small schools,” he says, but notes that a small-school’s identity need not be rooted in athletics alone. “I put on a football clinic in Rolla, Kansas, one summer. When I walked in their gym it was lined with banners. They were Quiz Bowl banners. That was something important to them and they were very proud of it and deservedly so.” 

 

Mahnaz Shabbir
Shabbir Advisors, Overland Park

Philadelphia-born Mahnaz Shabbir, whose parents immigrated from India in the ’50s, began to set down roots in Kansas City in 1980. Real roots. She’s not just the owner of the Shabbir Advisors management consulting firm, she’s a certified tree farmer. 

She lives on a 30-acre spread in Stillwell, and started looking into that arboreal care in 2006. “I wanted to keep my acreage in its best condition that supports wildlife and the environment,” says Shabbir, the widowed mother of four sons. That, though, is a pleasant diversion for a business owner who earned undergraduate and MBA degrees at UMKC. Over an 18-year career with Carondelet Health, she rose to the level of vice president for strategic planning and business development, planning projects valued at tens of millions of dollars.

But after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, her Islamic faith and desire to address diversity issues led to a series of speaking engagements nationwide, so she decided to head out on her own in 2003. The years since 2001 have been challenging for Muslims, particularly for her two younger sons. They experienced considerably more animosity over their religion and ethnicity than did her older sons.

“One isn’t born with hate. It is a learned emotion. Where does this come from?” Shabbir says. “When our political leaders use my faith as a political football, what they don’t realize is that it affects children who are just being kids living their lives. It has me still speaking out because education is the only way to combat hate.”

 

Mary Beth Jarvis
Wichita Festivals, Wichita 

Every year, Mary Beth Jarvis invites friends to spend a little time with her in Downtown Wichita for a couple of weekends in May. Last year, the headcount came to … oh, about 360,000. That’s a neat trick in a community of 380,000, but the seating is still pretty good at the Wichita River Festival, the biggest weekend bash you’ll find in the state in May or any other month.

A Pittsburgh native and Notre Dame graduate, Jarvis is executive director of the long-running event, which draws human waves to the banks of the Arkansas River on the first and second weekends of May. Most of them are on hand for the festival finale, the second Saturday, which concludes with the Wichita Symphony’s Twilight Pops Concert.

A ground-pounding tradition before the concluding fireworks is the symphony’s rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture—complete with a real cannon-fire wrap-up from Fort Riley’s troops strung across the Douglas Avenue bridge.

Jarvis, who’s married to a pilot and has two children, was first exposed to the festival while working at McConnell Air Force Base in the early 1990s, then later at Koch Industries, where, she says, “I got a sense for the other side of the festival—as a sponsor and community partner.”

The fest saw a 30 percent bump in attendance last year, reflecting its enduring appeal. “It energizes downtown Wichita and unifies the community in a unique way each year,” Jarvis beams.

 

Doug Frost
Sommelier, Prairie Village 

For the record, Doug Frost is not one in a million—he’s one in about 2.35 billion, considering that only two other people on this planet, like Frost, have simultaneously held the titles of Master of Wine and Master Sommelier. The others are from haughtier locales like San Francisco or Southhampton in England—but a global expert in wine? Here? How does this happen? 

Well, for one, it’s home. Though born in Portland, Ore., Frost spent his childhood knocking around this region—Kansas City, Wichita, Hutchinson and Fort Worth. But well before he earned a degree in theater from K-State, Frost had his senses rocked with his first encounter with wine. “It was not what I expected and it seemed like it could respond to your mental inquiry with layers of aromas and flavors,” he says. 

Later, working in the field for a distributor, Frost found that residents of central and western Kansas were, quite literally, thirsting for information on good wines. “People were open-minded and honest about what they thought. … It taught me a lot about the validity of each person’s palate.”In recent years, craft vineyards have popped up around the region, and “unquestionably, excellent wines have been made here,” Frost says of the local vintages. “Judges in competitions on the coasts have frequently and regularly given top awards to Kansas and Missouri wines.”

 

Paxson St. Clair
Cobalt Boats, Neodesha

On average, surface water covers 7 percent of each state in the U.S. Kansas? Less than one-10th of that—0.6 percent. Which made it more challenging for Paxson St. Clair, but he still managed to “grow up on the water,” he says, thanks in large part to nearby Grand Lake in Oklahoma.

And to his father’s decision to start building fiberglass boats in 1968. That’s what set him on a career with Cobalt Boats, where he’s CEO today. That path, though, “was more about the love affair I developed for boats and less about the family business,” said St. Clair, who earned a degree in economics at KU. “After college, I worked for a couple of outside boat companies—Dad told me work somewhere else for a year, so I sold Grumman pontoons, worked retail, and came back full-time in 1989.”

It wasn’t easy. “I wrestled with the decision. It was tough coming back as a single guy to southeast Kansas,” he says. But he’s made adjustments, as has his family, including splitting time between the Kansas City area and the work week in Neodesha, which has its advantages as a business site.

“One of the big advantages is, it’s centrally located,” St. Clair says, which lowers the costs
of serving markets on the Pacific coast and overseas. “But I could not build Cobalt quality anywhere other than Neodesha,” he says, praising the craftsman ship of his 700 employees—in a town of 2000.

 

Dee Ann DeRoin
Physician, Lawrence

Dee Ann DeRoin is a physician, not a history teacher, but she imparts a powerful lesson when she notes that, until 1850, matters of public health among Indian tribes in the U.S. were administered by the Department of War. A lot has changed in American health-care since then, but Native Americans, she notes, have enjoyed far less than their share of those advances.“ I could do a whole huge story—no, a book—on heath care for Indian people,” says the Lawrence-based DeRoin, who is also a member of the Ioway tribe.

A native of Nebraska who was the last of five children, she grew up in California, graduated from Cal and earned a medical degree from Stanford. When her mother decided to move back to Nebraska, DeRoin jumped on a chance to serve part of her medical residency at Haskell Indian Nations College in Lawrence. Again by chance, when the college’s physician moved on, she was invited to take the position. She’s been in Lawrence since, working as a family physician, treating Haskell students, and caring for residents of the state’s tribal populations. 

Despite multiple challenges facing health-care providers serving those patients, DeRoin finds deep meaning in her work. “Working with Indian people is a joy and privilege of itself,” she said. “Second, it’s the relationships you create. Third, I can tell patients, ‘I’m the coach, you’re the athlete; I have information that can help you take better care of yourself, but we have to work as a team.’”

 

Dave Dreiling
GTM Sportswear, Manhattan

The bug bit early—and hard—when David Dreiling was growing up in north-central Kansas. His parents owned small clothing stores in Smith Center and Concordia, and “the dinner table discussion was always about business.” Dreiling says. “A lot of lessons stuck with me that I still use today” as co-founder of GTM Sportswear. 

Before he’d graduated from Kansas State University, Dreiling had started four businesses, including a limousine service he sold for $2,800 upon graduation to buy a half interest in It’s Greek to Me, selling fraternity wear on college campuses right out of his van. He and business partner Dave Barnes “were wildly underfunded and trying something that had never been done before,” Dreiling recalls. “The whole goal was just to stay in existence. I never worked so hard in my entire life as I did for those first few years.”

But three years after earning his degree, Dreiling was named Entrepreneur of the Year by the Small Business Administration. GTM soared to nearly $78 million in revenues by 2012, and employs more than 300 people, many of them college students. It’s been a lot harder to make the incremental gains than to sell that first $1 million worth, Dreiling says.

“As a brand new business concept, we had to just go with our gut and figure out things along the way, as opposed to relying on past experience from ourselves or others,” he says. “There was no ‘best practice’ for what we were trying to do. “

Manhattan, he says, is a strategic location, with Midwestern values and work ethic that Dreiling says “can’t be coached or trained.” Students, he says, “fill a pipeline with proven ‘GTMers’ from which to hire from when they graduate… It takes most of the “guesswork” out of the hiring equation for both sides.”

 

Terry Crowder
Kansas Human Rights Commission, Topeka

Terry Crowder did his hitch in Vietnam for the Marines, came back to his hometown and went to work at Goodyear Tire & Rubber, one of the city’s largest employers. And he stayed put—for 40 years, retiring in 1969. Faith—in God, in family and in the United Steelworkers—have been hallmarks of his life. The Good Lord and family are doing fine, but Crowder is less confident of where organized labor is headed today. “Even though Kansas is a right to work state, we have had strong unions in Kansas,” he says. “But over the years, the political atmosphere of union-busting has effectively weakened the unions.” Private-sector lobbyists have managed to tarnish the positive benefits of unions, he says, while at the same time sending jobs overseas for cheap labor. Those values may mark him as a Democrat in a deeply red state, but Crowder, who recently was named to the state’s Human Rights Commission, is hard to pigeon-hole. His 2012 run for a Statehouse seat, for example, produced a Kansans for Life endorsement, even though he supports abortion rights. Life is a miracle, he says, but “I also believe that a woman who has had an abortion, a man who has encouraged an abortion or even a doctor who has performed one, can all be forgiven by faith in Jesus Christ.” 

 

Sister Diane Steele
University of Saint Mary, Leavenworth

Born and raised in a tight-knit Catholic family in Butte, Montana, Sister Diane Steele remembers her origins in a hard-rock mining community, but reveals much about herself when she says, “I learned early on to find God in the beauty and the majesty of the mountains.” The ability to connect on a spiritual level with the world around her would occasionally inspire curiosity about religious life during her high school years. She made the decision to go for it, she said, during her senior year in college. “It’s hard to describe—a bit like why you marry this person rather than that person,” says Sister Diane, now president of her alma mater, the University of Saint Mary. “It is a sense, an urge inside that you have to try it. … I did. I liked it.”

The Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth steered her towards high-school instruction before deciding to make a theologian out of her, leading to a masters in theology and a Ph.D. in systematic theology, both from Notre Dame. After a year of teaching that followed, she became president of USM 13 years ago.

“What keeps me in Catholic higher education is my deep conviction that education is the only real and lasting solution to poverty,” she says. “Education empowers people to be self-sufficient and eventually, give back to their communities. … Further, an education, a Catholic liberal-arts education, shapes one’s mind and soul. For us, it is a sacred task.”

 

Bob St. Peter
Kansas Health Institute, Topeka 

Bob St. Peter left his home state after college to earn a medical degree at Duke University, then waded hip-deep into health-care policy in Washington for more than a decade. By 1998, it appeared that the next great frontier for addressing ailments in the health-care system itself would take place at the state level. 

So when a mildly relentless headhunter latched onto his contact information and pitched the leadership position with a health-policy organization in Topeka, the Wichita native was almost halfway convinced. Family closed the distance on that deal: “It was going home; I grew up here, multiple generations of my family were from here. If it were Nebraska or Oklahoma, I might not have come back, but in Kansas, I thought I could do something and contribute to the health and well-being of the people.” 

He made a promise to his wife, Anne, that a three-year commitment would suffice. Cue the famed Kansas City quality-of-life hooks. Sixteen years later, the St. Peters are still here. His work gives him an opportunity to engage in health-care challenges that are both nationwide in scope, and particular scourges in Kansas. “In most things, we’re close to the middle,” he says, “but in a few things, we’re not. We’re worse off compared to other states with obesity rates” as well as community and educational activities that can affect tobacco use and obesity.

 

Dennis Hays
Unified Government, Kansas City, Kan.

Government may lack true entrepreneurs, but there’s no reason why people in public service can’t exhibit entrepreneurship, says Dennis Hays. That’s a fitting observation as he wraps up a nearly 40-year career in public administration. Hays is preparing to retire as County Administrator for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan.

Reflecting on the most pivotal moment since he joined the city’s community development department in 1976, Hays pointed to the successful 1997 consolidation of the city and county governments, which allowed a single political body to make tough policy decisions. “Because of the high level of trust and confidence in the mayor, County Commission and the administrator, we were able to move nimbly and act in an entrepreneurial style,” Hays says. That led to less government and more public-private partnerships.

Proof of the power behind that dynamic is Village West, the 400-acre entertainment and retail district adjacent to the Kansas Speedway, generating millions in tax revenues for a county that has long been among the poorest in the state. 

 

Jerry Garland
Associated Wholesale Grocers Kansas City, Kan. 

“We’re blessed being in the Midwest, with all the commodities that are grown here, the cattle and the grains,” says Jerry Garland. And trust us, when Jerry Garland talks food, he knows whereof he speaks. He’s the chief executive officer for Associated Wholesale Grocers, the retailer cooperative that jumped past the $8 billion revenue mark last year. 

“Independent grocers in the state of Kansas, do about $1.032 billion in sales every year, and that supports about 32,000 jobs, and we supply about 80 percent of that volume,” says Garland a native Texan. AWG’s footprint extends into Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Crunch the numbers system-wide and AWG helps keep 120,000 people employed.

That gives small, independent grocers—many of them the lifeblood of their communities—an economy of scale that allow them to compete nearly eyeball-to-eyeball with grocery giants, Garland said.

“It’s a real challenge for small-town Kansas to keep its grocery stores,” he says. “I grew up in a smaller town, and you’ve got a courthouse, post office and grocery store. If something is lost there, it feels like you’ve lost the community.”

 

Shelly Prichard
Wichita Community Foundation 

Shelly Prichard is something of a rarity: a sixth-generation Kansan, whose relatives first descended on the Winfield area in 1876. Those who were living there before that didn’t have much regard for the people moving in from the east.

By the time Prichard was born into a cattle-farming family headed by a veterinarian, the family’s Sunflower State bona fides had been set.

A K-State journalism grad, she worked for Sosland Publishing in KC, then made the move into non-profit management, and today’s she’s director of the Wichita Community Foundation. Like in KC, she’s found that donors in Wichita are quite charitable, even as they follow a national trend toward more purposeful philanthropy. “They want to know where their dollars are going, expected outcomes, successes, etc.,” Prichard says. Statistically, she noted, Wichita ranked 111th out of 366 metro areas in charitable giving in 2012, at $283.99 million, it’s a median contribution of $3,050 for the year. “There is definitely a feeling of newness and fresh thinking in the business community.”

 

Chad Gross
Grant County Feeders, Ulysses

As a kid, Chad Gross worked around cattle with his dad. But even though he grew up in the industry, “it wasn’t necessarily something that I knew I wanted to pursue” as a career, says Gross, who was originally from Hays. But he had something of an epiphany when he went off to college: “I really missed being around cattle and the feedlots,” he says, “so that brought me back to it. When it was time for a job I wanted to work for a big company that could provide opportunity long term.”

What he brought his employer JBS Five Rivers—was not just a personal history in the business, but an armload of credentials. After receiving his bachelor’s in animal science at Colorado State and a master’s in ag econ from Purdue, Gross earned an MBA from Indiana University.

That has positioned him for advancement through JBS, which owns Grant County Feeders, one of the largest feedlot in Kansas, capable of handling 110,000 head of cattle at one time. “Having that many cattle on feed takes a lot of coordination and alignment from the people responsible for their care,” he said. “This is one of the challenges of the industry, but also rewarding when you positively influence the lives of people in the community.”

Knowing that the product of his work ends up on the plates of faceless millions of customers is a responsibility he takes seriously.

 

Mike Hamman
Lone Pine Hunting Preserve, Toronto

In 1978, Mike Hamman and his wife, Beth, decided it was time to leave Nebraska and go home, to Woodson County, Kansas, where Beth’s great-grandfather had homesteaded the family farm nearly a century before. But instead of breaking the ground, Mike Hamman was looking at another sort of harvest. 

That’s how Lone Pine Hunting Preserve came into existence, offering corporate CEOs and blue-collar workers alike the opportunity to hunt pheasant, quail, and chukar or turkey and deer hunting in season. Groups as large as 24 descend on the farm near Toronto to harvest as much wildlife as their wallets will allow, Hamman says. 

“We get a pretty broad range of hunters here,” Hamman said. “We get a lot of folks from close by, but just today, we have a guy coming in from Alaska.” One might wonder whether the nation’s largest state was running out of wildlife, but Hamman notes it’s the variety that draws his customers.

“Up there, he hasn’t had a chance to bird hunt in several years.”

Each year, Hammon raises roughly 15,000 pheasants, which are hunted on the preserve or shipped to other preserves nationwide. He trained hunting dogs for close to 40 years, but now just works with his own, which he makes available to hunters who have none.

 

Jon Levin
Varney’s, Manhattan

Several years ago, a long-time employee of Varney’s book store in Manhattan penned an on-line tribute to Jon Levin, owner of the iconic property in the Aggieville entertainment district just across Anderson Avenue from Kansas State University. 

Levin had articulated 16 guidelines that became a blueprint for success at the store for more than 55 years. Among them were such gems as “A policy is only a poor substitute for common sense,” “We’re not here to teach anyone a lesson,” “Always use your best judgment,” “Don’t chew gum on the job,” and “Do not steal from the store.”

Now, consider this: K-State’s Bill Snyder returned from a three-year “retirement” in 2009 to resurrect the program, he brought with him his own 16-point program.

The store traces its history to 1890, when the agr college was celebrating a record enrollment of 590 students. That’s when Guy Varney, a 22-year-old businessman, opened his first bookstore downtown. After moving into Aggieville, the store has become a touchstone experience for thousands of students flocking to college to buy books, KSU sportswear and just about anything that will hold a splash of purple paint.

A family partnership controls the store now, and Levin with sons Jeff and Steve have cornered the market on the KU/K-State rivalry by purchasing the Jayhawk Bookstore in Lawrence.

 

George Laham
Laham Development, Wichita 

Wichita was founded on a pioneer spirit, and a little bit of that was at work in 1988, when a real estate agent looked at a tiny corner of his hometown and saw nothing but possibilities. George Laham and a partner bought a three-acre plot in east Wichita, and started laying the groundwork for a project called Bradley Fair. 

Two years later, retailers opened their doors in what eventually would become one of the city’s premier lifestyle centers. The addition of a national retailer, Talbot’s, in 1991, and a five-acre expansion in 1994 touched off a brand-name land rush that brought the first Gap store as well as Eddie Bauer and Banana Republic.

Laham secured the remaining 312 acres and the stage for Wilson Estates, a master-planned development that will include an office park, medical complex, hotel and residences. It’s a 450,000-square-foot jackpot. It also paved the way for Plazzio, a 350,000-square-foot retail and entertainment center and Regency Lakes, at 500,000-foot and the largest shopping center in northeast Wichita. 

 

Steve Hawley
Kansas University, Lawrence

As a kid growing up in Salina, Steve Hawley lived through the Sputnik craze, pondered the stars for a while—and put the dream on a back burner. “All the early astronauts were test pilots,” he remembers, “and I wanted to be scientist.”

But after the test-pilot-turned astronaut model had run its course with the last moonshot, U.S. space research took a new tack. “NASA began looking for scientists and engineers to be astronauts for the space shuttle at the time when I was finishing grad school,” says Hawley. 

He made it into the first class of shuttle astronauts in 1978, then labored in training until 1984, when he went up on Discovery. Five flights and more than 770 space hours later, he was the Sunflower State’s most-traveled space cadet. Is there anything that compares with the rare combination of excitement and terror inspired by a shuttle liftoff? “I imagine that there is,” Hawley says, “but I don’t know what good examples might be.” His flights into space came with roughly 40,000 hometown fans pulling for him, and were routinely chronicled by the hometown paper in Salina. “I still feel close to Salina and the people there,” Hawley says. “I get there several times during the year.” 

In his current role as a professor of astronomy at KU, Hawley has a unique vantage point on the quality of instruction. “The content of the astronomy classes that I teach is significantly different than it was when I was a student,” he says. “That’s due to the incredible progress we’ve made in understanding the universe.”

 

Rick Heiniger
Agjunction, Hiawatha 

So you’ve never heard of precision agriculture, eh? Meet Rick Heiniger, who’s spent
a career turning agriculture from a practice measured in acres to one an inch makes a big difference. He’s president and CEO of AgJunction, the latest branding incarnation in a series of companies that dates to his first venture in 1977. 

A native of Bern, Kan.—yes, it’s Swiss—and a K-State grad, Heiniger runs a company that specializes in a unique range of technologies. “They’re used to make farming much more precise in nature,” he says. “Instead of managing by the field, we manage by the square foot, and each piece becomes a separate patient, every plant becomes an individual.”

That precision carries huge implications for farming, because it vastly enhances efficiency, reduces excess fertilizer use and boosts yields in an era where global food demand is surging. “You don’t waste water, you don’t waste inputs, you don’t waste seeds.”

Farming, he said, is unique in that you never get out of it quite as much as you put into it. “And that probably shouldn’t be,” he says, “since you have free solar power, free water with rain. It doesn’t make sense, but that’s why we do things precisely.” Heiniger’s business success demonstrates the potential for tech companies to thrive in rural areas, particularly with work-force considerations. “It’s just part of the DNA,” he says.

 

Mark Martin
Brookville Hotel, Abilene

By Mark Martin’s count, about 2.6 million chickens have taken a path through the Brookville Hotel’s kitchen on their way to that Great Coop in the Sky since he started washing dishes there in 1963. And more will follow suit before he hangs up the apron as fourth-generation owner of a central Kansas landmark—one that’s so popular, it’s occupied space in two towns.

His great-grandparents purchased the original hotel—yes, in Brookville—in 1895, and succeeding generations perfected the family-style chicken dinner that brought throngs in from nearby I-70. But growth and a faulty wastewater system compelled Martin and his wife, Connie, to relocate in 2000, building a replace of the famed hotel façade in Abilene, 40 miles to the east. It was tough to break with tradition, Martin said, “but I’m not an operator of sewer plants, and we couldn’t the meet requirements of state environmental codes.

Though he hailed originally from Eugene, Ore., Martin became a Kansan when his father came back to take over the family business in 1960. “I grew up around the kitchen,” he remembers. “That was pretty much all I did, washing dishes and stocking shelves.”

The relocation was abetted by a number of economic-development incentives; more than 20 communities were vying for the restaurant when word was out about a relocation.

Hard to imagine, but after working in an environment like that all week, Martin doesn’t eat much chicken outside the restaurant. “I like to fix myself a steak,” he deadpans.

 

Gary Harshbarger
Kansas Water Authority, Dodge City

Gary Harshberger grew up on a farm 13 miles south of Dodge City, and today, that enterprise covers nearly 20,000 acres. Average annual precipitation in southwest Kansas is about 22 inches—one-third less than the statewide average. So you can bet that water issues have Harshberger’s full attention. So much so that he sits on the Kansas Water Authority, serving as its chairman. Dry as it is historically, “southwest Kansas has been in a severe drought for four years, and dry land crops have either been non-existent or very poor,” he said. Irrigation has made the difference for him and for thousands of other farms in that region and, by extension, the state—nearly two-thirds of the state’s agriculture output comes from land that sits atop the Ogallala aquifer, he says. But Harshberger is just as concerned about surface water and the eastern part of the state, especially after a decline in reservoir levels because of that drought.

Harshberger left the family farm near Minneola to earn an electrical engineering degree at K-State, then took over the farm from a childhood idol: His dad. “I had a passion for the farm, being a caretaker of the land and its resources,” Harshberger says. “I was drawn to an environment where your word was your bond and a handshake sealed the deal; ideals that made this country great and what continues to make this state great. Here, I could build something, create what I wanted and take the farm that had been in my family for three generations to the next level and then, hopefully, pass it on.”

 

Ron O’Hanlon
Crop Quest, Dodge City 

Ron O’Hanlon is a man of principal. When the independent crop consultancy he worked for decided to forsake that independence and align with farm-supply manufacturers, O’Hanlon’s boss chose to retire. O’Hanlon decided he was done, too.

Much to his surprise, the managers reporting to him said that if he went, they were going, too. And so did their direct reports, about 30 in all. When the western office got word of things, the movement’s numbers swelled to 65. That was the spark that eventually led to Crop Quest, the world’s largest employee-owned independent crop consulting firm, where O’Hanlon serves as the chief executive.

He doesn’t have to remember what that display of loyalty looked like—it’s still on the job with him more than 20 years later.

Crop consultants are like physicians who make house calls to farms. “I’m a plant doctor, an agronomist,” says O’Hanlon. “We go out to the fields and look over what’s happening, take soil samples and the such.

That means working with 3,000 farmers across the southern planes and front-range states of the southwest, with 1.4 million acres under contract.

 

Danni Boatwright Wiegmann
Sideline Chic, Tonganoxie

She’s a Sunflower State version of Forest Gump with IQ points: Everywhere she goes, it seems, Danni Boatwright Wiegmann is brushing up against fame and success. She earned a considerable portion of both nearly a decade ago by winning $1 million on the “Survivor” television challenge in 2005, besting a field of contestants by taking the measure of the Guatemalan jungle. Before that, she represented her home state in the Miss USA competition, worked as a model and now she’s married to former Chiefs’ offensive lineman Casey Wiegmann, with whom she’s raising two sons in Tonganoxie. 

She’s done turns behind the microphone for 610 Sports, co-hosted the weekly “Sports Rap” show, and served as product spokeswoman for Coleman, the outdoor/camping products maker, Trackstick’s GPS tracking devices and Allegra, the allergy medication.

Still not enough packed into 38 years? Boatwright Wiegmann is also a co-founder of Sideline Chic—corporate motto: “Go Cute or Go Home”— which draws on an interest in team sports that dates to her childhood, when her dad was a coach and she and her brothers were growing up engaged in various sports. The on-line company, which she started with friends Jessica Lilja and Julie Zitlow, is head-quartered in nearby western Shawnee and features custom baseball and football team caps, jerseys and other apparel. 

 

John Meara
Meara Welch Browne, Leawood

To get through college in Illinois, John Meara had work for a CPA firm his senior year. He developed an appreciation for things that add up. After moving to KC in 1969 and spending eight years working for large accounting firms, he decided to see if he could handle a bottom line of his own with John W. Meara & Co. Today, his firm is Meara Welch Browne, a longtime Kansas City fixture now based in Leawood. 

Meara’s career as a CPA had a particular concentration on business-valuation cases, and he’s a certified fraud examiner who directs auditing, business valuation and litigation support services for the firm, and provides general business consulting.

In another universe, young John Meara might have finished law school at UMKC, but as things turned out, dealing with tax law and dealing with the accounting consequences dictated by that law are two sides of the same coin. “My favorite course at UMKC Law School,” he says was Legal Bibliography. “Knowing your way around law books was critical if you wanted to be successful in tax accounting and law in 1969” and it’s much the same today. But “after three semesters at UMKC (at night), I knew I was meant for accounting,” Meara said, and a quick review of compensation levels for new accountants and attorneys sealed his decision.

His career has exposed him to legends, names like Crosby and James Kemper, Henry Bloch, Barnett Helzberg and Ewing Kauffman, and he regards them as models he hoped to emulate with his own firm.

 

Hale Ritchie
Rainbows United, Wichita

For four fruitful generations the Ritchie family built up a construction materials empire. As Hale Ritchie’s career was winding down, a realization set in: Somewhere along the way, the family feeling started to disappear. Hence the sale to LaFarge North America in 2005.

“Our industry is dominated by foreign, mega corporations,” Ritchie says. “It was becoming increasingly less fun. I grew up hanging out at the office; these were like family members to me. As we grew and got to the range of $200 million, it was all bankers, lawyers and bonding people—it wasn’t the same.” After the sale, he tried easing into retirement at his summer home in Minnesota. But they have phones there, too, and his rang. Rainbows United, a deeply cherished personal cause, had run into a crisis: Would he come back to Wichita to help rebuild the finances of a struggling non-profit? There was no way Ritchie could refuse. That was in 2009, and by 2011, the non-profit serving disabled children was back on its feet.

Of his contribution to life in Wichita, Ritchie says: “If somehow, the things I’ve done can make some other business leader more generous or more caring about the community, then I will consider myself successful in what I did. 

“As government cuts spending, the needs aren’t going to go away, so the business and religious community have to pick up the slack. When the cuts come, the Rainbows Uniteds will be affected, not Medicare. So it will forever be a challenge for the business community to realize a civic responsibility to put back.”

 

John Snyder
Dentons, leawood

John Snyder finished the Boston Marathon last April, met his wife for lunch back at the hotel, and never heard the explosion that killed three and maimed nearly 300 just two blocks away. “At first, it seemed surreal,” says Snyder, an endurance sports enthusiast. Outside, though, it was plenty real; runners who trailed him by half an hour paid the price with lost legs. But Snyder will be back there again next month, and he anticipates an emotional race for all involved.

The managing partner for the Kansas City office of the global law firm Dentons, Snyder is a native of Wyandotte County. He’s the youngest of four children raised in the Rosedale neighborhood, where his father’s example of 70-hour weeks as a retail store manager conditioned him for the rigors of being a commercial realty lawyer.

After majoring in economics and political science as a scholarship student at Illinois Wesleyan, he earned his law degree at KU and worked in several firms before alighting at what is now Dentons. “I loved the idea of helping shape the Kansas City real estate community and enjoyed the often ‘win-win’ outcome,” Snyder says.

That love must be a powerful influence; he and his wife, Diane, have three daughters—the oldest of whom plans to attend the KU Law School in the fall.

 

Sandy Foust
S&Y Industries, Winfield

Thirty years ago, Sandy Foust decided there was more to life than just being a housewife, even if she had to stay at home. Her husband offered a suggestion: Why not get some materials together and start making circuit boards? 

At home. In Winfield, Kansas. With zero experience. Foust started to bone up on the industry—this was before there was an Internet, mind you, or a YouTube to show her how—and indeed, started cranking out circuit boards. Then more. And more. Today, they’re used in medical equipment, aerospace and automotive applications
and telecommunications settings. 

In 1996, she formally incorporated S&Y Indus-tries—in Web browserspeak, that’s sandyindustries.com, conveniently enough—and the chase was on. Today, she employs more than 100 people, and she’s not making circuit boards at home: She has a 50,000-square-foot facility in Winfield, and is working with two of her sons, John and Dan.

Foust has also broadened her entrepreneurial curiosity, working with her sons to redevelop a 27,000-square-foot building in downtown Winfield, dubbing it The Shops at Millington Place. 

 

Jim Wiens
CVI Funeral Supply, Newton

In a business that generates zero return customers, Jim Wiens has nonetheless made a go of things with CVI Funeral Supply in Newton, where he took over the reins from the founders—his parents—and built on the family business. 

“I started at a very young age and hung around the plant as a boy,” Wiens recalls. “I worked through high
school and college in the family bus-iness. I made handles for the vaults on a piece-rate basis and did clean up as well. Later, I worked in the plant and drove a delivery truck. I have many memories of traveling around the country, with my father, looking at other vault plants to learn about making our plant better.”

He picked up not just a degree in business admin-istration at the University of Kansas, but by returning to Newton with his bride. In the years since, he and Sharon have raised two daughters.

Among the biggest challenges he’s dealt with in expanding the company’s footprint to cover five states is finding the right employees. “Hiring good people to work with has always been a priority and I have been fortunate in finding many good people to help the company grow,” he says. Some of that has to do with the inherent advantages of a Kansas labor pool. “Newton offers a quality work force and relatively low overhead for operating a business,” Wiens said. 

 

Dave LaRoche
Fort Scott 

With just 2.9 million residents, Kansas doesn’t turn out many professional baseball players. Thanks to an import from California, the state beat the odds—twice. Dave LaRoche, a 14-year veteran of the major leagues, married a Fort Scott girl back in 1973. As his career wound down, he and Patty decided they wanted a small-town feel for their kids, and settled in Fort Scott in 1981. There, they raised Adam and Andy, who have gone on to their own pro baseball careers. “It was a huge change for me,” LaRoche says. “I enjoyed the small-town living, and it was a great, safe place to raise a family.” There was never a moment, he said, when extended road trips during the season inspired concerns about the family’s safety.

One pleasant development he’s witnessed is the increasing sophistication of baseball instruction, with more frequent practices and traveling teams. As a result, he says, “I think you will see more Kansas-bred, D-1 and professional baseball players in the future.” A two-time All-Star pitcher, moved from outfielder to pitcher, going from the minor leagues to The Show in less than two years. “The highlight of my career,” he says, “was finishing with the New York Yankees and playing in the 1981 World Series.” 

 

Christal Watson
Kansas Black Chamber of Commerce, KCK

Christal Watson learned the value of civic engagement from her father, radio news personality Neil Poindexter of KMBZ. “Dad was really involved in the community, serving on boards and things like that, and I feel like the mantel was passed to me,” says Watson, who is both a member of the Kansas City, Kansas, school board and president/CEO for the Kansas Black Chamber of Commerce. “I have a heart for Kansas City, Kansas, and after watching some of the other minority leaders—I don’t see a lot of them from my generation that have stuck around. So I want to do as much as I can.” On one level, that means engaging in efforts to resurrect a long-underperforming school system. “My parents instilled in me the importance of education,” Watson says. “The real value came from experience. I didn’t get my degree until later in life and I was passed over for jobs.” And her role at the Black Chamber, where she started part-time in 2007, was just that—a job—until she had a realization a few years ago. “I went to the U.S. Black Chamber school of management con-ference, and that’s when I started to feel like I was in the right job.

After that, I decided I wanted to do full-time. I feel like it’s the right fit and matches my personality.”

 

Tom Watson
Golf Pro, Stillwell

You probably know him as Kansas City’s contribution to world-class golf: Tom Watson, five-time winner of the British Open, with 34 other PGA tournament championships on his resume and 14 more on the senior circuit. The reddish hair is fading a bit, but the gap-tooth smile can still light up a golf courses, and even in his 60s, Tom Watson projects a boyish countenance. 

What you may not know about him is that Tom Watson is also a highly motivated neighborhood activist, as evidenced in his Web blog protesting annexation of his Stillwell-area farm into the city of Overland Park—and his role in going to court to challenge that land grab. And, unless you went to the former Pembroke Country Day in the mid-’60s, you probably don’t know about the origins of his competitive fire. That was back in the days when the three-sport star’s coaches referred to his appearance and demeanor as “Huckleberry Dillinger.” 

That competitive drive was on full display in 2009 when Watson, whose best days were well behind him, led the British Open field and finished one stroke away from winning a sixth title there. 

In response, the tournament adopted age restrictions that have kept him off the course since then.

 

Roger Powers
Flint Hills Solutions, Augusta 

It was a chance conversation with a Nation-al Guard officer after the 2005 Greensburg torn-ado that got Roger Powers thinking.

“If I had a fixed-wing UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] that could give us a video feed, it would tell us where to send teams out, and we would have been more effective,” the officer said.

That was all the spark needed for Powers, a veteran of Wichita’s robust aerospace industry. He founded Flint Hills Solutions with a line of unmanned helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, placing itself at the forefront of an emerging global marketplace. Aviation marketplace anal-ysts say its the fastest-growing segment of the aerospace sector will balloon to $80 billion in sales over the next decade. “A lot of countries other than the U.S. are using the technology more aggressively than we are,” Powers says. But in the next couple years, “anything under 55 pounds gross weight, the lid’s going to come off this application.”

UAVs can provide extended surveillance capability (up to six hours for an unmanned helicopter), or long-distance flight at remarkably low costs. “We have one in our possession that flew over the Atlantic on less than a gallon of gas,” Powers said, referring to a 33-pound fixed-wing plane certified to fly at altitudes to 18,000’.

 

John B. Dicus
Capitol Federal Financial, Topeka

John B. Dicus—the middle initial is important here—is the chief executive officer of Topeka-based Capitol Federal Financial, one of the largest banking companies in Topeka and the Kansas City region.

He learned banking, in large part, from the zen master himself—John C. Dicus, his father, who started at the bank in 1959 and retired in 2009. That’s when the younger added the title of chairman to his duties of CEO. That was the pinnacle in a career that saw him rise through the ranks since joining the bank in 1985. 

More than just a good corporate executive, Dicus is continuing the family tradition of good corporate citizenship. In 2012, the Capitol Federal Foundation made a $20 million gift to the University of Kansas to help build KU’s school of business. It was the largest donation the foundation had ever made, and covered nearly one-third the project cost. “With this gift,” Dicus said, “we are giving students at the University of Kansas the opportunities they need to be successful in the business world.”

 

Bob Taylor
Executive AirShare, Wichita

It was a simple concept, really: You can rent a car for a day—why not a corporate jet? From that seedling planted in 2000, Bob Taylor founded Executive AirShare Corp., where he served as chief executive officer until turning the reins over to Keith Plumb last year.

The concept struck a financial nerve with business owners, which Taylor might have suspected, given his background as a certified public accountant. He started in accounting in 1971, then made the leap to aviation in 1998 by joining Executive Aircraft as president. 

Executive AirShare introduced the concept of fractional ownership, and also offers share leasing and equity-building jet card programs that allow businesses to increase the efficiency of their air transportation dollar, since the company maintains, insures and stores the planes, as well as preps them for each flight.

In addition to a degree in math an economics from KU, Taylor earned his MBA at Michigan. His other business experience includes service as chairman and CEO of Railroad Savings Bank and chief financial officer of Rent-A-Center, the consumer rental company founded in Wichita by Tom Devlin. He also has served on the boards for Olathe-based Elecsys, a contract manufacturer of electronic products and components, and on the board for Inergy LP.

 

Bob Timmons
Kansas Corn Growers Association, Fredonia

Kansas corn growers cranked out 520 million bushels of corn last year, part of a record national harvest that drove prices to nearly half the levels that farmers enjoyed in 2012. Bob Timmons was along for that ride, and he feels both the satisfaction of his compatriots in corn production—and, when prices go south, their pain.

Timmons, now in his third stint as president of the Kansas Corn Growers Association, is a 40-year veteran of farming, having joined with his brother to take over the family farm started by their father, who’s now 93. Timmons learned much of what he knows about farming from growing up in that environment, and he supplemented that with a degree in business administration from Baker University. 

He and his brother, who own 900 acres but farm roughly 3,500 through lease arrangements, have had their hands full in recent years with the statewide drought, which even made its way into the comparatively rainy southeast corner of the state. 

“It’s been rough across all of Kansas, especially two years ago,” Timmons said. But they’ve made adjustments, as farmers tend to do. “We’ve been fortunate with low yields that prices have been better. In the good years, we upgrade machinery and pay off debts, and
in the bad—well, we do the best we can.”

The biggest change he’s seen in four decades of farming, he said, has been the application of technology. “Knowing what seeds fit the soil types, being up on the latest seeds, the agronomy-type things” are the biggest challenges he said. But the payoff from higher yields is what helps cover the costs of tractors and combines tricked out with computers and GPS systems. 

Timmons and his wife have raised two daughters, but neither appears on track to assume the farming duties when the time comes. The land may stay with his brother’s side of the family, but if not, it could end up becoming part of a longstanding trend toward farm consolidation. “We’ve seen a lot of that through the years, but it seems to have slowed down,” Timmons said. “But through the years, we’ve lost a lot of farmers.”

 

Matt Lowen
Lowen Sign Co., Hutchinson

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: An ambitious young entrepreneur starts a business in his garage, and within a few years, in on course to build a manufacturing empire. It’s been the working model
for everything from Disney to Google, Harley-Davidson to Amazon.com. And the Hutchinson variation on the theme came in 1950, when Mike Lowen laid the foundation for Lowen Corp.

Mike Lowen died in 2012, leaving the company in the hands of his son Matt, who earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration, operations management and supervision from the University of North Texas in 1995.

Today, the company is a sprawling manufacturing complex in Reno County, boasting four operating divisions: Lowen Color Graphics, Lowen Sign Co., Lowen Certified and Lowen IT, operating across a combined 250,000 square feet of space. And together, they are among the nation’s largest producers of metal signs for the real-estate industry and vehicle wraps for commercial fleets. 

The sign-work starts with raw steel, which is rolled, formed and processed in-house before being shipped for screen printing or digital printing processes.