Historical Perspectives: The Boomer Exodus

Driven largely by retirements, change sweeping the ranks of Kansas City’s business leadership has left some big shoes to fill.

Retirements come and retirements go, and if we know someone well eno-ugh, we might send a card wishing them bon voyage for the post-career trip ahead of them.

But until you sit down and study the leadership landscape of the Kansas City region over just the past, say, five years, you don’t fully appreciate what’s been lost in the aggregate with those transitions.

This year’s Ingram’s 250 edition, our sixth, is a stark reminder of just how deep the change has run across virtually every sector of the region’s C-suites, from financial services and law firms, to health-care giants and manufacturers, and even from non-profits to the public-sector offices that can be so intricately tied in with business success.

This year’s class of i250 honorees is a powerful example of the change. More than half of the names from the 2016 inaugural installment of that feature—132, to be precise—are not included in the 2021 iteration.

While some of that has been because of out-of-market transfers, resignations under pressure from the boardroom, organizational performance that has tapered off, and even a few deaths, most of that turnover has been the result of retirements. 

As of next Jan. 1, fully 12 years of the Baby Boomer cohort (those born from 1946 through 1964) will have surpassed retirement age. That covers more than 63 percent of the Boomer crew. And when those people stepped out of leadership roles, more than their respective businesses were affected.

Consider the names attached to civic groups like the Downtown Council or the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City. Or to the boards of non-profits like the Greater Kansas City Area Chamber of Commerce or the Ewing Kauffman Foundation, or two philanthropic entities like the boards of the zoo or symphony, or trustees at various universities, public and private.

That’s when it starts to set in, the depth of this particular demographic shift. Consider:

  • Within the prominent construction and related sectors of engineering and design, we’ve seen the retirements of both Terry and Steve Dunn at JE Dunn Construction, of Greg Graves at Burns & McDonnell, of David Gaboury at Terracon and co-founders Pat McCown and Brett Gordon of McCownGordon Construction. Earl Santee stepped down from the leadership at design giant Populous, and Bill Massey did likewise at construction powerhouse Performance Contracting Group.
  • Among the region’s truly big-name companies and leading employers, we’ve seen William Cobb leave H&R Block, the untimely deaths of Neal Patterson at Cerner and Steve Bresky of Seaboard Corp. (two of the four biggest public-company employers in the region). Donald Hall Jr. retains the title of executive chairman at Hallmark, but turned the day-to-day over to Mike Perry as CEO in 2019. Sprint Corp., long the region’s biggest private-sector employer before being supplanted by Cerner, saw Marcelo Claure and Michel Combs leave the top executive roles in succession after orchestrating the sale of the company to T-Mobile last year. 
  • International business moves left ripples here, particularly in the vital and growing animal-sciences corridor. There, Albrecht Kissel left the St. Joseph area in 2017 when Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica relocated its headquarters to Georgia (he’s since gone back to the corporate mother ship in Germany) and Peter Brons-Paulsen was likewise airlifted home to Europe in 2019 after leading Hill’s Pet Nutrition, one of Topeka’s biggest corporate citizens. And Els Thermote, who helped family-owned TVH build a global presence through its North American headquarters, headed back to Belgium in 2019.
  • Banking and financial services? How about a storied family name there stepping down when Jonathan Kemper retired in 2018. Mike Hagedorn abruptly left UMB, and Michael Viazzoli did the same at Bank of Kansas City (now BOK Financial), and retirement came calling for Tom Fitzsimmons at Central Bank of the Midwest. Hank Herrmann stepped down as CEO of Waddell & Reed in 2016, then CEO Philip Sanders oversaw the sale of the firm to an Australian conglomerate last year before heading out. Mark Radetic wrapped up his long accounting career with MarksNelson in 2019, then Mark Jorgenson did likewise at U.S. Bank last year. And most recently, Bob Regnier has been winding things down at Bank of Blue Valley, which he founded back in 1989.
  • Wholesale change atop law firms in the region saw managing-partner duties surrendered by Russ Welsh at Polsinelli, John Murphy at Shook, Mark Hinderks at Stinson, Mark Bluhm at what is now Lathrop GPM, John Snyder at Dentons and Perry Brandt at Bryan Cave—all of that coming within the Top 10 largest firms. In most of those cases, the long-awaited shattering of glass ceilings saw women elevated into those leadership roles as law-firm administration in the region underwent significant change.
  • Another prominent sector, insurance, saw sweeping change with the retirements of Dana Wilson at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City, and her counterpart to the west, Andy Corbin at Topeka’s Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas. David Lockton retired from the firm his brother founded in 1966, leaving behind the world’s largest private, independent insurance brokerage; nephew Ron Lockton stepped out of the CEO role last year and serves as chairman.
  • We saw entrepreneurs like Steven St. Peter move on from Aratana Therapeutics, at one point the region’s fastest-growing company. The same on the other end of the scale with Dave Scheer at Inland Truck Parts and Joe Suhor at Suhor Industries/Wilbert Funeral Services, two of the region’s Top 100 private companies.
  • The academic ranks have been pummeled with retirements or relocations of Leo Morton at UMKC, Neeli Bendapudi at the University of Kansas, and both Mark James at Metropolitan Community College and the two most recent presidents of Johnson County Community College, Joe Sopcich and his predecessor, the late Terry Calaway.
  • Commercial realty saw the retirement of an iconic name when Jerry Reece wrapped up a career with Reece Nichols. 
  • Perhaps the most significant business sector, at last in terms of combined revenues among the Top 100 Private Companies, was health care, and the regional leadership has been upended over the past five years. Rand O’Donnell retired after building Children’s Mercy into one of the nation’s leading pediatric hospitals; HCA reassigned Research Medical Center’s Jacquie DeSouza to a San Diego posting last year, Frank Devocelle wrapped up a legendary career that saw the rise of Olathe Health, Ken Bacon did likewise at AdventHealth Shawnee Mission, and Randall Peterson checked out at Stormont Vail last year, as did Peggy Schmitt at North Kansas City Hospital. Those were but a few of the changes among the largest health systems in the region, with plenty of other movement further down the list of the 25 largest providers.
  • On the philanthropic side, it was a net gain, rather than a leadership loss, after the 2017 sale of Ash Grove Cement to an Irish company. Two members of the ownership family, brothers Charlie and Kent Sunderland, cleaned out their desks in the C-Suite there. But along with the last CEO before the sale, Randy Vance, they took on integral roles with the Sunderland Foundation, which rocketed up the list of the region’s biggest non-profits (behind only the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation and the Kauffman Foundation) by virtue of the $3.3 billion sale. 

Save for their cross-sector competition and occasional collaborations through industry associations and civic promotion, most of those figures worked independent of one another as they built their companies into prominence. But as a group, they and more than 100 others who have moved on from the top leadership roles in this region helped create a Kansas City business community that is known nationally for its collective work ethic, its structural diversity, it’s ability to ward off downturns and its penchant for quicker economic recoveries. 

That’s not a bad testimonial to anyone’s lifetime pursuits.