The past year has been kind to darn few of us, and companies are no exception. Tens of thousands of small businesses in the United States failed amid the global pandemic of 2020; even more continue to stave off bankruptcy in a bid to get back to some sense of normalcy.
One of the most surprising aspects emerging from a public-health crisis of that magnitude is that being a big brand, in some remarkable cases, did nothing to protect you if your business model was reliant on a massed audience or consumer group. Consider the companies that filed for bankruptcy: Pier 1 Imports, J. Crew, Neiman Marcus, J.C. Penney, Tuesday Morning, Brooks Brothers, Lord & Taylor, Sizzler and Ruby Tuesday are just some of the highlight names.
Being in the middle of the country offered no protection. Consider the case of AMC Entertainment, thriving as the world’s largest cinema chain just 14 months ago. By year’s end, it was teetering on bankruptcy itself before CEO Adam Aron and team negotiated $917 million in additional financing. And even as theaters have reopened to limited capacity and restored some revenue flow, the concept of a crowded theater could be imperiled for years to come.
So, through no fault of its own, the AMC brand took a hit this year. Factors beyond the pandemic conspired to similarly mar the brands of other companies based in Kansas: Learjet, for example, which saw the production rug pulled from under it just last month by parent Bombardier, closing the book on a storied brand with deep Kansas roots. Waddell & Reed also takes a step back from our list of the Top 25 Brands in Kansas while it sorts out some financial issues, the fallout from a withdrawn bid to relocate into Downtown Kansas City, and acquisition by Australia’s Macquarie Group.
Many of the biggest brands in the state, though, are standing strong—in some cases, even stronger than before any of us had heard the word “COVID.” We’re pleased to bring you this assessment of brands that help define business life in the Sunflower State and those Ingram’s editors believes are the Top 25.
Ascension Via Christi
Across south-central Kansas, it is the dominant brand in one of the state’s biggest business sectors, health care. Owned by St. Louis-based Ascension Health, the largest Catholic, faith-based non-profit health system in the country. Ascension Via Christi serves considerably more of the state than the Wichita area. The state’s biggest city is home to a pair of hospitals in Wichita, plus physician and specialty clinics. With more than 29,000 patients discharged last year, the 650-bed St. Francis campus in Wichita generated more than $2.4 billion in patient revenue. In addition to that main campus, Ascension has Kansas hospitals in Manhattan and Pittsburg. All are part of a massive system that employs more than 160,000 people nationwide, with 40,000 aligned providers at 2,600 sites, including 145 hospitals. longtime health-care executive Don King has been president and CEO of Ascension Via Christi since 2019.
Associated Wholesale Grocers
AWG, based in Kansas City, Kan., is a brand that company leaders says is built on four core values: Accountability, transparency, humility and serving. Thus armed, this massive grocery wholesaler delivers products to more than 3,000 individual grocery stores, owned by more than 1,000 companies across a 28-state swath of the Midwest and southern U.S. The shelves of those stores are, in turn, filled with lower-cost, consumer-facing brands supplied by AWG, including such staples as Best Choice, Always Save and IGA. The nation’s largest cooperative food wholesaler, AWG generates roughly $10 billion in sales. On top of the edibles it delivers, the company has subsidiaries that provide members with real-estate and supermarket development services, as well as support services for print and digital marketing needs, health and beauty care, general merchandise, specialty international foods and pharmaceuticals. the company is under the direction of president/CEO David Smith.
Black & Veatch
For more than 105 years, the Black & Veatch brand has been a declaration of excellence in engineering and design services, but the employee-owned company long ago branched out from its engineering origins. Today, it is a global design, procurement, consulting and construction company. Headquartered in Overland Park, it offers services that create the infrastructure for growth around the world, with expertise in power, oil and gas, water, telecommunications, government, mining, data centers, smart cities, banking and finance and sustainable design initiatives. With more than 10,000 employees, the company has a portfolio of projects completed in more than 100 countries, on every continent but Antarctica. It was founded in 1915 by two former University of Kansas graduates, Ernest Bateman Black and Nathan Thomas Veatch.
The biggest bank in Kansas, measured by assets, isn’t a traditional commercial bank. Yes, you can hold checking and savings accounts, or get a business loan there. But Capitol Federal was built on a mission of helping Kansans achieve the American Dream, and mortgage lending has long been its strength. Priding itself on stability, it was founded in the same year as the Financial Panic of 1893, and has endured plenty of threats to the financial-services sector in the decades since, from the Great Depression to the 1980s’ savings and loans crisis, and the 2008 banking meltdown. Topeka-based Cap Fed has expanded its commercial lending, business banking and trust services following the 2018 acquisition of Capital City Bank. Now the financial institution boasts $9.6 billion in assets, $7 billion in loans and $6.5 billion in deposits. Its recent growth has enforced its long-held corporate leadership philosophy “of Safety in Savings, Sound Lending Policies, Quality Customer Service, and Commitment to Community.”
Bushnell Outdoor Products
Once upon a time, the Bushnell brand was known for binoculars. Still is, in fact, but the company has expanded to cover a huge range of visual enchancers that make up what’s known today as the “sports optics” line of consumer products. A subsidiary of Vista Outdoor, Bushnell is based in Overland Park, where it operates a massive warehouse shipping products around the world. The company has been operating for more than 70 years since founder David Bushnell began importing binoculars from Japan. Bushnell has come a long way from that original two-crate shipment of standard binoculars: Also within its robust product line, you’ll find telescopes, spotting and rifle scopes, laser range finders, game cameras and night-vision devices. And if you need a GPS device that helps you get where the viewing is good, you can find those, as well. That product diversity allows customers to maximize their viewing at sporting venues and concerts, in nature study, while hunting and fishing, and even for stargazing.
To look at a map of Kansas, one might not think high-end boat production would find fertile ground—or waterways. It’s a long way, after all, to the Great Lakes or the nearest coast. But in the small burg of Neodesha, tucked into southeast Kansas roughly halfway between Wichita and Pittsburg, roughly 400 employees defy such cartological expectations by turning out luxury watercraft bound for lakes in the Midwest as well more open, distant waters around the world. Founded in 1968,
Cobalt Boats stood as an independent company until its 2017 acquisition by Tennessee-based Malibu Boats, but the Cobalt brand was powerful enough to carry on, and the company has pushed ahead with expansion plans for the Kansas site. Cobalt produces a range of stern-drive and outboard-powered boats that range between roughly 22 and 37 feet in length, and they are sold through a network of dealers on six continents.
CommunityAmerica Credit Union
In the realm of financial-services companies from the Kansas City area, there’s nothing like it: No bank, no wealth-management firm, not one of its peers has the comparative market dominance that CommunityAmerica Credit Union commands: With nearly $3.88 billion in assets, it is more than 4½ times as big as the No. 2 credit union in the region—and bigger, in fact, than its closest rival in Missouri. It attained that lofty status by building a membership of nearly 2,870,000. A vital lender, it has more than 110,000 loans on the books, worth a hefty $2.42 billion combined. CACU members enjoy a wide range of traditional services like checking and savings accounts, IRA
and money-market investment opportunities, as well as car loans, mortgages and insurance products. They also get planning services for college savings and overall
financial planning. CommunityAmerica operates nearly 30 locations in the region,
and today is led by CEO Lisa Ginter.
How’s this for brand endurance? Nearly 40 years after Kroger Cos. acquired it, the Dillons name stands strong in Kansas and surrounding states, in many communities as the biggest name in grocery options. There are lots of good reasons to have kept that presence intact; operating as an autonomous subsidiary of the giant Kroger grocery chain, the Dillons stores generate roughly $6 billion in annual revenues. That’s a long way from the first dry goods store that J.S. Dillon opened in the 1890s. Successive generations of the family made the operation formal by incorporating in 1921, growing it organically and through a series of acquisitions, and leading to an 11-state footprint, with more than 200 grocery stores, hundreds of convenience stores and even 11 department stores at one point. David Dillon, John Dillions grandson, became president of Kroger and was the last Dillon in the leadership ranks when he retired in 2014.
Dairy Farmers of America
Almost from its creation in 1998, Dairy Farmers of America has been a fixture atop the roster of biggest companies in the Kansas City region. After 2019, it led the pack again, with $15.9 billion in revenue. Well, DFA got even bigger in 2020—quite possibly, a lot bigger. Last April, it closed on the $433 million acquisition of Dean Foods, which itself was knocking down annual revenues north of $7.3 billion. Based in Kansas City, Kan., DFA is a cooperative comprising 13,000 family dairy farmers from across the
country. It all starts with milk, but DFA is also a monster in production of cream, ice cream, cheese, powered milk and milk solids used by companies around the world for food production. And it serves as the marketing umbrella for 15 dairy brands, including Borden Cheese. DFA took its current organizational form in 1998 with the merger of four prominent national organizations, including Mid-America Dairymen in the Midwest.
Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers
Kansas lost a brand-building legend last October with the death of 95-year-old Freddy Simon, namesake of one of the nation’s fastest-growing restaurant concepts, Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers. Founded in 2002 by a partnership that included two of Freddy’s sons, the Wichita-based chain of fast-casual restaurants opened its 400th location earlier this year, in Overland Park. That was just one of 31 new stores added during the pandemic year of 2020. Throughout that growth, the formula has stayed the same: thin-sliced steakburgers accompanied by decadent milkshakes and a full suite of classic sides. Almost as important as the food is the diner experience that evokes memories of classy burger joints from the post-war years, done up in its signature red and black decor. The brand, the company declares, is grounded in the “optimism, patriotism and tradition” inspired by Freddy himself, who was renowned for touring the company’s new locations as they came on-line. His son, Randy Simon, is the current CEO.
One of the great corporate re-inventions of the past generation surely must be Olathe-based Garmin, which has established itself as a global brand twice: Once with the founding concept of GPS devices for vehicles, the concept on which the company was founded; a second time after the smart phone and various free apps threatened the model. Pivoting from that, Garmin has become a name known worldwide for wearable tech in the form of fitness applications or devices that enhance the experience of outdoor recreational activities. While still creating products that serve the automotive, aviation and marine markets, the company says its producing tools that help people pursue their passions. Its products are now staples in health-care delivery, as well, including devices developed with the University of Kansas Medical Center to tackle sleep apnea and atrial fibrillation. A recent expansion of the headquarters in Olathe has helped boost the employee count to more than 16,000 in 82 offices around the world.
Hill’s Pet Nutrition
Hill’s Pet Nutrition, one of the most recognizable of consumer brands coming out of Kansas, has been a division of global consumer-products giant Procter and Gamble since 1976. The company traces its origins back to the 1930s and a New Jersey veterinarian who was trying to help a young blind man treat his service dog’s kidney infection. The recipe cooked up by pet physician Mark Morris quickly proved to be popular with pet owners, and eventually, he came to the Hill Packing company Topeka to package his formulation in cans for mass distribution.
In the decades since, the product line has continued to expand; Hill’s is now the source of more than 50 pet foods, including its signature series under the Science Diet brand. Its products generate more than $2 billion a year for the parent public company, and can be found in 86 countries around the world. The company has an estimated 2,700 employees, including about 225 at its science and technology center in Topeka.
Quite often, when a holding company has a range of popular products, it takes a back seat in visibility to become the brand behind the brands. But with Hostess Brands, the name is as well-known as the product line that defines it: CupCakes, Twinkies, Ho Ho’s, Ding-Dongs, Donettes and an assortment of fruit pies. With those snack-food favorites driving sales, the company has been reborn from the ashes of its predecessor’s 2012 bankruptcy. Once again, Hostess is one of the nation’s largest packaged food companies, developing, baking, selling and delivering to retail outlets across the nation. The corporate history stretches back just over a century with the 1919 introduction of its signature cream-filled cupcake.
A decade later came the venerable Twinkie, and the rest, you might say, has been icing on the cake. The company took on its current structure in 2016 by going public and setting up a headquarters in Kansas City.
It moved its based to Lenexa last year.
The biggest bank in Kansas’ biggest city has a brand of its own, but a corporate DNA that’s shared by the biggest regional banks up Interstate 35 in Kansas City: Wichita-based Intrust, like Commerce Bank and UMB Bank, traces its history back to the 19th century and a former physician-turned banker, William Stone Woods of Kansas City. In the late 1800s, Woods served as mentor for both William Thornhill Kemper, scion of the two Kansas City banks, and for Charles Q. Chandler, founder of what would become Intrust.
Actually, more than a mentor for Chandler: Woods raised the orphaned boy from
the age of 10. Chandler’s great-grandson, C.Q. “Charlie” Chandler IV, represents the fourth generation of family leadership, and is currently chairman and CEO. Connecting that past with today’s changing consumer demands, Intrust lives by an internal motto of Tradition for Today. The bank has 45 branch offices in Kansas and Oklahoma, and operates more branches in the Wichita market than any Kansas-based competitor.
Kansas State University
At various times, the K-State brand has stood for academic excellence (the nation’s top public university for combined Rhoads, Marshall, Truman, Goldwater and Udall scholarships from 1986-2018), football under Bill Snyder (need we say more?) and yes, even basketball—the Wildcats were the first American college basketball team to beat the Soviet national team. Soon, that brand will take on a new patina as a center of biosciences research. In addition to its own expansion in that area, K-State’s campus is the home of the nation’s new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, a $1.25 billion biosafety level-four research center. Officials predict that NBAF will spawn commercialization efforts that will change the face of business in Kansas. Founded during the Civil War in 1863, K-State was the nation’s first land-grant university and the state’s first public institution of higher learning. Nearly 21,000 students are enrolled in Manhattan, at the College of Technology and Aviation in
Salina and at the Olathe Innovation Campus.
The runaway winner for biggest company in Kansas is Koch Industries, the corporate crown jewel of Wichita. With annual revenues of more than $100 billion, it is the second-largest privately held company in the U.S., and it touches the lives of virtually every American through subsidiaries that manufacture, refine and distribute petroleum, chemicals, energy, fiber, intermediates and polymers, minerals, fertilizers, pulp and paper, chemical technology equipment. And it has a large footprint in ranching, finance, commodities trading, and investing. It got where it is by assuming a business-first attitude that demanded 90 percent of the annual profit be devoted to growth and internal improvement for the long haul. Following the lead of chairman Charles Koch, son of founder Fred Koch, company executives have established reputations as thought leaders in touting the benefits of free-market economies. One of Wichita’s largest employers, it has 65,000 people working in U.S. operations, about half of its global work force strewn across more than 70 countries.
Security Benefit has evolved into a national leader in the U.S. retirement market with assets under management of $41.1 billion. That, friends, is what you get if you start with $11 and produce an average compound annual growth rate of 18.47 percent after just 130 years. So it is indeed a long way from that December day in 1891 when 11 Topekans tossed a buck each into a collection that would provide insurance for others who couldn’t afford it. Over the last five decades, the focus has shifted from insurance to retirement planning for a national client base made up primarily of school district educators and administrators, individual investors, retirement plan participants at small- to mid-sized businesses, and higher net-worth individuals. The four pillars of that strategy, the company says, are market growth and principal protection, generation of income in retirement, and legacy planning.
Since its founding in 2005, Spirit Aerosystems has been the biggest employer in a city famed for its aviation manufacturing muscle. It was created after a better-known brand, Boeing, sold its commercial aviation division in Wichita. And from Day One, Spirit has stood for higher-wage employment—lots of it—and economic growth fueled by a thriving tax base. From that single-source supplier sprung an independent global supplier ser-
ving multiple customers. One of those has been the company that calved it off 16 years ago. Spirit continues to build about 70 percent of the mainframe for the famed Boeing 737 jet, along with four other Boeing models, plus portions of various models for Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Mitsubishi. The company was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, shutting down production lines and weathering financial losses in the process, but is ramping back up as the public-health crisis eases.
Closer to its home base in Wichita, the Textron Aviation brand is well known as an anchor business and major employer, and as the parent of two other brands that are immediately recognized by light-plane owners and interests around the world: Cessna and Beechcraft. Those two makes of light aircraft, which trace their origins to Wichita aviation pioneers Clyde Cessna and Walter Beech nearly a century ago, are still in production today, as operating units of the aviation subsidiary for the conglomerate Textron parent. They generate thousands of jobs in Wichita, both within their assembly plants and among the suppliers who help give the city its claim to being the Air Capital of the World. The first Beechcraft G-3 Bonanza took flight in 1945, and Cessna followed a decade later with its 172 model, representing two foundational developments in their corporate histories, and the more than 110,000 planes were produced with those and future models. Textron, based
in Providence, R.I., bought Cessna in 1992, then formed the Textron Aviation brand after acquiring Beech Holdings Corp. in 2014.
The University of Kansas
More than 27,600 students, from promising freshmen to aspiring physicians, make the University of Kansas the largest of the state’s six four-year institutions overseen by the Kansas Board of Regents. That enrollment spans five campuses including the mother ship in Lawrence and the state’s only medical school, in Kansas City. Like most other universities, KU is in a defensive posture with enrollment as the global pandemic of 2020 eases a bit; enrollments were down nearly across the board for higher education. KU’s answer to that challenge produced an unprecedented transfer of instruction from the classroom to distance-learning model. More than 150 years after its founding, the university has expanded its geographic footprint into Wichita and Salina with med-school instruction, and Overland Park with some general courses, but a bigger emphasis on graduate-level education. KU is also the only state university with a seat on the elite Association of American Universities. But the basketball court is where the brand really goes nat-
ional as a frequent No. 1 seed in the NCAA basketball tournament each March.
The University of Kansas Health System
A brand in its own right, and one only tied to the state’s biggest university by a historical connection, The University of Kansas Health System is precisely that: a system, not a hospital. To be sure, the biggest medical center and teaching hospital in the state admits more patients than any other hospital in the Kansas City area. But the health system has a mandate to be a hospital for all of Kansas, and it fulfills that mission on a number of levels. Strategic acquisitions of hospitals in Hays, Great Bend, Larned and Topeka in recent years have expanded the footprint and brought care directly into those communities. More far-reaching, in terms of geography, has been the unprecedented expansion of telehealth services. While some of that structure for remote services had been in place before the 2020 pandemic, the public-health crisis compelled CEO Bob Page and his team to advance telemedicine capabilities by between five and 10 years of what had been projected.
Any DIYer in Middle America knows the Ace Hardware brand, and probably should: More than 5,000 stores fly the flag of that retailer-owned cooperative. At 140 of those stretching from California to North Carolina, the specific brand is Lenexa-based Westlake Hardware. Generally smaller than the big-box hardware retailers, they are considerably more acces-
sible, often at the neighborhood level, and they work by focusing on the products that are sure to be in greatest demand: plumbing and electrical lines and fix-
tures, lumber and building materials, flooring, paint, appliances and tools. Founded in 1905 with W.I. Westlake’s
purchase of an ownership share with a store in Huntsville, Mo., it aligned with the Ace brand in 1959. President and
CEO Joe Jeffries is at the helm of a ship with a crew of 3,250.
Wichita State University
University brands, beyond signifying their place in higher education, can stand for various things, depending on the unique
academic mission of each. For Wichita State
University, the brand means accessibility—
it’s the state’s only urban university—and it
stands for business, thanks in large part
to specialty programs that tie directly into
the economic strengths of the primary community it serves: Wichita. The Air Capital of the World looks to WSU for support with its critical aviation construction sector, thanks to the Institute for Aviation Research; it relies on the business school and its Center for Economic Development and Business Research there to help promote the culture of entrepreneurship that defines the community and provide key insights to the next generation of entrepreneurs. One of six four-year Regents universities, WSU boasts an enrollment of 16,000 students pursuing degrees in nearly 60 undergraduate programs, 40 master’s
level pathways and 12 doctoral programs.
It’s been a top company in Kansas for years, but now it has a new brand: Last fall, Yellow became the tag for what had been YRC Worldwide, an Overland Park-based holding company for a portfolio of transportation companies, especially strong in the increasingly active less-than-truckload (LTL) space. The branding change made sense, said CEO Darren Hawkins, because “we have one of the largest, most comprehensive LTL and logistics networks focused on serving North America and the Yellow brand, as the original LTL company, reflects a strong and proud history,” Hawkins said. Those LTL brands—Holland, New Penn, Reddaway—plus YRC Freight (a long-haul line), and HNRY Logistics all retain their respective brands. The company was quick to respond to the pandemic of 2020 to safeguard a work force 30,000 strong and at the same time help shore up a national supply chain that experienced unprecedented disruption as states put various restrictions on business activity.
People with a Kansas City-centric view of business might be surprised to learn that the region’s second-largest hospital—measured by patient admissions—isn’t in the immediate metropolitan area at all:
It’s Topeka-based Stormont Vail Health. Stormont Vail is a powerful brand that covers not just northeast Kansas, where it serves a multi-county patient base, but the whole state, and beyond. In a normal year, more than 23,000 patients will be admitted to the 586-bed flagship hospital, but tens of
thousands more will receive out-patient treatment or visit one of the three dozen clinics or specialty treatment and surgical sites. The health system says its brand is build on four pillars of experience, value, growth and community. “Stormont Vail is committed to our Small Moments culture,” says CEO Robert Kenagy. “We know that each person who walks through our doors has a story—a past, a present and a future. Every interaction we have, whether big or small, is an opportunity to create a positive impact.”
Across more than 82,000 square miles, encompassing a diverse collection of companies in manufacturing, agribusiness,
financial services, consumer products and other sectors, the state of Kansas is home to a considerable number of companies with national brands. But how does one objectively determine a roster of the Top 25 Brands in a state this big, with a business infrastructure this diverse?
We started with a long list of companies headquartered here
or, if based elsewhere, with major operations in Kansas, then created a scoring system to assign points for various measurements, including:
• Revenues, because nothing says you’ve made a connec-
tion quite like getting a customer to pay you money.
• Geographic reach, the ability to project a brand mostly to nationwide and foreign markets.
• Employment levels. A company’s ability to make an impact on this state is not limited to its sales volume—the money it
circulates into the local economies by virtue of the work force it employs says something about the power of its brand.
• Civic engagement. We assigned extra points to those brands, especially out of state companies, that recognize their own corporate fate is tied to the well-being of the communities where they operate, and act accordingly.