By Dennis Boone
One day at a time. Isn’t that what the Little League coach used to preach? One play at a time, one game at a time—just focus on the very next step. But what if that’s a recipe for incremental disaster? What if one day at a time is leading you down the path of business failure? Sure, you set goals, and you build in steps to help employees attain them, to the greater good of the organization. But when it comes to business longevity, there’s more at work than a one-day-at-a-time mentality. There’s vision, which allows you to set the schedule; there’s flexibility, which allows you to take the organization in new directions, even new business models; there’s entrepreneurship, which allows you to pivot the entire company on a dime and pursue opportunities that couldn’t be envisioned, that didn’t even exist when the long-term business plan was written. Here, then, are examples of companies that have succeeded a day at a time for the long term. But more than that, this year’s Milestone companies have set endurance records that shatter the actuarial tables of business life expectancy. They exist into multiple generations because they have gone through multiple stages of evolution and multiple iterations. And they’ve done that because their leaders knew that the future wasn’t all about a day at a time.
It’s all about one tomorrow at a time. We hope you enjoy their stories.
Heaton-Bowman-Smith & Sidenfaden Chapel
It was founded outside the city limits of St. Joseph for good reason: In 1842, there was no St. Joseph. Such is the longevity of Heaton-Bowman-Smith & Sidenfaden Chapel, the oldest funeral home in Missouri and the oldest business in that city. As the new city was established, cabinet-maker David Heaton relocated his fledgling operation from the former Buchanan County seat of Sparta, and carved out a reputation for himself as the nation’s first licensed undertaker. Since then, the funeral home has undergone various iterations as a result of acquisitions, but a fourth generation of the family is still running the show, nearly 120 years after Heaton’s death.
McCaffree-Short Title Co.
Getting a family-owned business to the century mark, a sesquicentennial celebration and even beyond that often requires more than one family’s contributions. Such is the case with McCaffree-Short Title Co., the Overland Park real-estate records company founded in Leavenworth in 1857. That makes it the oldest continuously operating abstract and title company in Kansas. Founded by Samuel Atwood, it passed to a pair of his successors who eventually sold it to one Harold C. Short, who would serve as a county commissioner for 24 years before his death in 1951. His son, Albert Short, sold it to Sam McCaffree in 1970, and it took on its current brand. Today, the company moves toward the next milestone in its history by offering a range of realty services that include such industry staples as title insurance, assistance with sales by owners, closing services and foreclosure reports, among others.
Since 1857 Weaver’s has been a fixture in Downtown Lawrence, and it’s one of the oldest continuously operating department stores in the nation. It opened a year before Macy’s, 36 years before Sears, and 45 before J.C. Penney. Weaver’s continues to defy the retailing odds since its founding by Lathrop Bullene, who came to town to start a dry goods business, survived Quantrill’s raid (and, ironically, a fire 10 years later that forced him to relocate), then sold the business to his son-in-law, Arthur Weaver, in 1885. It was purchased from the Weaver family by Larry Flannery, an employee, in the 1950s. “If it were not for our extraordinary staff over the years, we would not exist today,” says his son, Joe, the current president.
Blair Milling & Elevator Co.
As the settlers were pouring into Kansas in the 1860s, it quickly became clear the fertile ground was especially suited to growing wheat. Even before the introduction of the hard red winter wheat variety that made Kansas the nation’s breadbasket, E.K. Blair had the vision to recognize a need for processing that bounty, and opened a flour-milling operation in Atchison. The family has continued to broaden the company’s service lines, and today it’s also a maker of certified animal feeds for farmers in the four-state region of Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska, producing supplements for cattle, swine, poultry and horses.
The Lawrence Paper Co.
Justin DeWitt Bowersock had vision. Most paper mills will be located near a source of wood pulp, but Bowersock understood back in 1882 that you could make industrial-grade paper out of straw. With a plant run on power generated by the new Kansas River dam, he started Lawrence Paper Co., and was soon turning out five tons of product every day. Bowersock eventually went off to Congress, leaving management of the plant to family, including son-in-law Irving Hill, and today, President Justin Hill represents a fourth generation of family leadership, and it has endured, he says, with conservative fiscal management, “allowing us to survive tough times like the Great Depression and having the capital to reinvest during good times.” Updates to the product line, as well, were keys to retaining customers.
Ash Grove Cement Co.
Ash Grove Cement Co.’s growth arc parallels that of America’s western expansion, as settlements turned into cities. That required the raw materials of infrastructure to turn wagon ruts into roads and erect bridges, public buildings, homes, apartments and businesses. “Consistent family involvement and hiring great people have been two key elements to our success and company culture,” says Charlie Sunderland, chairman and CEO. “Since 1909, when my great-grandfather took over the business, the family has been deeply involved in day-to-day operations. We also hire team players with technical expertise and a strong sense of ethics. Strong family involvement and hiring great people has been a winning combination for Ash Grove.”
Kansas City Power & Light Co.
Few companies are entwined in the everyday lives of Americans quite like the electric power company, and 800,000 area residents are linked to Kansas City Power & Light Co. That number will nearly double if regulators sign off on a bid by parent company Great Plains Energy, to acquire Topeka-based Westar Energy, serving 55 Kansas counties with 700,000 customers. KCP&L delivers power across 18,000 square miles, with 3,000 miles of transmission lines, 24,000 miles of distribution lines and more than 400 substations. The merged company will own 94 percent of generating capacity from the Wolf Creek nuclear power plant near Burlington, Kan.
Faultless Starch/Bon Ami Co.
The global digital revolution has changed a lot of business models, but a series of zeroes and ones will never replace elbow grease. Capitalizing on the quality of cleanliness that separates man from beast is the Faultless Starch/Bon Ami Co., which makes cleaning products for homemakers—powdered cleansers for kitchen and bath, liquid dish soaps, all-purpose cleaners for use around the home, inside and out. Those products adorn shelves of hardware stores, specialty shops, food stores and co-operatives nationwide, and can be bought on-line. Founded as Faultless Starch Co. by Maj. Tomas Beaham, it’s under Generation Five of the family’s leadership.
Not many companies can celebrate two founding years, but the story of Reeves-Wiedeman Co. touches on a pair of milestones in 2017: The roots of the original company set down in 1887, and a trunk that branched into today’s organization a decade later. For more than 50 years, the Reeves family carried the ball with this supplier of plumbing products, with Louis Reeves splitting away from Gray Plumbing & Heating (the namesake of a brother-in-law) to start Reeves Supply Co. in 1897. He led it until 1940, when a plumbing-industry veteran named Wally Wiedeman bought it and added his family’s name to the brand. Today, with a fourth generation on board, and under the leadership of Ted Wiedeman Jr., the Kansas City company has 18 locations serving contractors from Junction City to St. Joseph and Maryville.
The Kansas City Southern Railway Co.
A map of the U.S. railway system shows you what Arthur Stillwell saw when he founded what is now Kansas City Southern, looking not across an America expanding from east to west. He went south. It took him a decade to do it, but in 1897, Stilwell completed what was known as the Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad Co., linking Kansas City to Shreveport, La., and the terminal city that bears his name: Port Arthur, Texas. The smallest of the nation’s Class I railroads, it has 6,000 miles of track, and roughly 6,000 employees provide a key link to overseas markets reached through the Gulf of Mexico and, through subsidiary Kansas City Southern de Mexico, the Pacific. Patrick Ottensmeyer is the publicly-traded company’s chief executive.
With an ownership pedigree now five generations deep, this Lenexa-based contractor ranks second among locally headquartered construction companies in annual revenues. Archie Smith represented Generation One when he founded A.W. Smith Masonry Construction in Kansas City, morphing into Universal Construction Company in 1931. Since then, it has overseen more than 1,000 projects across 22 states, with a combined construction value exceeding $1 billion. Cynthia Smith is the current CEO, a fourth-generation descendant of Archie, while Archie Smith V, an executive vice president, is on the next tier for a company that works primarily in healthcare, educational and correctional facility construction.
Security Benefit Co.
At its inception in 1892, the 11 members of a fledgling fraternal society put money in the till—$1 each—to form an insurance fund. From that seed, Security Benefit has grown into a national financial-services oak. It still provides fixed and variable annuities to a 250,000 people, but it is primarily focused on helping people with retirement planning. Its three-tiered products structure serves brokers and dealers in that sector, employers with retirement plans, and individuals saving for or enjoying retirement. With nearly $30 billion in assets under management, Security Benefit has customers in every state. Mike Kiley is the CEO.
A. Zahner Co.
The milieu is construction, and metal fabrication for that sector, but in a lot of ways, A. Zahner Co. is a commercial artist—just check out some of the company’s intricate designs and fabricated products on its Web site. It started off with L. William Zahner’s vision for engineering and rolling out advanced sheet-metal surfaces, building off of his experience in Joplin as a maker of custom metal cornices that were popular design items with architects as the 20th century approached. Robert Zahner, senior vice president, attributes longevity to a culture of caring. “We care about our customer enough to develop unique solutions to provide them something that wows them,” he says. “We care about our employees and provide a culture so they are safe and enjoy what they do so they are engaged every day. And we care about our community because Kansas City gives us so much more in return. Visitors are always amazed that community here means a lot more than just where you happen to live.”
Fogel-Anderson Construction Co.
“This may sound cliché,” says Roger Summers, “but the key to Fogel-Anderson’s longevity has been a continuous commitment to building our reputation through service to our clients.” A member of the current partnership group that acquired the company in 2015, Summers notes that the company was built by two families—first, the Fogels, then the Andersons—and because their names were on the business, “the reputation was a very personal thing. Today, my partners and I view Fogel-Anderson not only as a firm that has been in business for 100 years, but one that will be in business for another 100 years. We are committed to preserving and enhancing our reputation out of respect for our past and our future.” Bouncing back from the downturn, the contractor expects to top $50 million in construction volume this year.
Strasser Hardware Co.
Before the big-box stores and the sprawl of the suburbs, even, there was a place where you went when the neighborhood hardware store couldn’t help you: Strasser Hardware. It started with A.L. Strasser and his cousin, Alfred, who opened Rosedale Plumbing and Electrical, a contracting firm, in 1917. But they soon found out that other contractors were eager to buy the materials they ordered in bulk. Over the decades, young Strassers would start their careers sweeping the floor of the family concern on their way to leadership roles. The current president, Leroy Andrews, started there 50 years ago, and is the first non-family member to lead the company.
Sutherland Lumber Co.
With small lumberyards and massive warehouse stores rivaling most anything the national chains can throw at them, the family behind Sutherland Lumber Co. has the company standing tall heading into its centennial year. From a single outlet founded in 1917—a good year, it seems, to start a hardware operation in Kansas City—it is now one of the nation’s largest privately owned home-improvement chains, with 49 stores in 13 states. The company in particular prides itself on lumber being a core business, not a sideline, and one of its subsidiaries deals with nothing but lumber production. Steve Scott is currently the company’s top executive.
Reuter Organ Co.
No matter where it goes over the next 100 years, Reuter Organ Co. withstood the worst the world could throw at it—that would be war on a global scale—and lived through it. It wasn’t easy; a national ban on production of most musical instruments in 1942 was the kind of existential threat most companies will never see. The firm began when 37-year-old Alfred Reuter secured an $1,800 contract to build a single organ back in his native Ohio. Two years later, he landed a contract in Lawrence, and the townsfolk there were so impressed, they successfully pitched the idea of Reuter moving the company to Kansas. Dutch immigrant Albert Neutel eventually paired with another employee to buy the company from its founder. Today, his son, J.R. Neutel, is president of a company that hand-produces organs worldwide.
Building its reputation in the commercial realty niche of premier office products, Copaken Brooks has, quite literally, helped shaped the Kansas City skyline. Its list of signature properties includes the Town Pavilion and 1201 Walnut buildings, home to some of the region’s top-tier companies and professional-services firms. Brothers Keith and Jon Copaken and their partner, Bucky Brooks, work with a team that manages key properties across Missouri and Kansas, as well as Illinois, providing representation for clients across the nation—tenants, developers, landlords, buyers and sellers, and corporate real-estate services.
Fritz’s Smoked Meats
Weimar Germany was a tough place to be in the years following The Great War, so young Fritz Plapp, so with his bride by his side, left their native Kleinbottwar for a new life in the United States, starting what is now Fritz’s Smoked Meats.
The company has a longstanding reputation for creating products that make special occasions truly special. Case in point: The run on smoked turkeys in November, or the stampede for smoked hams during the Christmas season. You can even bring in your own bird and they’ll smoke it for you, or grind sausage according to your family recipe. Wherever you are in the next life, Fritz Plapp, vielen dank.
Kansas City Electrical Supply
A woman-owned business in the male-dominated construction sector, this company serves light industrial, commercial, and residential electrical contractors, among others, with products, or maintenance or repair services. Just about everything that plugs in, can be plugged into, carries a volt or consumes a watt is on hand from more than 100 suppliers of conduits, wires, fans, signalization, fuses, gears, heaters and more. Today, the company is under the watch of president Kaylin Crain, who pegs its success on a Golden Rule application for customers and employees alike.
Charlie Milbank was within hailing distance of his 50th birthday when he started Milbank Manufacturing, and in 1920s America, that defined optimism. The company cites hurdles it has overcome since then, including 14 recessions, five wars, the Great Recession and the rapid evolution of technology in manufacturing. It overcame all through what it calls an unwavering commitment to quality, innovation, financial strength and community involvement. Milbank designs and makes electric meter sockets, generators, power systems and other products for utilities, contractors, and industrial and OEM markets, and has more than 500 employees.
North American Savings Bank
It is tough, Paul Thomas concedes, to come up with a quick explanation of how a bank survives for 90 years—a lot can happen in that time. But, says the president of Grandview-based NASB, “rather than trying to get to a certain age, or a certain size, we focus on solid delivery of our services to those we believe see real benefit from using them.” That means eschewing a culture of managing to a near-term self-interest for profits, or grasping for the temptations of the day, he says. “Instead, we’ve evolved toward expertise in very few, but well-delivered products and services. That is good for both our customers and our bottom line, and keeps us in business.” NASB ranks as the fifth-largest locally owned bank in the region, with assets of nearly $2 billion.
A career in his family’s banking business seemed pre-ordained for young Charles Haren, but when he got out of college in 1931, banking jobs—like banks, themselves—were in increasingly short supply. But armed with personal values of integrity, professionalism and craftsmanship, he started renovating many of the banking properties that would take on a new life. And while he was away in the Navy during that dust-up in the ’40s, he put Hal Laughlin in charge of things, then partnered up with him after the war. Today, the general contractor is in its third generation, with Wells Haren as owner, and he’s doubled it in size since assuming that role in 1998.
Central States Beverage
Thirsty? Central States Beverage has you covered, with more than 85 adult beverages ranging from hard cider and distilled products to palate-pleasing lagers and the hometown offerings of Boulevard Brewing Co. The company started in 1932 as the local distributor for Miller Brewing Co.’s brands. Eight decades later, it’s the biggest beer distributor in the region, delivering more than 5 million cases a year to retailers, liquor stores, restaurants and other outlets. Steve Mos serves as president.
Kansas City Steak Co.
The steaks are slice-of-heaven tender, but Giovanni Scavuzzo must have been one tough cut of meat: Along with his three sons, he founded S&S Meat Co. in the belly of the Great Depression and operated as a retail store. It shifted to food service in 1980, serving hotels and restaurants, and today (as a division of National Beef Co.), it reaches consumers on-line as Kansas City Steak Co., a brand that evolved from the mail-order business that S&S set up to sell prime cuts available nationwide.
Wichita gave us White Castle, Salina made a legend of the Cozy Inn, but in Kansas City, THE hometown burger comes off the grill at any of three Town Topic locations—two of them just blocks apart Downtown. Founded by Claude Sparks in 1937, this iconic business is still turning ’em out around the clock, seven days a week at 20th and Broadway. Town-Topic fans are indebted to Gary Sparks, Claude’s son, for maintaining the recipe featuring grilled onions and steamed buns.
Waddell & Reed
Waddell & Reed ranks near the top of the list for the region’s wealth-management firms, with $100 billion in assets under management. Founded by a pair of World War I veterans, Chauncey Waddell and Cameron Reed, its services include financial planning, retirement planning, education funding and more. Philip Sanders, who became CEO and chief investment officer last year, says the company draws strength from three elements: “A collaborative, risk management-focused culture in our Investment Management Division; a balanced distribution model; and our experienced executive management team. Every day the world changes. We have high expectations of ourselves, and a responsibility to investors, to continually understand those changes and interpret the implications.”
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas
The biggest health insurer in Kansas is Topeka-based Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas, whose 103-county territory covers everything but Johnson and Wyandotte counties. It started in 1942 with just eight customers, but today provides health insurance and related services for nearly 1 million Kansans. So dominant in the state is this company that its customers have access to 97 percent of all providers in those 103 counties, 99 percent of all medical doctors and every single medical facility.
Brancato’s Catering/All Seasons Event Rental
Its roots run to 1942 from its founding as Robinson Catering, but growth on a serious scale came after the Broncato family bought the company in 1968. Under CEO Mario Brancato, it now is one of the largest event-services companies in the region, touting an ability to serve intimate gatherings up to corporate events for 20,000. In 2015, the company broke into Catersource magazine’s list of Leading Caterers of America, and remains the only one from this region included in that elite group.
Cates Auction & Realty Co.
Now in its third generation, Cates Auction & Realty Co. offers selling services that include traditional brokerage, auction marketing and competitive bidding for owners of land and residential or commercial properties. Four factors, says the president Jeff Cates, have contributed to that longevity. “First, each generation has had a passion for the business, brought new energy and a fresh set of ideas,” he says. “Second, we haven’t financed our growth. If we couldn’t pay for it, we didn’t buy it.” Focusing on the core business was another key, as was treating people right, and all of those, he said, are values still in place today.
McDowell, Rice, Smith & Buchanan
Proof that law firms need not be corporate giants to pack an oversized punch is this Kansas City law firm specializing in commercial transactions, bankruptcy and financial restructuring, and business representation. It proudly claims to be tenacious in its representation of clients, and few opposing counsel would argue with that description. The firm’s civil trial practice works in state and federal courts across the nation, dealing with business matters like contracts, real-estate transactions, and commercial construction, but also offering clients guidance in tax and estate planning, employment and labor matters, and family law. Pete Smith is the firm’s chairman.
Neighbors Construction Co.
Three generations into the family business, Neighbors Construction isn’t just one of the region’s biggest and busiest general contractors, it’s been on the leading edge of the luxury-apartment boom that is transforming the residential sector here. Roger Neighbors and his wife, Nancy, along with their sons, Aaron and Ryan, have taken a template produced by founder Pat Neighbors: “Work hard, push the schedule, and hire loyal, dedicated people to build a
quality project that exceeds the client’s expectations.”
Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue
Michelangelo worked with oil and marble; at Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue, the artistry entails beef, pork, poultry and fish, but they don’t just smoke it—they turn it into a dining experience that rivals any you can find in a city that built a worldwide reputation for the quality of its barbecue. Founded by Jack Fiorella back in 1957, it offers dining opportunities at five locations, along with shipping services, catering and corporate-gift options. Case Dorman, Jack Fiorella’s son-in-law, is now running the show as owner.
In a city that gave its name to a cut of beef, it’s not hard to find a great steak. When you go to Hereford House, though, you’re expecting something a little … greater. As in the 24-ounce Cowboy Ribeye at Hereford House. You normally don’t see a hunk of beef that imposing outside of a rodeo. The company has delivered top-tier steaks for six decades, and operates in four area locations, plus one in Wichita, and offers private dining, catering and gift-card options.
Gene Bicknell started it as National Pizza Co. in Pittsburg, Kan., during the run-up of a young Wichita-based company called Pizza Hut, and before he sold it off, he’d turned it into the world’s largest Pizza Hut franchisee—a title it still holds, with 1,240 restaurants in 27 states. But it’s also a big player as a Wendy’s franchisee, operating 184 units in five states. With more than $1.2 billion in annual sales, it’s among the Kansas City region’s largest private companies.
Walz Tetrick Advertising
Entrepreneurship, says Charlie Tetrick, not only started his ad agency, it’s kept it evolving from the Mad Men era into the digital age. A full-service advertising agency, it can still get you the media placements of yore in print and on TV, but there’s much more to its service lines these days with creative development, digital strategy, design and development, events and community marketing, research, social media and strategic planning—it’s a robust list of tools modern businesses need to find, attract and retain customers.