After 10 years and 500 profiles of business executives, college presidents, non-profit leaders, athletes, authors, film makers, entrepreneurs and entertainers, one might think the most interesting people had already earned a place in Ingram’s annual 50 Kansans You Should Know feature. Well, think again.
As this year’s crop of talented, influential and engaged leadership figures shows, a state that covers 82,000 square miles has no shortage of intriguing personalities. Though their career interests and pathways may diverge significantly, what they have in common is the lifestyle itself, and what it means to be a Kansan. To almost every man or woman, it means having been raised in an environment that prized hard work, determination, persistence and resolve: Precisely the qualities that the homesteaders brought to the state more than 150 years ago. In some cases, this year’s honorees represent a fourth and fifth generation of that pioneer spirit, and they see their contributions to their communities as a repayment on an obligation to their fore-bearers, a return on the investment made long before anyone of us were born. As you read their stories in the pages that follow, think not about the distinctions between them, but the qualities they share. They truly represent what it means to be a Kansan, and it’s not just a matter of shared geography. It’s a shared state of mind, one that contributes to stronger communities from border to border.
His financial-services credentials are impeccable: Kevin Birzer leads an energy-investments firm with $7.8 billion in assets, oversees pipeline and clean-energy investments for clients worldwide, and has a track record of entrepreneurial success that has helped various organizations thrive for more than 30 years. So while his firm has offices in New York, St. Louis and London, it remains firmly rooted in Leawood. The reasons for that are both personal and professional. “Personally, I stay because of my family, my close friends, my church, and, of course, the Chiefs and Royals,” says Birzer, a fourth-generation Kansan who grew up in Great Bend and earned his degree in accounting at Notre Dame. “As a firm, we stay because we can attract world-class talent in a great city with a tremendous quality of life, a relatively modest cost of living and reasonable commutes.” The allure of this place has been shown over and over again. “Many people have worked at investment firms in places like New York or Chicago but are from this area and wanted to move back,” he says. Landing those players is what keeps TortoiseEcofin on a level playing field with far bigger firms in that space. This area also offers great local investment and wealth management firms, he says, and he’s able to recruit young talent right out of school.
Intouch Group, Overland Park
She admits it: Wendy Blackburn came to Kansas “for a boy.” But, hey: It was the right boy—she’s been married to him for 22 years. Other influences, as well, led her here and, ultimately, to her role as executive vice president for one of the Kansas City area’s fastest-growing companies over that span: pharma-focused digital marketing agency Intouch Solutions, now a part of Intouch Group. She’s also here because traditional PR work didn’t have the same appeal as aligning with an ambitious start-up of just 20 people. “I didn’t realize at the time what a leap of faith it was,” Blackburn says. “My husband thought I was nuts and that I was giving up some major job security (and occasional Royals Crown Club seat tickets) for the unknown. He was right–but so was I!” At Intouch, she’s challenged to remain a step ahead of the pharmaceutical industry’s needs, and the firm has done just that, she says. “We HAVE made a difference, connecting patients to the information they need, and to the tools to help them manage their medication and their disease.” And with the pandemic of 2020, she says, “it’s been gratifying to see the pharmaceutical industry’s reputation experience a revival, and to see them get credit for the life-saving medicines they create.”
Suzan Barnes Grand Central Hotel & Grill, Cottonwood Falls
For 25 years, Suzan Barnes worked the booking side of hospitality. When the chance came to get closer to her childhood roots, she decided that if you were going to be in the travel industry, life was better as a destination. That’s how she ended up owning and operating what is now a 145-year-old attraction in the heart of the Kansas prairie. A native of Oklahoma who’s mother and stepfather moved to Council Grove when she was 12, Barnes went to Emporia High and later lived in Alma. “They’re all in the heart of the Flint Hills,” she says. “There’s a way of it capturing you—you feel it; it’s so peaceful.” After restoring a home on 10 acres nearby in the 1990s, she commuted 90 miles a day to Wichita, where she’d worked at various travel agencies after a stint at Koch Industries. When the old, empty hotel was spared the wrecking ball in a $41 tax sale, she accepted the owner’s offer to run it. A top-to-bottom restoration in 1995 created a draw for people world-over. Clients have included actors Bill Murray and Wes Study, singer Lyle Lovett, astronaut Neil Armstrong, and filmmaker Kevin Wilmott. “We are an anchor business here,” she declares. “When you have a novel boutique hotel in a town of 900, charging $170 a night for room, that’s very unique. Put a good steak on top of that, and people want to come.” Others have caught on in the years since, and more B&B operations springing up have provided competition, “And that’s good,” Barnes says, even if it does make it more.
Pat Beatty Overland Property Group, Salina
Sometimes, a community searching for answers needs only to look down, see the bootstraps, and take hold. In Salina, Pat Beatty helps with the pulling from his position in property development, from his perspective as a father of active kids, and from a genuine desire to see his hometown make maximize its potential. Such was the case when, as a member of the board for Salina Downtown, he was part of a discussion about what to do with the former Hilton Hotel site. The solution? The Salina Fieldhouse, which opened in 2017 as a shining example of what can be done when the right players are properly aligned. “The idea came up, ‘Hey what could we do with that building, that lot, to change Downtown Salina?” Beatty recalls. “What if we turned that property into a rec center, a big sports court for volleyball, basketball, soccer, indoor football and baseball?” He and another board member at the time had kids, traveled to other cities, saw what was possible. “Salina,” he says, “had nothing like that.” Well, it does now: a 68,500-square-foot attraction that has infused new vitality into the Downtown area. All part of the gig for Beatty, who came home in 2003 after working various construction or related development jobs, mostly in Kansas City. Two years later, he co-founded Overland, which operates multifamily projects in a six-state region. “I am at heart an entrepreneur and like fast-paced businesses where identifying opportunities involves using your brain and your instinct.” he says. “It was a perfect fit for me.”
Chris Eckland Mid-America Orthopedics, Paola
One of the most fascinating attributes of small-town Kansas is a consistent ability to attract people who could have made it—in fact, did make it—in the nation’s biggest cities, but came back to something they found missing in their lives. And so it was with Chris Eckland. He’s an orthopedic surgeon native to Minnesota who spent his adolescence in Johnson County, earned a biology degree from K-State and his medical degree at Kansas City University, then headed out. Orthopedics, he said, was the perfect fit with its surgical and nonsurgical avenues of treatment, the mechanical nature of the surgery, and the ability to help patients of all ages return to their appropriate level of activity or sports performance. “In orthopedics,” he says, “we do not often save lives, we save lifestyles.” After med school came a sports medicine fellowship in Richmond, Va., where he was able to work with NFL players at Washington. Talk about big-time. But eventually, he found a better fit closer to home, both personally and professionally. “Because the group is relatively new, I get a ground-level perspective on growing a practice,” he says, calling it the first practice he’d been a part of in which everyone is aligned with the same goals. One of the clinics is in Paola, where it all comes together for him. “The community of Paola exemplifies what all small towns in America should strive to be like,” Eckland says. “The people and Paola are kind, helpful, appreciative, and exemplify the true meaning of a strong sense of community.”
Lesley Elwell JE Dunn Construction, Overland Park
Lesley Elwell left a great deal behind in her native Venezuela—not just family and career, but Caribbean beaches, Andes mountains, the Amazon and Angel Falls. Something bigger, though, was calling her away from the family’s construction business after she’d earned a degree in industrial engineering. Armed with a Fulbright Scholarship, she made her way to Lawrence, working on a master’s in engineering management. On the first day of that first semester, a young lad at the next desk was kind enough to offer assistance with her ESL challenges. So she came for the degree, and got a husband as a bonus—then two daughters. From KU, she signed on at Sprint, moving through field operations, marketing, sales, then human resources. “As I grew in my career, it was clear that one could have the best plan, yet it was about the people that executed it,” she says of the evolution to HR. She made a pair of moves to DIRECTV, then Walmart, before JE Dunn came calling in 2017. Coming from Walmart, “the cultural shift was huge,” says Elwell, the contractor’s Chief People Officer. “The caring culture, focus on family first, health and well-being, and serving others is just the start. The ability and agility to make decisions quickly, the empowerment and accountability, and being employee-owners, is witnessed every day. This culture is practically impossible to replicate in any company, and large public companies have external challenges that make it even harder.”
Ken Block Block Real Estate Services, Mission Hills
His commercial realty empire operates across the Midwest, and he has the No. 1 firm in the greater Kansas City market, but there’s a special place in Ken Block’s heart for Johnson County. He grew up there, and had his first major development deal there with the Pine Ridge business park in Lenexa. Nearly 40 years after that deal helped redefine the county’s commercial realty potential, he’s still changing the landscape, most recently with the massive City Place development along the I-435 corridor. His father founded one of the city’s most prominent CRE firms, so the business was in his DNA. “I always knew I was coming back to real estate” after college at Michigan State, he says. “Heck, I had my real estate license when I was 18.” Picking that up on his birthday, in fact, made him the youngest person in Kansas to hold CRE credentials at the time. Like his two brothers with him at BRES today, he grew up spending Saturdays at the office with his father and watching silently as Dad negotiated favorable borrowing terms from bankers. In some ways, Ken Block won a life lottery: About the same time his career was starting, Interstate 435 carved a new path through Johnson County, creating massive opportunities for development. “They structured it right,” Block says. “What you see is the development in that area, but that’s just one part. That community in particular has become the center of business innovation and tech in the entire area,
as well as the hub for distribution.”
Alan Cobb Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Topeka
When he became president and CEO of the state’s leading business advocacy group in 2017, Alan Cobb brought a unique background to the role: His pro-business credentials were honed for years with his involvement in Americans for Prosperity; he held a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Pennsylvania and a law degree from Washburn; he’d worked on election campaigns for the biggest names in state politics. He even spent time at Koch Industries, led by a legend in Kansas entrepreneurship, Charles Koch. Cobb has been at the intersection of business, politics and public policy at every level—local, state and federal—for more than 25 years. “I’ve always been interested in public policy and how society functions,” he says. Some of that goes back to his childhood; when the Wichita library system proposed increases in fines, he started a petition against it, making random calls from the phone book to solicit support. “The nexus of politics and policy,” he says, “is about how you solve a problem.” He’s trying to do just that for small businesses in the state. “Most net job growth comes from startups, not existing companies,” he says. “This is an intellectual challenge for me; there are not a lot of policy changes to make to encourage entrepreneurship. Ultimately, you can’t legislate a magic potion to create a
Neal Patterson or Ewing Kauffman or Charles Koch.”
Dry Lake Brewing, Great Bend
It’s been a decades-long battle in rural Kansas to retain talent, but that doesn’t mean the region lacks for entrepreneurial vision. Case in point: Ryan Fairchild of Great Bend, who has made his living as an IT specialist with a livestock-services firm, but found his passion, quite literally, fermenting elsewhere. He’s co-founder of Dry Lake Brewing, adding Great Bend to the roster of smaller cities were dedicated beer lovers have taken the craft-brewing plunge. Born and raised just down U.S. 56 in Larned, he came to Great Bend to attend Barton County Community College, met the girl who would become his wife, and decided there wasn’t a better place to start a family. The brewery, he says, is more than one man’s vision. “Dry Lake Brewing has been established as a dream, and also to fill a need in our community,” he says. “Craft beer is no longer a niche product, and can be appreciated by all walks of life. We are the only brewery for roughly 60 miles. Our name comes from the old county staple Lake Barton.
It was the place to be when it was in full swing, and we hope to be the place people to choose to be now.” He also leverages the brewing theme with his civic engagement, as event chair and founder of Bike Brew Q, a cycling, craft beer expo, and food truck amalgamation that, since it was established in 2016, has raised over $50,000 for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
Kansas Farm Bureau, Manhattan
Born and raised on the family farm in Montgomery County, Richard Felts knows precisely what his work means to thousands of Kansas farmers—since 2014, he’s been president of the Kansas Farm Bureau. “I have always been involved in farming,” Felts says. “It’s what I know and what I love.” KFB members, he says, face a number of challenges every day including uncertainty in prices, trade, regulation and of course the weather. “But what we’re also known for is our resiliency and ability to adapt,” Felts says. “Many of our members operate family farms that are more than 100 years old. That doesn’t happen unless you have the wherewithal to survive.” Farmers are at the vanguard of a monumental technology shift reshaping the nation’s agricultural production. That rolls back onto his duties, as well, and not just with output, but with the farming lifestyle itself. “We’ve known for a long time broadband access is insufficient in rural areas, and COVID-19 put it in the spotlight,” Felts says. “When students went home to learn and doctor’s offices were shut down, the
lack of broadband connectivity for education and telemedicine helped others see the inadequacy of access across the state.”
If he could wave a magic wand and change anything else, he’d knock down existing trade barriers. “Kansas farmers and ranchers can compete around the world if they’re working on a level playing field,” Felts says, “insurance to let farmers and ranchers do what they do best—grow food for the world.”
Lynn Fisher, MD
University of Kansas
School of Medicine, Wichita
Life events—or more correctly, end-of-life events—pulled Hays native Lynn Fisher toward a career in medicine after he lost, in short order, both of his grandmothers and the father of his best friend. But his initial yen for pharmacy gave way to a greater service calling, and he took his KU biology degree, twinned it with a medical degree, and started a career that would significantly impact health-care delivery in rural Kansas. His fourth-year medical school rotation took him to the tiny western Kansas burg of Quinter, and “it was there that I knew family Medicine was the right fit,” Fisher says. “I loved seeing patients of all ages in the clinic, rounding on patients in the hospital, delivering babies, hopping over to the nursing home during the day, doing colonoscopies, and attending to ER patients all in one specialty!” For 15 years, he practiced in Great Bend and Plainville, and saw the challenges of care delivery in rural areas. “We often lack access to some of the specialties of medicine,” he says, and patients often must drive up to four hours for such care. When the opportunity arose to teach at KU-Wichita’s Department of Family & Community Medicine, he won the job. “Now I have the opportunity to interact with medical students and family medicine residents frequently,” Fisher says. “If I can influence a handful of students and residents to become rural family medicine doctors, then I will have been successful!”
ARC Real Estate, Garden City
Jon Fort can tell you that, for res-idents of southwest Kansas generally, and Garden City in particular, quality-
of-life considerations aren’t abstract concepts—just do the math. The median value of a home in Garden City, according to the Census Bureau, is $149,300. Compare that against the national average of $217,500, which is nearly 50 percent higher. That’s the heart of the value proposition Fort can make to any aspiring buyer at ARC Real Estate. With a reputation as one of the most influential real-estate professionals in southwest Kansas, Fort was recently elected to serve as an officer of the Kansas Association of REALTORS. He earned a degree in agriculture at Fort Hays State University and took a turn at farming for a decade before making the leap into real-estate sales. Known for his civic activities (including service as president of the Finney County Rodeo committee) and for his philanthropic engagement. He serves as senior vice chairman for the All American Beef Battalion, an organization that works to provide steak dinners to service members, in many cases for deploying soldiers and their families. His role as vice chairman is a way of giving back for Fort, whose youngest brother served in Operation Desert Storm. Since its inception, the non-profit group has served more than 400,000 steaks in 26 states.
Monique Garcia Kansas Health Foundation, Wichita
Talk about smitten: Monique Garcia landed a summer job as a congressional page when she was a young student, and she knew where she wanted to be: In Washington, the heart of a nation’s government. Ten years later, with college degree in hand, she returned with the same zeal—but no job. It was a gutsy move, she says, “but I knew that I could find a job as a wait server at a restaurant until the right opportunity came along. Growing up in a family-owned Mexican restaurant in Wichita, my four sisters and I learned to do everything from washing dishes, sweeping/mopping floors, food prep, to bussing tables and waiting on tables. Big shout out to my grandparents and parents for teaching us a solid work ethic!” Born and raised in Wichita, she’s the niece of former Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Ernie Garcia, who helped make her first Capitol connection, where she served for Bob Dole. The second time around, she landed a role as policy coordinator with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, then held various agency roles in both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Garcia came back to Kansas in 2002 to assist with her mother’s health challenges, and signed on with the Sedgwick County Health Department, then later, the Kansas Health Foundation as community-relations director, with a particular focus on health equity. “We’ve been able to establish relationships with communities of color, rural and disability communities,” she says, “and it’s enabled us to build trusted relationships to reach fellow Kansans most in need.”
Louisburg Cider Mill
The popular Louisburg Cider Mill has been a family affair since Emmet O’Rear peeled the first apple nearly 50 years ago. Thanks in part to Match.com, it still is. That’s how Louisiana-born, Wichita-raised Josh Hebert met one of O’Rear’s granddaughters, and, after marrying her, ended up running the show. He was living in Kansas City, running a general contracting business when they met, and a few years later, her parents started serious discussions about selling the operation. “I had sold out of the construction business and was looking for the next opportunity,” says Hebert. His wife, a CPA, was eminently capable of putting two and two together, “and we realized this might be the perfect opportunity to continue the tradition her parents started and give them their exit strategy. But I could have never predicted it.” They finalized the sale in 2015, and now he’s distributing cider and other products across 25 states and entertaining thousands of people every year at the popular fall festivals. He’s also an author of various collections of apple-themed recipe publications, but his favorite use of cider is a bit non-traditional. “My favorite thing to do with our cider is to ferment it and make hard cider,”
he says, which prompted the change to become a farm winery, with products available on location later this year. “I know well the responsibility that goes with the role I have,” Hebert says, “but more than anything, it feels like a privilege to me, to carry on this thing that others worked so hard to establish.”
Coffeyville Medical Center
Nearly 8,600 miles separate Coffeyville from Hyderabd in India, but when Shravan Gangula stepped foot into the southeast Kansas town in 2013, it was a match made in . . . well, in medical school. He had just finished residency at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa’s family medicine program to take his first steps as a physician. “I have always had a desire to help people, and the mere idea of helping people lead a healthier life is extremely satisfying and pulled me to where I am right now,” says Gangula. “It was like love at first sight with Coffeyville. I have always wanted to make a difference in a small, rural community where access to health care is usually limited. Coffeyville seemed to be the perfect place.” Health-care delivery has its challenges in rural Kansas, but in a city of nearly 9,500 people, and with a regional medical center that admits 45,000 patients a year, Gangula has found the critical mass needed to sustain his passion for care. “I like doing a bit of everything, and that is what made me choose Family Medicine. I have the joy of taking care of the entire family for several generations—from grandkids to grandparents, which is very satisfying. Primary care allows him to see patients in the clinic settings as well as in the acute care/ICU side at the hospital, and the versatility of duties has a special appeal. He’s also the medical director for the Montgomery County Healthy Department.
City of Pittsburg
When the City of Pittsburg made Daron Hall city manager in 2012, it was getting some big-city administrative competencies. That’s not as incong-ruous as it might seem, given that he had previously served in the southwest Kansas town of Ulysses (pop. 5,700) for four years. Before he headed out west, Hall had spent 17 years at City Hall in Kansas City.
In his current role, he has oversight for all city departments, functions and employees, and is tasked with reporting on policy, budget and other public information to residents as their conduit to the City Council there. A Topeka native, Hall earned a degree at Washburn, then a master’s in public administration from Texas A&M. His next job was in Kansas City, where he served as budget and management analyst, capital improvements program manager, and as an IT project manager before heading to Ulysses in 2008. Pittsburg’s diverse economy is a source of civic strength, he says, and “the university’s presence provides unique opportunities for innovation and growth. We have formal contracts with the university and the Chamber of Commerce to act as our economic-development agents, and they have worked together admirably—to the point where we have had over $500 million of investment in the last six years in a wide spectrum of industries.”
With the exception of logistics and distribution, perhaps no economic sector in Kansas over the past decade has seen a more pronounced realization of its potential than the life-sciences sector. The establishment of the Animal-Health Corridor, running from Manhattan for 250 miles to the east along Interstate 70, the National Cancer Institute designation of the University of Kansas Cancer Center as a research facility and the looming debut of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility are all bursting with possibilities for bioscience research and commercialization. And in the thick of things is BioKansas, the state’s life-science trade organization, where Sonia Hall has served as president and CEO since July 2019. Hall holds a doctoral degree from the University of Kansas, and served as a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Biomedical Career Development in the medical school of the University of Massachusetts before taking a position with the Genetics Society of America. She now leads an organization that serves as the voice of the bioscience community in Kansas—connecting, educating and advocating for growth in bioscience jobs in human, animal and plant science technologies across the state. The organization’s programs include BioBreak networking receptions, professional development courses and events open to people involved with and interested in the biosciences, health care
and the medical-device space.
Todd Knight McCownGordon Construction, Wichita
Armed with a construction-science and management degree from K-State, Topeka native Todd McKnight set out for St. Louis in 2002 to start his career as a project manger with S.M. Wilson & Co. After 10 years, he made his way closer to home, signing on with McCownGordon Construction. He’s a well-traveled executive there, having recently wrapped up a stint in the Manhattan office and begun duties as the face of the firm in Wichita. Company officials call Knight a road warrior, and credit him with playing an integral role in establishing McCownGordon as one of the largest general contractors operating in Kansas, with a portfolio of rural projects that includes the Flint Hills Discovery Center, the College of Engineering at his alma mater in Manhattan, and numerous K-12 school districts throughout the state. “Growing up, I was always interested in the construction industry and seeing new buildings come to life,” Knight says, “Initially, I intended to become an architect, but quickly realized I truly loved the construction side of the industry.” He could have gone any direction after establishing himself in St. Louis, but “there was always that one firm in the region that truly peaked my interest,” he says. “McCownGordon did, and continues to do, things differently focusing on the associates first. All success of an organization starts with its people and their level of engagement. The culture that has been created inside the four walls of McCownGordon is something I wanted to be a part of.”
Edward Hammond Fort Hays State University, Hays
Ed Hammond is about to retire—and this time, he really means it. For 27 years, he was president of Fort Hays State University, but left those duties in 2014. Not for a Caribbean beach mind you, but for a classroom. “The board didn’t want me to retire, so they gave me 7-year transitional contract,” he says. “So I started a new master’s program.” That series of courses, dubbed the Higher Education Student Affairs program, is unique among the six publicly funded Regents universities, and offers deep instruction in higher education core competencies of governance, finance and lobbying. In that short stint, Hammond has built its reach to 90 students, 30 of them on-campus. “It’s going strong, and I feel comfortable with it,” he says, “so now I will leave at the end of this year, but I’ll still help with fund-raising and some other things.” It’s fitting that two-thirds of the program participants are learning remotely: One of Hammond’s signature achievements during his presidency was investing in the technology that turned a small-town university into one with enormous reach. It was the first U.S. university to establish program ties in China, a development that helped drive enrollment to record levels. That paid off handsomely when universities had to pivot during the 2020 pandemic by taking instruction out of the classroom. So now . . . is the beach beckoning? “A bunch of people want me to run for political office,” he says. “I don’t know if I’m masochistic enough to do that.”
Susan B. Allen Memorial Hospital, El Dorado
Growing up in a town of fewer than 2,000 residents gave Leonard Hernandez a certain perspective on the way one can make an impact on his community. He’s a native of Lakin, a far-west burg where he had his first exposure to health care. There, he says, “I learned it was a good thing to be a big fish in a small pond. That awareness triggered my desire to remain in small communities for all of my career going forward.” But it also taught him about the nature of small-town relationships and the concept of respect for one another. That first job was as a radiologic tech after finishing technical school in Garden City. “After several years, I was fortunate enough to have an administrator who felt I had the ability and capability to do more and he encouraged me to expand my horizons,” Hernandez says. “He encouraged me to take the next steps into administration including a 480-hour long-term-care practicum and I did. The rest, as they say, is history.” His career has taken him to the leadership roles of health organizations in half a dozen Kansas towns. Last year, he got the call to El Dorado, where the hospital had been in a financial bind. He took the challenge, he said, “to recreate the success story of my last hospital, Coffey Health System in Burlington. … My goals are really simple: Let’s all commit to being a model facility in appearance, quality and compliance and fiscal responsibility that others will want to duplicate.”
Andrea Krauss John O. Farmer/KIOGA, Russell
School board, hospital board, chamber chair, Rotary district governor, Leadership Kansas graduate, church council, 4-H development committee member, working mother . . . if small-town civic engagement in Kansas had a face, it would look a lot like that of Andrea Krauss. “In rural communities, especially, it’s important for those who have time and talent to share to give back,” Krauss says. A population base aging on one end and thinning on the other as young people head for the cities, she says, “are a constant issue that rural communities deal with. The objective is, those of us who have the time to give, they really need us to give that time to improve the quality of life and make our communities the kinds of places people want to come home to, where new people want to move. If you value your community, you’ve got to do your part to make it a better place to live.” Well, she’s done her part, and more. A Russell native, she grew up on a family farm, still works one with her husband, and holds a day job at John O. Farmer, an oil-services firm in town. She left town to earn a degree at K-State, studying accounting and agricultural economics. In August, she’ll become chair of the Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Association. “Our job is to advocate for a business environment conducive to members,” who produce 86 percent of the state’s oil output. “The vast majority of wells are considered strippers—high-cost, low-profit wells,”
she says, “so even small changes in regulations and tax laws
can have a dramatic impact on those producers.”
Balco, Inc., Wichita
Being the second of 11 children meant that leadership came to Ronnie Leonard early, even if it wasn’t at her own request. Big-family dynamics have a way of imposing their will that way. Today, she practices her brand of servant-leadership as president and CEO of Balco, Inc., which makes high-performance construction products. Even before her accounting degree was issued at Wichita State, Leonard went into accounting with a part-time tax role with BKD, the regional accounting firm. That earned a full-time offer after graduation and for five years, she focused on audit and accounting services. One of her clients, National Plastics Color, decided it would be better to bring her on board, and she worked there for five years before the CFO positioned opened at Balco. After 16 years in that role, she became president and CEO. Working in public accounting, she learned the ins and outs of companies in a diverse range of business sectors: hospitals, nursing homes, non-profits, construction and manufacturing, and found the latter to have the greatest appeal outside of accounting. Crunching numbers may have some variations in the theme day to day, but in the end, it’s still crunching numbers. Not so with manufacturing. Outside the office, she has been a part of a community organization that helps fund scholarships for women at her alma mater, and she’s a member of the Ninnescah Sailing Association, a group of boating aficionados who take full advantage of the nearly constant wind that blows across Cheney Reservoir, half an hour west of town.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City, Overland Park
Raelene Knolla was 10 years old, growing up in Florida, when a realization hit her: She would gladly give up her recess time to work with a pair of boys permanently disabled by abusive parents. “I would ask if I could go “play/work” with the boys,” she recalls, finishing her own work early to make the time. “This led to me to asking my mother to take me to the group home they lived in so I could “play/work” with them on weekends. That sparked a desire to live a life of service. The Florida State graduate came to Kansas City 20 years ago for medical school, met the man she’d marry, and picked up an MBA along the way. Today, she’s medical director for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City, an administrative role that appeals to her because it can touch lives by the thousands, rather than one patient at a time. Through her work, she strives to have an impact on employer groups, members and the broader community. “Overall, if someone were to ask me what I am passionate about, it would be improving health outcomes so that everyone in our community can have the best quality of life possible. I want to have an impact on how we help our members get the appropriate care they need; where and when they need it. I want to make a difference.”
L5 Farms, Hays
Farming may be as old as civilization itself, but today’s farmer, isn’t the same as yesterday’s. Technology has changed agriculture, and the pace is picking up. Hays native Nathan Leiker can tell you all about that. His L5 Farms in Ellis County, is a fifth-generation farm that has been in the family for nearly 100 years. He works with his father and brother raise wheat, corn, milo, and cattle on roughly 8,000 acres split between crops and livestock. “Some things I see as opportunities for agriculture producers in Kansas coming in the very near future are direct producer/consumer partnerships,” Leiker says. “If the past year of COVID environment has taught us anything, it is that all relationships are very fragile, especially when it comes to our food supply. During that time, more people were able to look at what they consume, and where they purchase it.” Rather than big corporations being the biggest customer of farm commodities, each animal could be marketed to individual consumers. “This type of agriculture is what the beginning of agriculture was, and now there will be a return to the basics,” he says. Before long, value will be more in products, and less in dollars with respect to agriculture, because “consumers are leaning more to putting a face and a name on what they purchase.” Driving all of that, though are some farm-life constants. “The values that come from agriculture never seem to change,” Leiker says. “Hard work and perseverance always pay off in the end.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters
of Kansas City
Micheal Lawrence always knew he wanted a career working with kids, but sometimes, it ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. After earning his degree from William Jewell College in suburban Kansas City, he went to work with an agency in Lawrence, counseling run-away children. For two years, he heard the worst of what a bad childhood can mean. “It was sad and depressing,” Lawrence recalls. Then came an exchange that changed the course of his life. Counseling a particularly hard case, he told the teen that there was a chance he’d never see his family again. The response? “I want to see my Big Brother.” He wasn’t talking about a sibling. “I can still remember the feeling from that moment,” Lawrence says. “I was inspired. In a moment of crisis, chaos and change, this young person only cared about a volunteer. I had no idea that a volunteer could be that impactful.” He observed the two over the next few weeks, marveled at the depth of their bond, and began researching Big Brothers Big Sisters of Kansas City. Soon, he was working there as an entry-level case manager; 29 years later, he’s the CEO. Over that time, he says, “I have developed relationships with thousands of BBBS program participants, volunteers, donors, and stakeholders.” The metro area, he says, just a much larger version of the small-town experience. “It is comforting to know so many people and to run into friends throughout the city every day,” Lawrence says. “It would be hard to start over and recreate that experience in another market. “
Alphapointe, Overland Park
“When more than 70 percent of people with significant disabilities remain on the sidelines, we have a problem.” Reinhard Mabry in 18 words, summarizes the essence of his work, his mission and his passion as chief executive for Alphapointe, a Kansas City-based non-profit providing more than just services for the blind. It’s providing education and jobs for the blind, and instilling a sense of dignity that would otherwise be lost to them without a means to support themselves. Mabry got to Kansas City the long way: He was born in Austria, graduated from high school in Pensacola, and earned an MBA at Florida State, then began his career in social services. “Early on, a mentor suggested that if I remained in the field for very long it would get in my blood,” Mabry says. “It did, which is why initially a job became a career and passion.” Since 2006, he has transformed Alphapointe into a company with nearly 400 employees and manufacturing operations in Kansas City and New York. “Our focus as a community on removing barriers has been important to the blindness community,” Mabry said, citing free public transit across the state line for employees. Business has a long way to go to catch up with Mabry’s vision. “Employers still do not see the potential in the disabled population. They see limitations,” he says. “If any other segment of society experienced such high levels of unemployment, we would be talking about a national crisis and perhaps civil unrest. Board rooms need to give this population some attention.”
CML Collective, Wichita
Like a lot of other design and communications, CML Collective provides graphic design, communications and business development services. Unlike a lot of others in that space, it is a woman-owned, minority-owned enterprise, so Christina Long, a Wichita native, operates with the particular challenges those companies face. She founded her company in 2013, and has burst on the scene in Wichita with high-profile efforts to support minority business ownership and promote entrepreneurship.
Her business, she says, prizes efficiency in its workflow processes, and is built around staying nimble, responsive and providing excellent service at maximum value for clients. Her goal of inspiring other minority owners contributed to a 2015 event called the Create Campaign, and from it flowed another of her passions, a standalone organization at work in both Wichita and Kansas City, Kan. Creative Campaign encourages urban entrepreneurship in the state’s two largest urban setting. Since its founding, it has served more than 1,550 entrepreneurs, staged 32 events, raised microloan funding and aided more than 20 start-up enterprises. She knows what that success means for her hometown; Long told a local business newsletter recently that “when we are looking at living our life beyond ourselves—really trying to have an impact—Wichita allows you to see the impact that you’re making.”
Sunee Mickle Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas, Topeka
New Jersey native Sunee Mickle will shoot straight with you: When she got to Kansas in 2003 to tour Washburn University’s School of Law, “it was a bit of culture shock,” she admits, “but in the best possible way. I immediately decided to move to Kansas that summer and begin law school.” She loved
the wide-open spaces, friendly people and … the weather?
“Yes, I seriously love Kansas weather,” she says. “I couldn’t believe how spread out many towns and cities are from each other. Or how you can have an ice storm one day and 83-degree weather the next day.” Mickle is vice president of government and community relations for the state’s largest insurer, covering nearly a million Kansans in 103 of the 105 counties. She’s responsible for federal administration and congressional relations, state administration and legislative relations, and regulatory relations with various state agencies. She came to Blue Cross after working with the Kansas Health Institute as a senior policy analyst. In addition to her government liaison work, she has a leadership role in maintaining the company’s position as a good corporate citizen through corporate giving, volunteerism, community partnerships and initiatives that improve the health of Kansans.
First National Bank, Scott City
Skip Numrich flashed his leadership credentials in a big way as quarterback for Fort Hays State in the 1976-77 seasons, setting single-game and career records that stood for years. That embrace of leadership became a template for him in the Marines, as a bank president in his hometown, as a youth football coach and even as a substitute teacher in the local school district. “You get in the huddle and everybody is looking at you expecting you to execute the best you can,” says Numrich. “If they have confidence in you, when the game is on the line, you’ve got to make a play.” Performance, as well, was a metric in the Marines, where Numrich rose to the rank of captain. “They evaluate you on how you put that talent to use,”
he says. “Some may be more gifted than others, but you do your best in all circumstances.” The chairman at First National Bank of Scott City i’s winding down a career that built an institution with $142 million in assets, providing 31 jobs in town of just 4,000 people. For years, Numrich has coached middle-school age football teams, in addition to running a bank. In either role, he says, “you set the standards: How to show up on time for work or be productive when you’re there. How you behave sets the example for the organization.” As for the coaching, he says, “I really enjoy the game, and teaching the game as much as the game itself. I like being around the kids; they’re so impressionable at that age. But if all I do as coach is teach football, I’m letting the kids down. There are life lessons to be learned in school, at work, and in learning how to win and lose.”
Greater Topeka Partnership, Topeka
As an Air Force brat, Matt Pivarnik bounced around before landing in Oklahoma long enough to call that his home state. When time came for college, he was inclined to become a teacher and a coach, having come up through college sports himself. But he would be the first in his family to attend college, and his Dad had a few concerns about financing that line of studies, especially with the return on that investment. “Early in my college career, he did some research and convinced me to change my major to business management,” Pivarnik says. And that is how he ended up on a trajectory that took him to Topeka in 2016, and the leadership of Greater Topeka Partnership, the city’s primary business advocacy organization. Having pondered the possibility of starting a community development consultancy of his own, “ultimately I decided that community and economic development is too woven into my fabric to leave the work.” And like many who end up in economic and community development, he says, “I got into the profession by accident. If it was, it’s an accident that paid dividends in the capital city of Kansas, which Pivarnik says “is just exploding in so many positive ways. I was asked to share a list of community accomplishments with a group last week and enjoyed rattling off a list of 90 items. Every single facet of this region and community is on the upswing, but most importantly is that our community pride and morale is experiencing meteoric growth.”
Karyn Page Kansas Global Trade Service, Wichita
Karyn Page has some insight to offer anyone who thinks being located in the middle of America is a barrier to global markets: “Geography plays less of a role than you would think,” says the president and CEO of Kansas Global Trade Services. “It’s not about the city or the state, or the nation, even. It’s about the companies—the products they make and sell, the people that manage those companies and the market demand from customers.” Wichita and Kansas, she says, make high-quality products that are in demand around the world, and “the people that own and manage our companies are hard-working manufacturers and producers who employ thousands of people. There is a support ecosystem that works hard to help those companies and producers be more successful.” An Alabama native raised in Wichita, a city steeped in entrepreneurial successes, she’s part of that support system at Kansas Global. “The first step in international trade success is to recognize differences and how that can translate to business growth,” she says. “That begins with curiosity. Building trusted relationships is the next step, which requires mutual respect. International business is very relationship oriented, and compassion is important for healthy relationships.” Trade policy can be impacted, to an extent, at the state level, she says, but most of the heavy lifting is done in Washington. But “consistent, strategic support is what is needed” with state programs.
Laura McConnell Perin
Labconco, Mission Hills
A small restaurant booth can probably hold all the chief executives who have actually pulled on the slippers and worked in ballet, but that’s not the only thing that sets Laura McConnell Perin apart in executive leadership. She’s at the helm of Labconco, a nearly century-old Kansas City company that produces the vital infrastructure of research—sophisticated laboratory equipment, such as freeze dryers, glass washers, safety cabinets and much more—from its facilities in Kansas City and Fort Scott. She earned twin degrees in biology and dance at Denison University in Ohio and did a short stint in Chicago pursuing her passion for ballet. But she describes the career switch to life-science-related sales in a single word: “Lifestyle.” Nonetheless, she says, it produced two character traits that remain with her in a leadership role—persistence an discipline. After more than 20 years in sales and managerial roles with supplier companies in that space, she realigned with Labconco, where her father had been the long-time chief executive, by joining its board in 2016. “Ever since I was little, I’d been involved in some way, shape or form with Labconco,” she says. “Saturday mornings coming here with Dad, multiple family dinner conversations. But not with the intent of working here, just general business conversation. Every dinner was an executive MBA session in the McConnell household.”
Midwest Energy, Hays
The interest in math and science developed while he was in school, but the farm background was already bred into Patrick Parke on the family farm in rural Trego County. Together, he says, those elements pulled him into agricultural engineering, and from there, it was a simple matter of effective networking. “An engineering professor referred me to an acquaintance at a small utility in WaKeeney for my first job, and I’ve stayed in the industry since,” says the chief executive at Hays-based Midwest Energy. Drawing on the analytical and problem-solving skills from his engineering instruction—skills transferable to any job, he notes—he’s focused in the important task of providing reliable energy for rural communities and that economy. For mission validation, he suggests one consider what happened during the historic cold snap in Texas last month. Compared to many, Midwest is a small provider, but “our smaller size gives us more flexibility,” he says, even though the company still falls under the same regulatory requirements on reliability and safety standards as much larger electric and gas utilities. The bigger challenge at his size, he says, “is that utility planning, investing and cost recovery horizons are decades long, while competitive technologies such as solar panels and batteries advance quickly. Our customers depend on us to keep the traditional grid operating reliability while we prepare for
a much different future.”
Network Kansas, Wichita
Boeing. Koch Industries. Pizza Hut. Rent-a-Center, In Wichita, a city famed for having entrepreneurship in its collective DNA, Erik Pedersen helps keep the tradition alive as vice president of entrepreneurship at the Kansas Center for Entrepreneurship, better known as Network Kansas. He came on board at the center in 2005, a year after it was authorized
by the Legislature under the Kansas Economic Growth Act.
As operations manager, he was tasked with building and growing its referral center, then creation of a series of Entrepreneur Communities, 66 of which are now in place around the state. Each of them partners with NetWork Kansas to establish locally-administered loan funds, which provide capital and resources for small businesses and especially for start-ups. A 1988 graduate of Friends University with a degree in business administration, he worked for a successful start-up telecom, Brite Voice Systems, 1990, then moved into manufactured housing sales. Together, they bolster the state’s entrepreneurial ecosystem by connecting owners with necessary resources of expertise, education and pathways to financing. Capital is provided by donor partners, who receive a dollar for dollar tax credit worth up to 75 percent of their contributions, and the roster of participating organizations includes some of the biggest names in business: like Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas, Evergy, Intrust Bank and the state Department of Commerce.
Pestinger HVAC, Salina
It’s a good thing Marion and Marian Pestinger had nine children, because their son Tom, No. 7 in that lineup, would have had a considerably more challenging childhood tending their seven acres of garden and fruit trees on his own. But working alongside them instilled both a work ethic and an understanding that the right team, working together, does a better job. Armed with those lessons, he has built Pestinger Heating & Air Conditioning into one of the most prominent companies in its space in Salina. “I’ve always believed in an attitude of gratitude,” he says, “and I know that any success I’ve had has come from the hard work and dedication of the people who have worked with me.” Many of those employees have been with him for decades, he says. “Success isn’t achieved on your own, but with a professional team dedicated to excellence and customer service.” That same commitment underpins his efforts to help Salina succeed as a community; he has stepped up with perhaps the most impressive record of engagement one could imagine packed into a single career—and trust us, this is a short list: Past chairman of the Salina Area Chamber of Commerce and the Salina Home Builders Association; member of the board for St. John’s Military School and Museum, the city’s zoo and technical college, and he was the founding donor of the Greater Salina Community Foundation
and Salina 2020 Downtown Redevelopment.
Koch Industries, Wichita
The crown jewel of global enterprise in Kansas is Koch Industries, a $100-billion-a-year powerhouse in a wide range of consumer products and energy-related ventures. Actually, it’s two gems in one: The enterprises division, and the resources division. The latter is headed by Brad Razook, a K-State graduate who has been a fixture at Koch his entire career, and a champion of the market-driven innovations that he has credited with unleashing “an energy renaissance in North America—creating jobs and making energy more affordable.”
Like his counterpart in enterprises, he reports to Dave Robertson, the corporate president. To Razook falls the task of overseeing diverse interests that include Flint Hills Resources, Koch Pipeline, Koch Ag & Energy Solutions, Koch Chemical Technology Group, Matador Cattle Co., Koch Minerals and Koch Supply & Trading. He began his career with Koch after earning his degree in business administration, working in a division that market petroleum coke and coal to various industries, rose to president and CEO of Flint Hills Resources, then took on his current duties after a restructuring of the leadership in 2017. In 2019, he and his wife were part of a group that donated $1.85 million to help establish the Center for Principled Business at his alma mater’s business school, promoting values close to the Koch mission: entrepreneurship, business ethics and economic education.
University of Kansas Health System, Kansas City
His dad was a medical technologist, so Chris Ruder had a built-in affinity for work in health care even during his youth in Hays. An interest in science, combined with a desire to serve, prompted him to pursue a degree in nursing. So how does an RN end up as the chief operating officer for a statewide health system with 13,000 employees? “Early in my career I was 100 percent clinically focused, with no thoughts about management or administration,” Ruder says. “A couple of unsought occurrences afforded me a look into leadership opportunities, and I quickly found I loved working with others to improve, change and see how all elements of a care delivery system worked together.” With 30 years under his belt at the main hospital in Wyandotte County, Ruder has been part of the reversal of fortune over the past 23 years, a turn-around from near insolvency that has made the system a dominant player in the region. It’s especially rewarding to have seen his hometown hospital in Hays incorporated into the organization as part of the system’s series of acquisitions around the state in recent years. “Providing care to Kansans should be focused on a seamless delivery system that is accessible and understandable,” and he works to aligning all facilities operationally. “The challenge is achieving consistency, where necessary, to stay true to the guiding formula while respecting and supporting local history, culture and practices that are important and vital in a particular community,” Ruder says.
Lakemary Center, Paola
Hometown product Marcy Seaman found her calling at the local pool in Paola, serving as a lifeguard and teaching swimming lessons when she was still in high school. One year, she recalls, “I was able to teach the groups of children with special needs. This was the turning point for me, I knew I wanted to be in education, specifically special education.” So once she was out of college and teaching, the principal at her school and the district’s superintendent saw something in her and suggested she consider administration.
A pair of master’s degrees later, she’s a principal herself, leading the K-12 instructional efforts for Lakemary Center. Special-education instruction can be challenging under the best of circumstances; 2020 did not present those conditions. “We have had to be ready and willing to make adjustments quickly—pivot and move forward rapidly, in most cases,” Seaman says. “Fortunately, some of our students live on campus, so school never stopped for them. We were able to get them to our on-site school and continue working on their educational goals.” In a few cases, day students had to work remotely, but a hastily implemented strategy paid off for families and the students. Already, Seaman says, the school has returned to some levels of pre-pandemic instruction. In the aftermath of that disruption, she says, “our students are all educated in-person daily within our private setting by master’s-level special educators and with this level of expertise, we were able to mitigate any potential loss of service time relatively quickly.”
ServiTech, Dodge City
Born and raised on a farm in northwest Iowa, Greg Ruehle has always known what it means to work the land. Sometimes, a farmer can use a little help. When Ruehle moved to Dodge City in 2014, it was to provide just that. As CEO of Servi-Tech, he runs a company that gives farmers and ranchers
access to testing services that cover plant tissue, soil, water, feed and forage, fertilizer and more. If it goes on the crops or into the livestock, Servi-Tech can test it for quality, purity and consistency, then provide the consulting services to help those clients maximize the return on their investment, while minimizing the environmental impact that is a necessary consequence of working the land. The take-away from his own background in crop and livestock production on the family farm, says, can be summed up in three words: “Strong work ethic. In order to make a living on the narrow margins facing agriculture in the 1970s and 1980s, we worked hard with no outside labor,” Ruehle says. “But we didn’t feel different—we were just like our neighbors, and that was all we knew. I still work hard today,
but the tasks are much more mentally tasking than physically.” His career has been infused with a basic love for farming.
“I love agriculture, and welcomed the challenge of growing
a very diverse business that was well-established and in
need of a new perspective,” he says.
Matthew Schmidt Health Ministries Clinic, Newton
He was born in Newton and lived there most of his life, so Matthew Schmidt knows precisely who’s receiving the care provided by Health Ministries Clinic: Friends, neighbors and families he’s known all his life. A psychology major at nearby Bethel College—”I have always been fascinated by people,” he says—he earned a master’s in social work at the University of Kansas, then came back home to a nearby community mental-health center. Dealing with patients was the plan. Running a provider organization wasn’t. “I always viewed myself as a clinician and somewhat by accident began ending up in administrative roles,” he said. “I certainly never thought I would be a CEO. Given my clinical background, I imagine I may approach the job differently than someone who comes from a more traditional business background.” When he signed on with the clinic, he saw an opportunity to begin experimenting with integrated models of care. Just 20 miles up the road from major providers in Wichita, Schmidt says that some of the most pressing challenges cross rural/urban designations—lack of insurance, for example. Undeterred, he has pursued a path of growth for the clinic.
“When I started at HMC in 2012, we had 14 employees and
did around 10,000 patient encounters in a year,” he says.
“In 2020 we have grown to 175 employees and did over
51,000 patient encounters.”
LMH Health, Lawrence
No physician specializing in infectious diseases enjoyed a slow year in 2020. Certainly not Jennifer Schrimsher. “We could probably spend an entire day talking about the lessons of this past year,” says the LMH Health physician. “And not only about how the decisions we make on a daily basis affect our patients directly, but how these affect our staff and our community as a whole.” She was raised in Girard, near Pittsburg, and came to Kansas City through the Clinical Laboratory Science program at the University of Kansas Medical Center, spending 16 years there in various capacities while working her way through medical school. “I honestly didn’t feel I was smart enough to be accepted,” she says, humbly, “so, I chose a career that would get me as close as possible to patient care, combined with my love of microbiology.” But working in a hospital made her realize a higher calling. “I’d always been interested in medicine, but my grandmother gave me Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone when I was a senior in high school and I absolutely loved it. I took microbiology my first semester in college and was officially hooked,” she says. Treating with patients on one hand, while on the other observing how the 2020 pandemic became a point of division among Americans, she realizes that there’s more to health care than the hands-on treatment. To help the public foster a common understanding, she believes, “it’s important for folks to understand the “why” behind a lot of our decisions so that we can be on the same page as a community.”
West Acres Grain, Ulysses
Farming in Kansas is not a constant: The farmers growing corn in the temperate climate of southeast Kansas, or those growing dryland wheat where tallgrass prairie once dominated, have more going for them than their kindred spirits in the far western fringes of the state, hydrologically speaking. In the comparatively arid climate where Clay Scott operates the sprawling acreage of West Acres Grain, rainfall is less than half the rate they experience in eastern Kansas. The massive Ogalallah aquifer for decades has leveled the field for those farmers, but the water tables have been falling for years. Now, he’s as much consumed by water policy as by farming and ranching, because without the former, we won’t have the latter. His great-grandfather homesteaded that corner of southwest Kansas, and the current farm has been in the family since World War II. “We are constantly working to conserve and preserve the aquifer out here, diligent about watching our efficiencies and making every drop count.” He also has to divert time from the farm to advocate for ag interests with water policy, serving on the local groundwater management district board and for years working with a group hoping to secure federal funding to bring Missouri River overflows to the front range of the Rockies via a new aqueduct system. If successful, it could address strains on the Colorado River, and allow Colorado to resume releases into the Arkansas River snaking through southern Kansas, impacting millions of lives in the West.
AON, Overland Park
Armed with a strong work ethic, a strong sense of faith and a deeply instilled commitment to helping others succeed, young Ken Selzer left the area near Goessel for K-State and was the first in his family to earn a college degree. He took something else with him when he left: A small scholarship from his high school, just enough to make the difference and keep him on track for his education and, ultimately, a career steeped in public service as well as business. The managing director for AON in Overland Park, Selzer also served as insurance commissioner in Kansas from 2015-2019, and is now serving a four-year term on the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation. Wherever he’s been, he’s tried to be of service, a way of paying forward that small scholarship. “I have always been deeply involved in my community and in the educational institutions that have been a big part of my life,” says Selzer, who earned a master’s degree at Southern Cal and was a 2016 inductee into K-State’s Accounting Hall of Fame. “Public service is a natural outgrowth of that involvement,” he says. “I sincerely believe we need more businesswomen and men to run for public office. They know budgets, they know how to get efficient results, they know how to innovate, and they understand accountability.” Whether in business or public service, he says, identical guiding principles apply. “Better service at a more
efficient cost is critical to success in both.”
Pioneer Bluffs, Matfield Green
Lynn Smith has lived every part of what Kansas has to offer; running free in the small-town feel of Atchison in her youth, the suburban lifestyle of Overland Park, and visiting her cousins’ family farm, where she learned to appreciate nature and a simpler way of life. When she met a fellow from the Flint Hills who won her hand and asked her to come back with him, “it didn’t take much convincing,” she says. “I have always felt a deep connection with rural Kansas.” At one time, Smith was the only female electrical engineer at Wolf Creek Operating Plant, the nuclear-energy plant near Burlington. “It was an era of transition for women’s role in the workplace, and those years were an exciting challenge.” As her children grew, she started working for the Girl Scout Council of the Flint Hills, eventually becoming executive director. She retired from that in 2007, then heard about a new non-profit looking for a leader. Pioneer Bluffs would pay tribute to the ranching heritage of the Flint Hills and the 150-year connection the Rogler family had to the region. “We needed to tell the unique story of Flint Hills ranching, and are the only organization in the U.S. with this singular focus,” Smith beams. Among the supporters, visitors and donors, she says, “some care most about history, because it is important to share and tell the stories of the past. Others are excited to have a “family farm” open to the public, where everyone can experience simple joys like
I once had on my cousins’ farm.”
Richard Staab Disability Supports, Hutchinson
There are Kansans, and there are western Kansans. The distinction isn’t insignificant for Rick Staab. “Yes, I am a native of Kansas—but freely state that I am a proud native of Western Kansas,” says the Hays-born, Dodge City-raised Staab. “I treasure the people of Kansas as a whole and Western Kansans especially—their inherent values, generosity, integrity, work ethic and self-reliance.” He puts all of those traits to good use as chief executive for Disability Supports, founded in McPherson by four families in 1996 to serve children with intellectual disabilities. Staab left the comparative security of Morgan Stanley for the group nearly 20 years ago, then moved to Hutchinson in 2008 after an expansion into that larger neighboring county. There, he says, “I have been privileged to participate at the board level with the Chamber of Commerce, The Cosmosphere and Hutchinson Regional Medical Center. Both McPherson and Hutchinson, almost literally in the heart of Kansas, are the kinds of communities anyone would be proud to call home. We have a wealth of history, industry and creativity.” He had gone into financial services right out of college, he says, but had what he calls “a real awakening” when his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1998. They spent considerable time together in his final months, and Staab reappraised his own life based on what his father had valued, remembered and treasured. “It inspired a period of introspection on my part that made me feel I wanted to make
a more lasting, tangible difference in the lives of others.”
Seaboard Corp., Merriam
No one longs to assume the reins of leadership during a time of organizational grief, but that charge fell to Robert Steer last year after the untimely death of Seaboard Corp.’s president and chief executive officer, Steven Bresky. Kansas City’s largest public company quickly moved to fill the unexpected void, turning to Steer, a 35-year Seaboard veteran who had spent the previous decade at Bresky’s right hand, serving as both executive vice president and chief financial officer since 2011. It was the first time in the company’s 102-year history that the leadership was in the hands of someone other than a member of the Bresky family, though Steven’s son, Jack, holds the title of vice president of business development. With operations in 45 nations, Seaboard is a global giant in agribusiness and transportation, with operations in pork and poultry production and processing, cargo shipping, commodity merchandising and flour and feed milling. The company was founded in 1918 by Otto Bresky, who purchased his first flour mill in Atchison, Kan., that year, and led the organization for nearly 50 years before turning the reins over to Steven’s father, Harry, in 1967, who led the company until 2006. With $6.8 billion in 2019 revenues—figures for the pandemic year of 2020 have yet to be released—Seaboard edged Cerner Corp. to claim the mantle of the top publicly owned company after the merger of Sprint with T-Mobile last year.
Wifco Steel, Hutchinson
Josh Stubbs is the president of Wifco Steel, which, since its founding in 1989, Wifco has become a national fixture with the steel products it engineers and builds in Hutchinson, products that are the backbone of the oil industry, in particular. Wifco supplies storage tank hardware—walkways, stairs and manways—for oil and gas production and storage companies in the United States and Canada. The products are supplied in assembled or component form, and must meet demanding specifications, relying on automation to cut, punch and weld its products, potentially hazardous work that makes safety a core value at Wifco. Under Stubbs’ guidance, the company is focused on growth. In its request for tax incentives from the Reno County Commission in 2019, he noted that the company had made more than $1 million in investment in its facilities on its own. “We want to continue to grow our business,” he said.
“We want to triple the size of our business in the next 10 years,” and the public assistance would help attract the best professional engineers, accountants or company leadership.
In a city of 41,000 people nearly an hour from the nearest metro area (Wichita), finding the right talent can be a chal-lenge. “Wifco is ALWAYS looking for people to join our team who are as excited as we are,” the company says on its recruiting Web site.
Nick and Jake’s, Overland Park
But for a long-ago acquisition in the restaurant sector in the mid-1990s, Kevin Timmons might not have made his way from Atlanta to Kansas City. Had that happened, both he and this town’s restaurant scene might have missed out on something. The deal in question saw Applebee’s, then headquartered in Leawood, picking up the Rio Bravo chain where Timmons was a young executive. Thrust into regular meetings at the new mother ship here, Timmons got a bite of Kansas City, and liked what he tasted. “I love the size of the Kansas City area,” says the co-founder of the Nick and Jake’s chain. “Big city with a small feel. A perfect city to build a restaurant and grow. We love the Midwestern attitude. We love the pace, community spirit, schools and infrastructure.” The Kansas City connection was further strengthened by a Timmons mentor, Phil Hickey, who was with the Rio Bravo organization after starting his career with the legendary Gilbert Robinson group here. Timmons’ organization has returned that love in various ways since, as he puts it, “charity is in the Nick and Jake’s Family DNA.” They started the “Fore the Kids” benefit golf tournament in 2002, and have raised more than $4.5 million dollars, Timmons said. The beneficiary focus changed to mental health services after his son took his
life in 2017, and Timmons is determined to use the event to extract a positive from that loss.
Doug Wareham Kansas
Bankers Association, Topeka
Ag Education. Banking. Allow Doug Wareham to connect the dots for you. “I’m a proud farm kid from northeast Kansas,” says the chief executive of the Kansas Bankers Association. “My parents are the hardest-working couple I’ve ever met, and they instilled a very strong work ethic growing up on our crop and livestock farm near Whiting, Kan.” His father, an ag-ed graduate from K-State, was also a county extension agent—and a banker. “People stopped him everywhere for counsel and advice on farming and finance,” Wareham says. “I knew from watching my father that an Ag Education degree would prepare me for anything.” That’s how the cobblestones were set for a path to banking advocacy, after a stroll through the commodities world as administrator of the Kansas Commodity Commission. “I had the opportunity to help promote and market Kansas corn, grain sorghum and soybeans internationally, which also gave me my first glimpse at the very important role agriculture finance played in supporting our state’s #1 industry: agriculture. … I’ve always enjoyed being at the forefront of state and federal policy, and in Kansas agriculture policy and banking policy often go hand in hand,” he says. He took the lead for the banking group in 2019, and was pleased to see member banks rally to the support of business a year later as the pandemic hit. But concerns remain. “The KBA is doing everything it can to increase the competitiveness of Kansas banks, especially community banks, so we can ensure the local economic support and community leadership provided by a strong banking network.”
Wilson’s Pizza, Kansas City
No one needs to tell Gary Wilson about the tough times Quindaro Boulevard has seen over the past half-century, but he’s never been one to cut and run. For more than 30 years, he has filled a void in that neighborhood of Kansas City with his award-winning Wilson’s Pizza, delivering to a residential area where other restaurants are reluctant to send drivers. The despair that has gone hand-in-hand with life in that part of the city, through unemployment, crime and drug use, has never dimmed Wilson’s hope for brighter days, because under all that, a sense of community still exists. When his father expanded a local grocery operation in 1989 and put Gary in command, one of the first things he did was start selling pizzas. Providing good food at affordable prices, he has said, is more than just a business proposition; it’s about giving back to the community you serve. A KCK native—Wyandotte Countians by birth call themselves “Dottes”—Wilson is known for feeding even those who can’t pay, and on Saturday, he puts boxes of pizzas on tables in front of the store to feed any child for free. The hires he makes are often the first jobs for kids who can discover the value of honest, hard work. His 18th Street Special pizza has been rated as one of the Best 101 Pizzas in the U.S. by the Daily Meal, and Wilson’s has been voted the best black-owned restaurant in the city from the Kansas City People’s Choice Awards. He also received the Unified Government’s Black History Committee’s 2017 Business Leadership Award.