The successes are legendary—building a brand for a nascent Wal-Mart, coming up with the Happy Meal for McDonald’s, etc.—but if you ask Bob Bernstein what stands out in his mind after half a century of killer ad campaigns with Bernstein-Rein, he’ll tell you: The latest one. “If you asked me that a month ago I’d say one thing, and two months from now it will be something different,” he says. “Everything is a major push for us and something we’re very proud of.”
Since its founding 50 years ago, B-R has served as one of the region’s premier agencies by looking deeper with each client. “We try to find the soul of a brand,” Bernstein says. A recent beneficiary of that soul-searching is the revived Hostess Brands, reincarnated last year after its predecessor’s closing. That kind of national presence in ad circles has been a constant almost from the day he and Skip Rein launched the firm. Bernstein, though, is more than an ad guy: among other ventures, his entrepreneurial zest prompted him to found the salon/spa retail chain Beauty Brands, where he also served as CEO before selling a majority interest earlier this month. And his civic and philanthropic engagements run deep and wide.
Kansas City’s disproportionate creative class—drawn by the gravitational pull of a company like Hallmark—has produced artists, designers, printers and others who can crank out top-tier work, he says. Today, an Internet connection means ad agencies, architects and engineers can work from anywhere, but pre-Web, the big firms clustered on the coasts. “In the early ’80s, we picked up an account headquartered in Los Angeles,” Bernstein recalls. “When the media asked why they’d selected an agency in Kansas City, they answered, ‘We didn’t select Kansas City; we selected Bernstein-Rein, which happens to be located in Kansas City.’”
Other advantages include the lifestyle he grew up with in Kansas City. “It’s the grass-roots, the ability to understand the middle class and the working class,” he said. “We’re in the middle of middle America and we really understand it better than anyone else. There’s also a lot of talent here, everything you would need, and that’s what makes it one of the strongest agency markets in the country.”
And talent, Bernstein says, it what the ad game is all about: “Our inventory,” he says, “goes down the elevator every night.”
His grandfather founded the Lawrence Journal-World in 1891, his father spent an entire career there, and Dolph Simons Jr. has been there for more than 55 years, most of that time as publisher, editor, or both. The history of Lawrence, in some sense, is intertwined with that of the Simons family, and the current patriarch has chronicled the evolution of the college town into a vital part of the greater Kansas City area.
The key to advancing the interests of both the newspaper and Lawrence—indeed, the entire corridor from Manhattan, Kan., to Columbia, Mo.—he said, with a favorite phrase, has been “driving with your brights on”—having not just a vision, but a vision to look farther down the road and see what’s truly possible. “If you get complacent and think you’ve got things made, you are headed for a serious fall,” he says.
That outlook has framed the Journal-World’s editorial and opinion outlook for decades. And while big-city dailies continue to whither, Simons has demonstrated the true value proposition of print in the Internet era—and this, from a guy who still prefers a typewriter to a computer keyboard.
“One of our roles is to have the courage to point out things that are wrong and try to inspire and urge people to do a better job,” he said. “The printed word has played one hell of a role in keeping the public informed,” he said. “That’s our responsibility and obligation” and one he’s passing on to two sons in the business.
After short stints overseas early in his career, Simons became a revered journalistic figure back home, as a director of the Associated Press for 11 years, board member for the Kansas Associated Press, the Inland Daily Press Association, the Kansas Press Association, and the William Allen White Foundation, and as a four-time Pulitzer Prize juror.
Ties to his alma mater run deep, with service on the KU Endowment Association board and the KU Alumni Association board. He’s a recipient of the Fred Ellsworth Award for service to KU and the university’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Citation. He’s also served on a long list of organizations focued on life sciences, the arts and education.
“I’ve had every break a person could possibly have,” Simons says. “My grandfather and my father worked so much harder and overcame so much more difficulty. I was given a tremendous break with the Journal-World.”
Now this is endurance: In 2010, seeking a fourth term in the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrat Emanuel Cleaver charged into the teeth of a Republican wave election—and still garnered more than 53 percent of the vote, nearly 9 full points ahead of the GOP’s Jacob Turk.
It was additional, though superfluous, confirmation of the high status awarded Cleaver by voters in Missouri’s 5th Congressional District, who accorded him a 23-point win over Turk just two years later. That status comes from a blend of historical ties to the region—Cleaver broke the color barrier in Kansas City’s mayor’s office n 1991—as well as his reputation as a hard-core progressive: various liberal interest groups assign him lifetime scores of up to 100 percent on his congressional voting record, while conservatives tend to place him at 0-10 percent. But neither of those square with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s lifetime score of 39 percent, which suggests Cleaver isn’t entirely about ideology.
He has pro-business views; they just tend to be framed by a belief that government has a vital role in priming the pump. His tenure as mayor—and before that, for 12 years on the City Council—saw a number of city overtures lure some big-name companies to the city. Particular points of pride are his involvement to secure homes in the city for CitiCorp, Harley Davidson and Transamerica. And Cleaver has been a booster of the 18th and Vine Redevelopment, the Brush Creek reconstruction-beautification project, the proposed new facility for the American Royal, and creation of a family division in the municipal court.
In Congress, he secured federal funding for what’s known as the Green Impact Zone, perhaps the most ambitious initiative of his D.C. tenure. Roughly $125 million in federal support has poured into a 150-block area of east Kansas City since 2009, with a goal of creating a sustainable, low-crime zone with improved infrastructure, all of which would support a commercial rebirth in the area.
A native of Waxahachie, Texas, he’s also a Methodist minister, having earned a Master of Divinity degree from St. Paul School of Theology, and he put that to work for 37 years as pastor at St. James United Methodist Church. He and his wife, Dianne, have raised four children and have three grandchildren.
“Invited” to go to work for himself by his father, an old-school plumber with little regard for a young upstart with a business-school degree, Charles Garney launched an empire from a run-down Northland hamburger joint. The winter wind rattled against the windows that first day; the water well was occupied by a dead rat. Times were tough.
“We had three employees and no work,” Garney recalls. “But we brainstormed—it was like strategic planning, in a way—coming up with ideas. It wasn’t long before we were making a lot of money. That first year, we expected to make $5,000, and we made $70,000, and averaged 10-15 percent growth for the 10 years that followed.”
Thus was born a forerunner to Garney Holding Co., a small first step on a trip that has taken Garney from plumbing to banking, water-system construction, real-estate development and more. By his count, more two dozen companies over the past 53 years—roughly one every 26 months. The flagship, Garney Construction, did nearly $500 million last year. An owner’s interest in that would yield a tidy sum—except that Garney no longer owns it. He sold his last share of it to his employees in 1995, making millionaires out of dozens who had done the same for him.
That model, Garney says, has worked with every company he’s owned. Even if he came into one reluctantly, as with the money-losing proposition he inherited with Trezo Mare, the anchor restaurant in his signature Briarcliff Village development. After the leaders bailed, Garney called a meeting of the 65 employees—“even a dishwasher showed up,” he marvels—and laid out the plan: They would get ownership stakes in the restaurant; he would get out of their way.
“I didn’t tell the cook how to cook, the manager how to manage or the servers how to serve,” Garney says. “I don’t have a clue. But I put people together and let them come up with their own goals and objectives.”
From annual losses of $200,000, the restaurant was at break-even within five months, and on pace for six-figure annual profits within seven. “I own 43 percent, they own 57 percent,” he says, wryly noting: “It’s a lot better to have 43 percent of a $100,000 profit than 100 percent of a $200,000 loss.”
There are Kansas City Legends, and there are the Kansas City Barbecue Legends, a group with considerably fewer opportunities for recognition. But there’s no denying that Ollie Gates has earned his chops—and his ribs, briskets, chickens, hot links—among the both sets.
For more than 60 years, Gates has been driving the growth of the company founded by his parents, George and Arzelia, back in 1946 at 19th and Vine. The restaurant’s offerings were influence by Arthur Pinkard, who had worked for the man considered founder of Kansas City barbecue, Henry Perry. That made the newfound restaurant one of only two that could claim those historic roots.
Today, Gates—it’s one of a handful of barbecue joints known to most everyone in Kansas City by a single word—has roughly 1,500 employees under its six red-roofed locations across the metro area, and also distributes its distinctive sauce to retailers in the region.
Three years after the first location opened, young Ollie graduated from high school and headed east, enrolling at Maryland State College before moving back closer to home to finish school at Lincoln University in Jefferson City. During that time, he worked in the family business before a two-year stint in the Army as an engineer, after which came back and started with the company full-time.
The famed centrality factor so often cited by executives from companies in distribution settings also played a key role in the expansion of Gates’ reputation, but from a different perspective. Because of Kansas City’s reputation as a destination for conventions and sporting events, particularly during the company’s early years, tens of thousands of travelers were able to sample the fare. Word-of-mouth advertising proved invaluable.
Among his civic contributions, Gates was a longtime member of the Kansas City Parks Board, where he pushed for park beautification and improved access for handicapped children, and was heavily involved in helping the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center retire its debt. He also has contributed to building fountains and memorials honoring African American war veterans. As an entrepreneur wearing more than an apron, he has also developed a pair of inner-city sites as retail shopping centers.
In 1987, the Kansas City real-estate world was rocked with news that the high-flying Kroh Brothers Development Co. had gone bust. Behind the headlines, Jerry Reece saw opportunity. Seventeen years after starting his real estate career with Kroh Bros. Realty Co., he bought the brokerage’s residential real estate division, and Kansas City had a new name in home sales: J.D. Reece Realtors.
Since then, he’s sold to a Berkshire Hathaway affiliate and merged with the firm founded by the legendary J.C. Nichols. Result? “From 2002 through 2013, we’ve sold about $50 billion in residential transactions,” he said of Reece & Nichols, this market’s run-away leader, which also offers mortgage and titling services. “That’s about 250,000 units. On the mortgage side, we did about $6 billion in that period, and we titled about 150,000 units.”
Few, then, have left a bigger imprint on the Kansas City real estate market, but Reece deflects the credit for that. The key, he says, is “great people. We work for Warren Buffet, and he says, look for high intelligence, high energy and high integrity in employees. If you get the high intelligence and high energy, but not the integrity, it will ruin you.”
Reece has seen a marked evolution in real-estate sales over better than four decades, but notes one thing that hasn’t changed: “People are still people,” he says, “and it’s a people business.” Technology has made things more challenging with the advent of the Internet, but the business offers greater opportunities, he says, and the number of agents affiliated with Reece & Nichols—1,900— attests to that.
A 30-year officer in the Marine Reserves, where he retired at the rank of colonel, he’s now on the board of trustees for the University of Missouri-Kansas City and its capital campaign for the School of Education, and the board of the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation’s real-estate charitable foundation. He’s also served on boards for the Harry S. Truman Good Neighbor Awards Foundation and the Police Foundation of Kansas City, and his tenure with the Marines included 10 years on the national board of the Toys for Tots Foundation, to name just a few.
“I’m an advocate for education,” Reece says. His goal with all of that, he said, was finding a way to apply his skills where they could yield the greatest advantage.