What is a product or service with a brand that says “Kansas”? Lots of factors define such brands—yes, including the very name of the state that gave us both the Kansas Jayhawk and a K-State Wildcat—but there’s more to it than simply incorporating that name into an organization’s logo.
A Kansas brand stands for quality over the long haul, whether it involves private jets, high-end boats, a super-ior experience at the movies, a banking transaction, world-class engineering and design services and many more. That’s why Ingram’s is pleased to introduce its interpretation of the Top 25 Brands in Kansas, brands that have stood the tests of marketplace and of competition as well as the test of time, and come out gleaming on the other side.
One can make an argument that a field of 25 brands must, by its restrictive size, exclude multiples of companies that could arguably represent a “Kansas brand.” That’s true enough. But our goal here, unscientific though as the selection process may have been, was to identify brands that have carved out national reputations for excellence by drawing on the best of what the Sunflower State offers in its people and its business leaders.
And those are qualities grounded in the pursuit of excellence, whether we’re talking about buying shoes at the retail level, attending a professional soccer game, investing for retirement, securing service for your smart phone, or powering your home or business.
Let us know what you think—where we’ve nailed it, where you think we’ve overlooked a stellar brand. Who knows? Maybe we can be persuaded that our appraisal of corporate brands is off a smidge. Then again, read what these companies have done to create, nurture and defend their brands, and we think you’ll agree: These truly do represent the companies that produce and market the very best of what business in Kansas has to offer.
There’s little question about what the AMC Theatres brand stands for: It’s part escape, part excitement, and part emotional charge, but it’s also in its name: AMC Entertainment. This public company, bas-ed in Leawood, traces its roots to the silent-movie era, if you could call the offerings in 1920 “movies.” From the Dubinsky brothers’ purchase of Regent Theatre in Kansas City that year, AMC has grown to encompass nearly 5,000 U.S. screens, entertaining more than 200 million ticket-buyers a year and they’re focused on a European acquisition to become the largest theatre operator in the world. The company redefines its brand with applications of emerging video technology and innovative views on the customer experience. From expanded concessions stands with more offerings to its AMC Dine-In Theatres and MacGuffins to digital projection, 3D movies and more huge-screen formats, at AMC, it’s all about the value proposition for the entertainment dollar.
The brand behind other brands you see in the grocery aisles is Associated Wholesale Grocers, based in Kansas City, Kan. AWG is a retailer-owned cooperative comprising more than 2,600 member stores, and it helps fill those shelves—from nine distribution centers across Kansas and a region that runs south and east to the Gulf Coast—with groceries, meat and produce, specialty foods, health-care products and general merchandise items. When you see the stores’ proprietary brands, like Best Choice, Always Save or IGA in the Kansas City area, you’re seeing the parent’s brand at work, too. AWG products are available at more than 3,400 retail outlets in 30 states. The cooperative also offers procurement and marketing departments that help stores develop can’t-miss sales plans in a sector where volume may be king, but margins are often a pauper-like 1 percent or less.
The image Black & Veatch projects is engineering excellence on a global scale, but an awful lot of acumen is packed into that brand. More than a century old, the employee-owned firm offers consulting and construction services across five major markets: energy, including power generation and transmission; water, in everything from dams and supply networks to wastewater management; telecommunications, federal projects in almost any engineering discipline, and management consulting. The company lives by its trademark: Building a World of Difference®. That means providing clients with reliable and innovative infrastructure solutions to challenges that at times are incredibly complex. Based in Overland Park, it has more than 100 offices around the world. It’s been recognized by Engineering News-Record as the industry’s No. 1 design firm in both power and telecommunications.
Bill Lear wanted to build a private business jet, the likes of which the world had not seen. When the futuristic-looking Lear Jet 23 debuted in 1963, he had built both a plane and a brand. The Model 23 was the only private jet that could hit 550 mph and cruise at 41,000 feet, where there was little threat from either the weather or passenger airliners. By building his factory in Wichita, Lear helped that city establish its own brand as general aviation’s Air Capital of the World. How big a brand impact did the Lear Jet make? The first production model crashed during testing, but Production Model No. 2 has occupied its own space in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington since 1978, around the time of the founder’s death. Twelve years later, Canadian aircraft maker Bombardier bought the struggling company, infused it with new life, and combined the Learjet name with it.
Few qualities can help propel a brand to enduring national awareness the way the Fun Factor does, and the Bushnell brand represents a ton of it. From rifle scopes to binoculars, from range finders to GPS systems, from trail cameras to night-vision equipment and more, the company outfits its customers with products that enhance their quality of life by upping the fun quotient. The company’s headquarters are in Overland Park, and it has 250,000 square feet of distribution space in Olathe to handle a product line of nearly 80 outdoors devices. And these are not boy-toys aimed soley at the Rugged Outdoorsman market: Bushnell Golf, for example, has products that function in more civilized settings, while other products enhance the experience for those watching spectator sports, engaging in nature studies, birding, stargazing or attending performances at theaters or concert halls.
For more than a century, the Capitol Federal brand has been built like a pyramid—one stone strategically place atop another. And the bedrock elements of this Topeka-based bank, says Becky Moore, first vice president and marketing director, start with strength, stability and security. Those traits that would prove both enduring and endearing to clients throughout upheavals like the Great Depression, the 1980s savings and loan crisis and the 2008 real-estate collapse. At the root of it all, she said, “CapFed takes precautions to ensure our customers’ money is safeguarded.” Another foundational element is the company’s commitment to community. “We’re dedicated to enhancing our neighborhoods and improving the lives of those in need,” Moore said, with investments in education, community development, the United Way and other charitable causes. Driving that message to customers is a work force that she calls “the backbone of the bank.”
Clyde Cessna launched his aircraft company in Wichita in late 1927, just a few months after Charles Lindbergh dazzled the world with the first trans-Atlantic flight. What makes the Cessna brand story different from other aircraft companies that defined Wichita for so long, with names like Boeing, Beech and Lear, is that the founder walked away from the vision. Clyde Cessna left the aviation business in 1936, selling his company to his two nephews and returning to life on the farm. But from there, the Wallace brothers made more than a go of things, helping establish Cessna as a brand that defined personal aircraft ownership. In 1992, Textron bought the company but kept the brand, and today, despite contraction in that market, Cessna still employs more than 5,000 people in the state’s largest city, turning out the familiar piston engine small aircraft as well as business jets.
You can build a small boat with yacht-like qualities; you can make it the best on the market. But selling into a nationwide network of dealers necessarily implies some loss of brand control. So says Paxson St. Clair, CEO of Cobalt Boats, the Neodesha-based maker of high-end watercraft sold nationwide. “We learned early on that if you don’t have the very best retailers in the marketplace, high levels of brand satisfaction are not going to be there,” St. Clair said. “We’ve had markets across the country where we elected to sit out vs. having a dealer without that customer focus.” His father started the company with a focus on the high-end pleasure boating market and that model has worked for half a century, even from a location as far from large bodies of water as Neodesha. “It’s a smaller-volume segment than others,” St. Clair said, “and it has served us pretty well for a lot of years.”
John S. Dillon knew a little something about having a lot of mouths to feed. Nearly a century ago, the father of 10, who had been running a dry goods store in Sterling, Kan.—set up a grocery in Hutchinson. It would become one of the largest owners and operators of convenience stores in the U.S. Drawing on a motto posted in those early stores, “Dillon Honesty, Economy, Efficiency, and Courteousness,” his company grew across Kansas and the Midwest, and across generations. By the time one of his seven sons, Ray, retired in 1979, that one-shop operation had become a $2 billion corporate giant with more than 200 grocery stores, 300 convenience stores, and 18 department stores in 11 states. In 1982, Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. acquired the Dillon empire. Today, Dillon’s operates as an autonomous subsidiary of Kroger, and has 44,000 employees and $5.8 billion in annual revenues.
For Overland Park-based Ferrellgas Partners, standing out in a competitive sector comes through a combination of reliability and professional service, says Jim Saladin, vice president of marketing and communications. “In any given market, there are multiple choices when it comes to propane providers, and those options run the gamut from national brands to mom-and-pop local shops,” he said. Since levels of dependability and service can vary wildly, employee owned Ferrellgas relies on 75 years of experience in serving customers from California to North Carolina. “Every stop we make and every interaction we have with our customers is an opportunity to reinforce that we’re the best at what we do,” Saladin says. If customers see the value in your service, “you have a great shot at retaining them,” Saladin says. “Those people who choose Ferrellgas do so because they prize value over price.”
With a diverse product line and a wide variety of users, Garmin International finds branding success by meeting people where they live “Our users rely on Garmin to make their journeys more successful,” says Jon Cassat, vice president for communications at the Olathe-based company. That means products that serve the needs of anyone from a pilot on final approach, to an angler fishing for a trophy largemouth, a soccer mom running errands, a golfer looking to make a birdie, or a runner trying for a new personal record, he says. In support of the brand, the company last fall launched its “Beat Yesterday” integrated advertising campaign, which Cassat calls “a simple challenge to people of all fitness and activity levels.” But it also helps when employees live the Garmin lifestyle. “Many of our associates are actively involved in those same pursuits, so we have first-hand knowledge of what our customers want,” Cassat said.
More than 80 years ago, the problem was kidney failure in the guide dog serving a young blind man. The dog’s owner turned to Mark Morris, a New Jersey veterinarian, who determined that poor nutrition was responsible for the dog’s ailment. From their kitchen at home, Morris and his wife concocted a new blend of pet food and began by selling it in glass jars shipped around the country. The self-evident challenges of shipping glass containers led Morris to Topeka and the Hill Packing Co., which was able to can the recipe in large quantities. That original formula, Canine k/d, and the partnership between vet and packer evolved into the Hill’s Pet Nutrition. It was acquired by Procter & Gamble in 1976, and now operates as a private subsidiary of that public corporation. Hill’s products, including the popular Science Diet brand, are sold in 86 countries and generate more than $2 billion in annual sales.
It has more branches than any bank operating in the Wichita market, and more than twice the assets (at $4.4 billion) and deposits (more than $1 billion) of any Kansas-based competitor. In River City America, INTRUST Bank is a brand apart, the largest independent bank headquartered in the state, and one tracing its roots to 1876. Originally chartered as the Farmers & Merchants Bank in 1876, it evolved into First National Bank, and, in 1993, became INTRUST. Throughout most of its history, the bank has been led by a member of the C.Q. Chandler family, from that patriarch himself through models II, III and now, C.Q. Chandler IV—better known simply as “Charlie” in Wichita—as the current president and chief executive officer. Under his leadership, and embracing his father’s banking vision of making customer service a priority, the bank has grown to boast 45 branch offices in Kansas and Oklahoma.
Before it was a brand that became synonymous with college basketball excellence—even before there was a university that would adopt it as its symbol—the term Jayhawk burst onto the national stage in the run-up to the Civil War. Free-staters in Kansas, who ardently—and, at times, violently—opposed the institution of slavery, came to be known as Jayhawkers. How the term became associated with the University of Kansas isn’t entirely clear, but historical accounts suggest it showed up around 1886 as part of the now-famous Rock Chalk chant (the one deemed “greatest college chant I’ve ever heard” by Teddy Roosevelt himself), and was being used by the school’s football team in 1890. So taken with it were state residents that more than 400 companies over the years have appropriated the symbol, including oil companies, accounting firms, bowling alleys, caterers—if any word in Kansas is ubiquitous, it’s “Jayhawk.”
Turning a stretch of asphalt into a national brand starts by understanding that fans want more than to sit idly by as muscle-powered cars turn ovals. At Kansas Speedway, fan experience is everything. Kelly Hale, director of public relations, says customers see the Speedway as “a family-friendly, fun environment that strives to provide a great guest experience,” leveraging NASCAR’s model of getting fans closer to the action and the competitors than any other major sport. Season-ticket holders, for example, “can actually walk on the track before the race, sign the wall or start/finish line, and enjoy both a pre-race concert and driver introductions from the closest possible vantage point,” Hale says. With just six racings days to make that impression each year, she says, “we strive to give our event staff as much training as possible and to remind them that ‘I don’t know’ isn’t an answer, but ‘I will find out for you’ is.”
For people who understand business, the name Koch Industries stands for vision, growth and the kinds of bedrock Kansas values that keep the world’s second-largest private company ($115 billion in annual revenues) moored in Wichita. It has to be about something bigger than what it does, because what it does encompasses so many things: manufacturing, energy, consumer products, agricultural products, meat production and more. More than 60,000 people in the U.S.and 40,000 more in nearly 60 nations, work for a Koch operation. It was co-founded in 1940 by Fred Koch, father of current CEO Charles Koch, and between them, the mother ship and it subsidiaries have been recognized by the EPA, in back-to-back years, as the nation’s No. 1 U.S.-based parent company in pollution-control initiatives, and have earned more than 900 safety and environmental awards since 1990.
As visual brands go, the Kansas State Wildcat—more specfically, its Powercat variant—was summoned into existence out of strategic need. When Bill Snyder became football coach at K-State in 1988, he was fighting a perception of a perennial loser that wasn’t just perception: The football team was still mired in a streak that would grow to 30 games without a victory. Snyder wanted to send a message with a fresh symbol that suggested a rebirth, and an art department instructor, Tom Bookwalter, created the image now in use by the rest of the athletic programs in Manhattan. The older Willie-the-Wildcat visual is still in use in some applications, but Snyder’s success on the football field has made the Powercat a symbol known far and wide. That imagery is bolstered by highly affordable $1-a-year licensing fee for high school programs that want to adopt the symbol—in any colors other than red and blue, of course. Wonder what that’s all about . . .
Transplanted to Salina, Kan., for health reasons, native Vermonter H.D. Lee went on to develop a line of clothing made specifically for assembly-line and manufacturing workers, at a time when America’s manufacturing might was awakening. “Just like our founder, H.D. Lee, our passion is for designing clothes that help can-do people do more,” says Kim Yates, vice president of marketing for the Merriam company. “We are committed to cre-ating jeans and casual pants for every ‘body’—so every fit and style fits your body and your life.” That means relying on improvements in design and technology, allowing Lee to “align with, and help shape, the trends of the industry.” The company ethos—passion for the product—carries down to the work force, Yates said. “We believe that our brand is made up by the people who work here, and have thoughtfully created a team that strives to keep H.D. Lee’s brand vision alive,” she said.
Sixty years ago, Louis Pozes and his cousin, Shalal, had a vision that would transform the retail experience of buying shoes in the U.S.: allowing customers to choose their own discount-priced shoes. Today, the Topeka company is the largest specialty family footwear retailer in the Western Hemisphere, with franchise operations in 15 nations, selling shoes for all occasions, but also sandals, flip-flops, water shoes, socks and accessories. The formula for success over those decades was grounded in tracking design trends, then offering a comprehensive range of affordable shoes for every member of the family. That mission lives on today with its goal of being the “Go To, Get More, Pay Less shoe store for our target customers,” the company says. It has more than 25,000 employees around the world, and after a number of corporate structures over its history, is now privately owned by two equity-capital firms.
As much as Security Benefit is a brand that stands for financial planning, the Topeka company stands for perseverance. Badly hammered during the downturn of 2008, it has come roaring back. It provides fixed and variable annuities for roughly 250,000 policyholders in all 50 states, and has grown from recession-era sales of roughly $1 billion past the $7 billion threshold in 2014 under the guidance of CEO Michael Kiley. All told, Security Benefit has more than $29.5 billion in total assets under management, thanks to the work production of more than 30,000 affiliated financial planners and 700 broker/dealers and marketing organizations. Not bad for a company founded in 1892 by 11 men who each chipped in $1 to get things started as an insurance company. Perhaps even more impressive has been the rise of its se2 division, an insurance-services firm with a whopping $106 billion in assets under administration.
When the Kansas CIty Wizards became Sporting Kansas City in 2010, it wasn’t just adopting a new brand: Sporting’s owners were transforming the image of soccer in this town. The team opened its new stadium in Wyandotte County’s Village West in 2011, and immediately staked a claim to having the most updated fan experience available in any sport. It also spun off a sports-technology company called Sporting Innovations, now FanThreeSixty, which helps other organizations use data-driven methods to engage their own fan bases. On the field, the team won the 2013 MLS Cup to bring pro soccer’s championship to Kansas City, and it has invested heavily to promote soccer among high schools and youth groups, as anyone who’s tried to navigate the sea of humanity at Swope Park’s Soccer Village on a Saturday mor-ning can attest. Sporting, then, hasn’t just built a brand—it has built a market.
Sprint Corp. fell on some hard times after what’s generally regarded as an ill advised merger with Nextel in 2005. That continued through 2013, when Japanese giant Softbank stepped in to acquire a majority interest, helping bankroll a turnaround strategy. The brand itself took a $1.9 billion hit when Sprint wrote down the value of its trademark in 2014, but today, positive signs are emerging. For one, the company last fall broke a two-year losing streak on numbers of post-paid phone customers, which helped offset losses of prepaid customers and allowed Sprint to gain 447,000 customers in the final quarter of 2015. Investors, too, are more optimistic: At nearly $3.50 a share, the stock is up nearly 68 percent since its 2016 low in January. CEO Marcelo Claure has declared that the company’s Cut Your Bill in Half ad campaign, aimed at attracting customers from the top three carriers, will prove to be a winning financial proposition.
The past 18 months haven’t been particularly kind to Waddell & Reed brand, with loss of some key fund managers, investors taking their money elsewhere and most recently, a round of layoffs. But anyone betting against the Overland Park company should consider what the investment firm has accomplished over a longer stretch under CEO Henry Herrmann. The firm remains a formidable force in financial services, with a combined $112 billion in asssets under management among its investing divisions, including Ivy Funds. Herrmann has announced a full-court press by leadership, with a goal of returning the company to a growth track. And that is something Herrmann knows about: When he took the reins of the company in 2005, AUM stood at less than $42 billion. At its zenith in 2013, it had more than tripled—in less than a decade. The firm has 1,700 financial advisers from 400 locations around the country, plus broker affiliations.
Based in Overland Park, YRC Worldwide is one of the world’s largest transportation-services companies. It’s actually a holding company for a variety of other brands, including YRC Freight, which promotes itself as the original less-than-truckload-full carrier; it consistently gen-erates about two-thirds of the roughly $5 billion in annual revenues. Among the company’s other brands are YRC Reimer, YRC Glen Moore, YRC Logistics, New Penn, Holland and Reddaway. That aggregation of transportation acumen gives it local, regional, national and international capabilities. Overall, YRC provides expertise in heavyweight shipments and assists corporate clients with flexible means of managing their supply chains. Under CEO James Welch YRC has undergone an impressive recovery that has seen it steadily attack annual losses, breaking through in 2015 with net income of $100 million for the year.
You flip the switch; light comes on. An action replicated millions of times a day with customers of Topeka-based Westar Energy, which means—when things go as they should—their contact with the company is largely limited to paying the monthly bill. Customers, says media-relations manager Gina Penzig, “engage with our product multiple times every day, but most only engage with our employees and company on a few occasions.” So brand maintenance starts with making those experiences easy and positive, she says. “We encourage our employees to be strong brand ambassadors by volunteering in our communities and serving on civic boards,” she said, and Westar uses social media to provide valuable information about energy, the company itself and the communities it serves. “We also provide extensive training to encourage all of our employees to be adaptable and to think about situations from a customer perspective,” Penzig said.
Across more than 82,000 square miles, encompassing a diverse collection of companies in manufacturing, agribusiness, financial services, consumer products and other sectors, the state of Kansas is home to a considerable number of companies with national brands. But how does one objectively determine a roster of the Top 25 Brands in a state this big, with a business infrastructure this diverse?
We started with a long list of companies headquartered here or, if based elsewhere, with major operations in Kansas, then created a scoring system to assign points for various measurements, including:
• Revenues, because nothing says you’ve made a connection quite like getting a customer to pay you money.
• Geographic reach, the ability to project a brand to mostly to nationwide and foreign markets.
• Employment levels. A company’s ability to make an impact on this state is not limited to its sales volume—the money it circulates into the local economies by virtue of the work force it employs says something about the power of its brand.
• Civic engagement. We assigned extra points to those brands, especially out of state companies, that recognize their own corporate fate is tied to the well-being of the communities where they operate, and act accordingly.