Headquarters and Cornerstones

Homegrown heroes, remote Goliaths find fertile ground in Kansas City.

The rhythms of business life dictate that companies will come, and companies will go. But the real players, the ones that are here for the long term, the ones that can skim over the reefs of recession as easily as they ride the crest of a success, and achieve mammoth scale in the process, are pillars of any region’s economy.

Sometimes, though, a successful company comes into our world, bursts into prominence, and is soon gone. Or, in the case of Bats Global Markets, gone as we knew it.

The former Lenexa company absolutely shook up the world of equities trading after its launch in 2005, ultimately surpassing NASDAQ to become the nation’s second-largest trading platform. Then, after going public in 2015, it was acquired last year by the Chicago Board of Options Equities, and is Kansas City-based no longer. Such is business.

 Across Kansas City, you’ll find icons of business that have called this place home for more than 100 years. Hallmark, for instance, or what today is Sprint Corp. You’ll find some that are mature, but not quite as long in the tooth, such as H&R Block and Lockton Companies, born in the 1950s and ‘60s. And you’ll find some that, in less than an individual’s working lifespan, have achieved global stature, such as Cerner Corp.

 But the presence of big businesses isn’t strictly a consequence of being home-grown. A fair number of mega industries have operations here, largely because they have discovered what we call the Kansas City Value Proposition: A terrific work ethic among a skilled work force, people who in many cases are just a generation removed from the farm. Low cost of living. Incredible access to either coast, by comparison. 

Those are powerful reasons why Ford Motor Co., General Motors and now Amazon.com—which is rapidly moving up the list of largest employers in the region—have settled in here for the long haul.

It all adds up to a diverse economy that is better able to withstand the effects of business cycles, famous for being one of the last regions into a recession and among the first to exit a downturn.

The present superstar of business in Kansas City today is Cerner, the healthcare informatics giant that launched in 1979 by three former Arthur Andersen executives who saw the potential for wedding the computer to healthcare records. It’s evolved into so much more than a software company, and has supplanted Sprint as the region’s largest private-sector employer. That status will only grow as it moves ahead over the next eight years with construction of its south Kansas City campus, where 15,000 people eventually will be employed.

In a similar fashion, Garmin has reinvented itself, moving from its roots in the late 1980s as a maker of GPS devices for cars, planes and boats, and is emerging as a formidable player in the wearable tech space, among other innovative moves. 

Even venerable H&R Block is in on the innovation game, using technology to rebuild its brand in the digital age. Still the biggest name in tax preparation, the company has been headquartered in Kansas City since its founding in 1955.

On-line usage is also leading to profound change at Hallmark Cards, perhaps the world’s best-known name in personal expressions. Founded more than a century ago in Kansas City by young J.C. Hall, it has maintained a formidable footprint in the paper-products world, as well, with its greeting cards, gift wrap, party products, memory-keeping, ornaments, stationery and more.

Another of this region’s corporate crown jewels is Lockton Companies, founded in 1966 as a one-man insurance sales show. Today, the world’s largest privately owned independent  insurance brokerage continues to grow domestically and overseas with its wide range of services in insurance, risk management and employee benefits plan design.

Nearly 120 years after its founding, Burns & McDonnell is a re-emerging superstar in a region known for design excellence. Its work force more than doubled over the past decade, surpassing 5,500 overall, and more than half of those professionals now work on the south Kansas City campus, which includes a new $85 million headquarters the firm designed and built for itself. Along with another global engineering firm, Black & Veatch, and HNTB, the city is generally known in the engineering sector for having more engineers per capita than any other city in the nation.