(Seated, left to right) Debbie Wilkerson, Greater Kansas City Community Foundation; Ronnie Burt, VisitKC; Rosie Privitera Biondo, Mark One Electric; Kelly Carnago, Google Fiber; Gordon Lansford, JE Dunn Construction.(Standing, left to right) Bob Regnier, Bank of Blue Valley; Matt Condon, Bardavon Health Innovations; Smitty Belcher, P1 Group; Michael Collins, PortKC; Mayor Michael Boehm, City of Lenexa; Brett Gordon, McCownGordon Construction; Roger Neighbors, Neighbors Construction; Trey Meyer, Midwest Fort Truck Center; Bob Thompson, Bryan Cave; Julian Zugazagoitia, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art; Tyler Nottberg, U.S. Engineering; Mark Iammarino, Turner Construction Co.; Don Greenwell, The Builders’ Association; Abe Cole, BKD, LLP; Michelle Sweeney, Ingram’s; Jeff Simon, Husch Blackwell; John Meara, Meara Welch Browne; Warren Erdman, Kansas City Southern; Tom Duvall, Truckmovers.com; Philip Sarnecki, RPS Financial-Northwestern Mutual; Joe Sweeney, Ingram’s.
What do you get when nearly 30 top executives from some the area’s leading companies dedicate several hours in a productive think tank to air common concerns and explore shared opportunities? You get a frank discussion of what this region, and its business community in particular, must do to advance regional growth, improve the quality of its work force, attract innovative, expansion-oriented companies, address infrastructure needs and explore solutions to long-standing social issues.
All of those topics and many others were on the agenda September 8 as Gordon Lansford, CEO of JE Dunn Construction, chaired a fast-paced but intense and meaningful discussion at the company’s Downtown headquarters. The takeaway from this powerful assembly, made up entirely of this year’s Ingram’s 250 honorees: While the business community collectively does far more than simply engage in commerce, much work remains to be done-, and those organizations and many others will have to find ways to step up even more to solve challenges that the public sector simply can’t.
Gordon Lansford wasted no time in focusing the discussion on a pressing issue: What will it take to get the business community aligned behind a November ballot issue, and secure public support for building a single-terminal structure at Kansas City International Airport?
Commendably, he asked participants to sidestep what could have been a default reaction about process—how the City Council settled on an out-of-town developer, rather than the local consortium that had stepped forward to find a solution to a nagging civic issue. The great divide between public sentiment for keeping the airport as is, and the business community’s desire to create a more engaging and inspiring front door to the city, has prevented civic consensus for years.
Mark Iammarino of Turner Con-struction was first to offer a suggestion: Encouraging more business leaders to show their staffs a video produced by the Greater Kansas City Area Chamber of Commerce and the Kansas City Area Development Council, which concisely makes the case for the KCI project. “At minimum,” Iammarino said,” every business should show that to its employees.”
“Joe Reardon and Tim Cowden (of the Chamber and KCADC) have done collectively about 100 presentations on this,” Lansford said. “If you haven’t seen one, they do a fantastic job. But in addition to that, they’d be happy to come to your organization with this.”
“We need to block everything else out and focus on this key project,” declared Bob Thompson, a partner at Bryan Cave. “We have to get the airport right.”
But the KCI project, it clearly became evident, is tied to a number of civic initiatives that may on their surface seem unrelated, but are not.
Rosie Privitera Biondo connected two dots by immediately raising the issue of Amazon.com’s announcement from the previous day. The on-line retailing giant issued a request for proposals from communities interested in becoming home to a “second headquarters, HQ2”
in tandem with its Seattle origins.
“That could mean huge opportunities for Kansas City—for everybody in this room,” said Privitera Biondo, president of one of the region’s largest electrical contractors, Mark One Electric. “We’re all about economic development in all shapes and sizes. But we need an international airport to win that commitment for Amazon to come here. As a community, we should be in support of this new terminal. We need to figure out how to get that vote done, and resolve our contractor issues later. This could bring 50,000 jobs to our community, and that’s what Kansas City is all about.”
Michael Collins, president and CEO of PortKC, the regional port authority, said that if this community is serious about securing that commitment, waiting until a November vote would mean “we’re out of the game.” Even as he was speaking, major cities around the country were marshaling resources for a winning bid. “But we also have to look at what the airport really provides,” Collins said, “and the economic impact it has. How do we get people to understand why we need this? That it’s something that’s going to catapult us into the future?”
There is no question, said Jeff Simon, office managing partner for Husch Blackwell, that KC had immediately been thrust into competition with “it” communities like Dallas. But, having just returned from a meeting in St. Louis that required a 20-minute foray to find an open space in the parking garages and lots at KCI, “I don’t want to hear any more about this convenience thing.”
Don Greenwell, president of The Builders’ Association of Kansas City, noted that “as much as we talk about the airport being our front door,” that message isn’t universally embraced throughout the community. But people, he said, will understand that “we could be talking in terms of a lot of opportunities for jobs.”
Bob Thompson concurred. “We have to put this in a way that people who don’t use the airport, or only use it once a year, can understand,” he said. Unfortunately, there is a stripe of civic cynicism that is peculiar to Kansas City on initiatives of this sort, he noted. “When they get a message from a group like this,” he said, gesturing to business executives around the table, “that makes some people opposed right away. So why does somebody who doesn’t go to the airportneed this?”
Ronnie Burt’s role as president and CEO of VisitKC, where he works to attract tourism and conventions to the region, gives him a true sense of what it means to compete against not only the Chicagos, Washingtons, and Atlantas, but the Charlottes, Nashvilles and Cincinnatis in that space. That’s why he believes that “the region’s business community has to stand aligned and united on this.”
Given some of the public rancor over the city’s public-side efforts to encourage a local redevelopment team at KCI, and the outcome of that debacle, “the average citizen, what they’ve seen is fragmentation—they’ve been reading about negativity and infighting. If they hear a unified message, that can go a long way. This is not about the Missouri business community; it’s about the whole region.”
So much energy had been focused on who should build the new terminal, Gordon Lansford said, that many may have lost sight of the reasons why KCI needs a makeover. “As a business and civic community,” he said, “we all have to get behind this. And frankly, this campaign is behind today. That’s what we need to rally around.”
Even if a new terminal sprang from the ashes of KCI tomorrow, that might not in itself be enough to attract a global company like Amazon. Reason? As Lansford noted, “We’re international in that we can fly to Canada and Mexico. I’m not sure that fits the needs of Amazon.”
Perhaps not, but as Rosie Biondo noted, we have assets that can be put to use to secure new routes to foreign destinations. “Even if we get this new terminal, we could put international fights at one of those existing terminals,” she said. “There are ways around doing this, and we can get international flights here. It’s just a matter of who’s going to push hard enough to do that. All these companies that travel and do all kinds of jobs all over the country—I know there’s a lot of flights we could get here if everybody comes together.”
Repurposing of airport assets, Don Greenwell said, is an attractive option, and one this area has already witnessed. “Where,” he asked, “can we be creative with other assets, like a VML-style airport location?”
Lansford asked what it would take to bring this once-in-a-generation oppor-tunity to reality for Kansas City, noting that this is not just about Amazon: A great many companies affiliated with the on-line retailer would require a presence here, too. What’s needed to win their hearts?
Rosie Biondo quickly cited one advantage we have that most major urban areas can’t dream of: Quick access to . . . that international airport.
“You can’t go to any major city and have a 45-minute drive” to the airport, an item specifically cited in the Amazon RFP. “New York, Chicago, those are wonderful cities, but this is home,” she said. “This is a place where you can get in your car, have a short commute—traffic in those other cities is horrendous.”
Matt Condon said it was an opportune time for Kansas City to learn from the lessons of other great cities that would do things differently if they had the chance. “Traffic in Austin,” he said, “is terrible. The infrastructure is terrible. I love Austin, but that’s the way it is.”
Ronnie Burt pointed to Atlanta as another example of bungled growth management: “They’ve grown so fast, but the traffic is horrible and the infrastructure can’t support it.”
Given that Kansas City has more lane miles of interstate access than any other U.S. city, we hold a significant advantage, those at the table agreed. But another aspect of the Amazon RFP is access to effective public transportation, and that’s where things can get dicey for a city largely limited to buses and a streetcar system just two miles long.
“The public transportation piece is critical,” said Ronnie Burt. When Marriott made the decision to relocate its headquarters in Washington, a key driver of its site decision was access to the D.C. Metro line.
“Many of the employees that Amazon wants to attract don’t have cars,” noted Brett Gordon, president of McCownGordon Construction. That’s a consideration in a community as car-centric as Kansas City.
“That’s one of the criteria that jumped out at me,” said Jeff Simon. If we’re to attract companies that view modern public transit as a must, “we have to bet on ourselves, we have to get past our small-town mind-set,” he said. “And that’s whether we get Amazon or not.”
The region has other assets that make it a prime draw, participants noted.
Among those, said Kelly Carnago of Google, who has lived in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Paris cited factors like the quality of the schools, the overall quality of life and affordability, and ready access to amenities
“One thing we use to sell Kansas City to convention groups, and I think this is critical to Amazon, is the geographic location,” Burt said. “Especially if you think about Amazon’s model, about getting product to other areas in a very quick way. A lot of other cities qualify on other things, but not many cities have the location of Kansas City, and I think that’s going to be a key selling point.”
Julian Zugazagoitia, executive director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, noted the inordinately high level of philanthropy in the region, and support for the arts in particular. The lone drawback, he said, was that large pieces of sculpture coming in from overseas must be trucked in from Chicago because—KCI again—there are no other direct international flights.
Ingram’s publisher Joe Sweeney suggested that a community as resource-rich as this one, in terms of engineering and design talent, could generate strategic alliances that might be unique to Kansas City’s bid. “I’d also like to see some level of privatization of this whole initiative, if it can be done. If this develops, it needs to be done with superior marketing, and this will never happen in a city department.”
Bob Regnier, CEO at Bank of Blue Valley, recognized the collaborative efforts that have gone into KC Rising, a business-driven initiative that addresses work-force issues, the start-up environment, entrepreneurial development and more. “That’s three major organizations working together,’ he said of the Chamber, the KCADC and the Civic Council. He also pointed to the business-development contributions of KC SourceLink.
Kansas City Southern’s Warren Erdman suggested “it was time for this region to start acting more in its own interests, rather than looking to Topeka or Jefferson City for funding—or permission. Having just returned from a Missouri Chamber of Commerce meeting on competitiveness,” he believes “more regional independence is needed to move civic agendas forward.”
“Case in point: with a veto-proof majority, the General Assembly still lacked the wherewithal to override Gov. Eric Greiten’s decision to strip out funding for moving the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance from the main campus to a Downtown location. The same goes, Erdman suggested, “for solutions to the challenge of replacing the Broadway Bridge. There must be a greater local push there,” he said, “despite the fact that the bridge is part of the federal highway system.”
That’s precisely on point, said Mike Boehm: “The discussion about engaging with state leaders—we don’t need it,” he said.
The bridge and the conservatory, said Tyler Nottberg, CEO of U.S. Engineering, were inspirational on a personal level. He cited LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, famous for his guidance that “you have to be constantly reinventing yourself and investing in the future.”
Although much of the discussion foc-used on a work force that doesn’t exist yet, but could, participants also addressed the here-and-now of work-force development, an issue that’s proving difficult for many employers here. Relative to other communities, though, that’s not a significant disadvantage—much of the nation is experiencing the same talent crunch, with unemployment hitting a 16-year low in August.
Two major demographic factors are contributing to the talent shift. First, the Baby Boom generation, like a pig moving through a python, is nearly halfway past the traditional retirement age of 65. For the next decade, at least, 10,000 Amer-icans will reach that milestone every day, and they represent not just top-tier execs, but senior managers and many of the most experienced people on a company’s payroll.
While the Millennial generation, at the opposite end of the work force, has been pouring into the working-age ranks at an even faster clip, they’re coming with vastly different skill sets—and vastly different expectations of what a job and a career should look like.
Against that backdrop, Lansford’s question takes on additional importance: “How do we bring talent to our community—and how we keep it here?
Roger Neighbors was the first to jump on that grenade, because his sector—construction—is feeling the talent shortage as acutely as any other, and perhaps more so. But it’s not just talent he’s seeking in the managerial ranks.
“My biggest challenge is finding workers,” he said. “I can find the managers, but the physical workers, finding those is tough. Nobody wants to do it. But there are opportunities out there for young people.”
It is, said his industry colleague Mark Iammarino, “the No. 1 issue we have to deal with.”
Trey Meyer, president of Midway Ford Truck Center, said “we have a terrible time finding skilled trade labor,” which accounts for roughly half the technicians at the sprawling Northland dealership.
The same issue confronts Tom Duvall at Truckmovers.com, which operates across North America. His hiring has been stymied by a lack of people who simply aren’t attracted to the work. “And we’re talking about people who can make $60,000-$70,000 a year with great benefits and no college debt,” he said.
“To the extent that such workers can be found,” Neighbors said, “reaching them early is key. You have to catch them in high school. In the Turner school district, students there build a house. One every year.” That, at least, is exposing would-be employees to the trades.
“Education is our clean-water issue,” said Tyler Nottberg. Just the lack of clean water is an existential threat to Third-World communities, work-force education must take on a greater emphasis in the U.S. “That includes early childhood education,” he said, and it’s incumbent on business leaders to foster more connections with education, something they are uniquely positioned to do. “We have the luxury as business leaders of not being caught in an election cycle. Some do a lot of advocacy, but not all businesses are engaged.”
Lenexa’s mayor, Mike Boehm, said “this is not just a private-sector issue; it’s a public-sector issue, too.” Cities like his have been challenged to find people willing to explore careers in law enforcement, firefighting and emergency-medical roles. In response, area school districts have created programs for those non-degreed career paths.
Jeff Simon, by contrast, is enjoying the best of times from a hiring perspective, as is Bob Thompson, another Big Five firm lawyer with managing-part-ner experience. “This is a good time for employers in the law business,” Simon said. A post-recession slowdown in business law nationwide prompted firms at every level to embrace leaner, more efficient operations. At the same time, law-school enrollments have been trim-med, in some cases by more than a third.
Result? Fewer people entering law school without a firm commitment to that career, and more truly qualified candidates are earning degrees. The only hitch in that, Thompson said, is that “firms struggle in the Midwest with diversity and inclusion. We’ve put a lot of time and effort into that, but with only modest success.”
Same for Husch Blackwell, Simon agreed: “And attraction is always easier than retention.”
From the accounting and consulting world, Abe Cole said, “we’re seeing the candidates; but retention is the key. And then, with Millennials, the question is how to challenge them?
That is no small consideration. Philip Sarnecki, managing partner for RPS Financial Services/Northwestern Mutual, has 350 employees who, in effect, run their own businesses as financial advisers. “It has become dramatically more difficult in the past five years to find young people willing to take that kind of career risk,” he said.
Because of the long hours? asked Smitty Belcher of P1 group. “The long hours, and the fact that it’s commission–based,” Sarnecki said. “But some can make six figures right out of college; it’s just that many are risk-averse.”
On the technology front, said Abe Cole, “there are a lot of young people making things happen” for the Kansas City region and what’s been dubbed the Silicon Prairie.
Nonetheless, said Matt Condon, “we really struggle in the tech space” to acquire the needed talent. “We’re getting the majority of our senior talent from the coasts.”
John Meara, another CPA, anecdotally reinforced Kansas City’s particular appeal with a story about a recent wedding in the family that produced two out-of-town guests who were so impressed, they vowed to be relocating here soon. One was from southern Colorado, and the other, he said, “was from Dallas, and he said he’s just tired of the traffic there.”
Michelle Sweeney of Ingram’s, taking stock of the conversation as time wound down, wondered why more time hadn’t been devoted to addressing an issue that confronts anyone watching local newscasts each night: Crime overall, and Kansas City’s unwelcome status among metro areas with surging homicide rates over the past year.
With that, the issues that had been explored around the table up to that point coalesced into a powerful segment on how social factors are connected to work-force development, which is connected to business attraction—which generates the kinds
of jobs that can remedy many of those social factors.
“The questions is, can we get people from east of Troost into the technical trades?” asked Jeff Simon. “It would take a bold effort, and would have some risk involved, but the payoff would be enormous.”
From a public-service perspective, Mike Boehm offered a sobering observation: “Government won’t solve this at level, because it’s all about structure, not results.”
“There are a number of things tied together here,” said Philip Sarnecki. “I see a large opportunity for the business community to become a lot
Debbie Wilkerson, CEO of thee Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, concurred: “We have got close the opportunity gap,” she said, and pointed to some of the work that various non-profits were doing on the social-services side.
“We live in two separate worlds: Let’s be honest,” said Jeff Simon. He offered a quick historical perspective referencing the types of contracts and covenants that long ago had created barriers to integration. “This changes on a person-to-person level; it is not a government deal.” Small acts that break down barriers, he said, can be as simple as going to lunch east of Troost, or socializing there. “Just being present with kids who need this. But we have a responsibility to confront our past and look at ourselves.”
“You replicate what you see,” said Michael Collins. “If we do nothing, crime will continue to grow. You have to change the dialogue, and a true end is a 20-year solution. That doesn’t come from finding just another place to shop.”
Added Ronnie Burt: “We have to apply the principles of business to the issues we’re talking about today.” About the brightest assessment of what’s going on in Kansas City today is that “this same conversation is going on in every city.”