On Fertile Ground


Going Up | The first buildings on Cerner’s Innovation Campus complex opened in 2017; it will take nearly a decade to finish the site.

There are two ways to classify major corporations that call the Kansas City region home: Companies that are major employers here, and companies that have big-time revenues. Granted, employment and revenues are not mutually inclusive—but neither are they mutually exclusive. Occasionally, you’ll find some that do both.

At the top of that list for the Kansas City region is Cerner Corp. The health-care informatics company serves more than 27,000 health-care provider facilities worldwide. In growing from startup to that global scale, Cerner has exerted tremendous pull in transforming this region into a technology center. For proof of that, take a look at the twin towers housing 4,500 employees near Village West in Kansas City, Kan., or the $4.6 billion construction project underway in south Kansas City at the company’s Innovation Campus.

Cerner’s rise to the region’s largest private-sector employer—it now has roughly 13,500 workers in this region—has come as Sprint, the former No. 1 in that regard, cut staff to less than half the levels it had a decade ago. Not long after completing its global campus in Overland Park, the telecom giant had roughly 14,000 employees. Despite that reduction, though, Sprint retains a strong role in regional commerce, with revenues that top $33 billion a year, far and away No. 1 in the region.

At the other end of the spectrum is Seaboard Corp., the pork and poultry producer that also has holdings in transportation and shipping, commodities, energy and sugar production. Revenues surged to $5.8 billion last year, yet it runs those operations with only about 300 employees at the global headquarters in Merriam.

This market is home to century-old global brands like Hallmark, the personal-expressions pros who employ roughly 3,000 people in the city where it was founded in 1910. We have well-established companies like H&R Block, founded in 1955 by two brothers who would literally create the tax-preparation industry for individual filers. And we have the newer, tech-star types born at the onset of the Internet era, including Garmin. The Olathe-based maker of wearable tech and global-positioning
devices, a public company, and Hallmark a private concern, both generate sales of about $3-4 billion.

Another global powerhouse that long ago expanded its reach outside the hometown market is Lockton, now the world’s largest privately held independent insurance brokerage and benefits-plan consultants for business clients. The company hit the billion-dollar revenue mark a few years ago, and hasn’t looked back, closing in on nearly $1.5 billion in 2017.

Nearly every one of them was founded here; all of them could have sought out the major population centers on either coast to justify relocation. It’s no surprise—to executives here, anyway—why they stay. We call it the Kansas City Value Proposition: It starts with a skilled, able work force armed with a work ethic you’d expect in someone just a generation removed from the family farm. Mix in the low cost of living, highly affordable high-quality housing, world-class entertainment venues and programs and high-performing schools, and you have a recipe for corporate stability.

Other national firms are betting on Kansas City, as well, including Ford Motor Co., and General Motors. They have invested heavily in their production facilities here, fueling a boom in  supplier relocations.

And more than just individual companies, the region is an anchor for entire business sectors, most notably the nation’s food chain. The biggest private company doing business here is Dairy Farmers of America, a $13 billion national milk-products cooperative. Not far behind in the Top 10 (measured by revenues) are Associated Wholesale Grocers, at $9 billion, Lansing Trade Group (commodity storage, shipping and sales) at $5 billion and National Beef, a $7 billion concern.

Another sector with prominent companies based here is engineering. With two global players—Burns & McDonnell and Black & Veatch—employing a combined 6,500 people in the region (and many more worldwide), Kansas City has long boasted of having more engineers per capita than any other U.S. city.

They all come together to produce a diverse economy capable of staving off the downstroke of a business cycle, and strong enough to lead the region out of recessions before most other parts of the country can recover.