In a town of 20,000 platted on a patch of prairie on foundations laid by coal miners and railroaders, seven jets are housed at a busy airport.
The jets belong to companies that call Pittsburg home — companies that started at kitchen tables and in basements, and now employ thousands of employees who serve national and global markets.
“There is something in the water here,” laughed Ken Brock, president of Names & Numbers, as the company celebrated its 42nd anniversary. “There are more entrepreneurial people in Pittsburg than any town I know of. I’ve often wondered what would make this one town be as inspirational to as many people as it has.”
He does not know the answer.
But he didn’t mind pausing from the business of overseeing the creation and distribution of phone books in 70 markets to speculate.
“I guess I would say that there’s encouragement and inspiration from what other people have done,” he said.
Billionaire businessman Gene Bicknell, who came from humble beginnings and went on to found several hugely successful companies in Pittsburg, has been a good friend to Brock for many years and has always been approachable.
So have other executives who have grown their businesses to million dollar annual revenues, but who are “ordinary guys” who still can be found tailgating in jeans and Pittsburg State University sweatshirts in the PSU parking lot each Saturday during football season, Brock said.
“I can sit down on the farm with Gene and talk because that’s where we still live today,” he said. “We have our roots in a more humble place than business. That’s part of the magic in Pittsburg. Every one of these people, you can sit down and have coffee with. You can ask advice. Ask for solutions.”
Brock grew up in a town one county away with dirt streets and a few hundred residents. “It was an adventure to come to Pittsburg,” Brock recalls. “If you came to Pittsburg, you really were doing something.”
His mother and father started a telephone company in their living room — switchboard and everything, Mayberry style — that as a child, Brock learned to operate. They soon had need for telephone directories, which his dad had typeset and paid for with an advertisement from the local feed store. As a teen, Brock became his salesman.
In 1974, his dad sold his business to a company in Minnesota, and Brock sought out an opportunity to start his own phone book company in Pittsburg. He bought files from a Springfield business that was closing, brought them home in the trunk of his Fort Ltd., replaced his living room furniture with a desk and file cabinet, and went to work. Brock, who has never been to college, now employs 250 people — half of whom live in Pittsburg and half who are in 12 satellite offices across the U.S. A shelf in the front lobby is filled with industry awards from the company has garnered.
A large painting in his office testifies to his love of aviation; as a young man interested in flying, Brock swept hangars at Atkinson Airport in exchange for lessons. Today, his jet is among those seven housed there.
“For a town of 20,000, that’s unheard of,” Brock said.
He credits a Midwestern employee base with having been good for his company.
“Maybe the most important thing is the people we have been able to employ,” he said. “Pittsburg area people are solid, reliable people. They stay here and are appreciative of a good job, they do great work and are dedicated. They have a work ethic.”
Most of his employees have been with the company for 15 years, and many have celebrated 25 years.
He also credits PSU.
“It plays a major role in who Pittsburg is,” he said. “Pittsburg would be a completely different town without it. Students do internships here in many departments, from accounting to graphic design.”
And, Brock credits the city.
“When we moved into 100-year-old offices at Seventh and Broadway, the city helped with its renovation, and agreed to sell me the parking lot and remove the parking meters for the convenience of the employees and customers,” Brock said. “We had a close relationship from the beginning.”
Before Brock began his company, there was Miller’s Professional Imaging. In 1939, Bill Miller opened a small photography studio downtown — where Europe Park is now — and made a living shooting weddings and portraits.
Today, Miller’s now operates in a 4,000-square foot facility, has 459 local employees, and is the largest professional lab organization in the United States, providing professional prints and press products for professional photographers in all 50 states and Canada.
Bill’s son, Richard, took over the reins of the company in 1976. He is a Master Photographer, twice having been named Kansas Photographer of the Year. Vice President Dick Coleman is also a Master Photographer; Coleman’s son, Todd, is president and COO.
“Pittsburg has been really good for us,” the younger Miller said. “It’s the work ethic in this area. I think that’s part of the culture, which goes back to the coal mining days. People have a can do, get it done attitude.”
And there’s something that keeps his employees here, he said, as well as his company:
“Pittsburg is a great place to raise a family,” he said. “It has great youth sports, great schools, pretty much anything that needs to be done without all of the negative things that might occur in a large city.”
Miller believes that culture has played into the culture of their company.
“We’ve always felt like the culture we’ve created is what sets us apart from competition,” Miller said.
The city, too, has played a role in the company’s success, he noted, from tax abatements for new construction to helping to promote job fairs.
“Much of our success has to do with this part of the world,” said Rick Webb, chief executive officer of Watco Companies.
His father, Dick Webb, founded the rail service company in 1983 with a handful of employees.
Today, it is the nation’s largest privately-held short line and has more than 4,000 employees in 26 states and Australia. In one way, it differs from many Pittsburg companies: “We don’t build anything. We just serve people,” Webb said.
That’s something Midwesterners know how to do well, he added.
“There’s basic, good people here, with a tremendous gift of common sense — and I believe that dates back to the coal mining days — who have a work ethic of desiring to do better, of desiring to help the guy or gal next to you.”
But it was founded much like other local companies that have seen great success: Through entrepreneurism at a kitchen table.
Rick’s grandfather, Bus Johnson, was a rail engineer in the early days of Pittsburg. His son-in-law, Dick, began repairing railcars and also studied business management at PSU.
He saw a niche in serving customers by rail, and he rolled up his shirt sleeves and built an effective business model to fill that niche.
“Being from a small town, we make sure we put our employees’ needs and our customers’ needs first, and that’s paid off for the company as a whole,” his son said.
Their location was perfect: Right in the middle of the nation in Kansas — second only to Illinois in the number of railroad miles that crisscross the state.
They began on a handshake with a customer in Louisiana — a handshake contract that today is still in effect.
Harvey Dean is an unlikely success story. He almost dropped out of school, started his company with just $50, and earned no salary for the first four years.
His goal: To help teachers and ultimately, students like he had once been — students who needed to learn in a different way.
It worked. After founding Pitsco Education in 1971 in a basement, he employs 200 and has global sales that impact more than 8 million students.
He, too, has a jet at the airport. But he prefers not to talk about his company in terms of revenue or wealth, but of the difference it makes.
“Our purpose in life is to help kids,” he said. “Pitsco is a success not because of me, or how much we make, but because of its purpose.”
His company’s culture is built around that ideal. It also helps, he added, that the company has put an emphasis on innovative products, excellent customer service, and fast delivery.
Dean sees advantages to running a global business in Pittsburg: “Chief among them are good schools and our university. That means good potential for employees,” he said. “We also see a Midwestern attitude here, which is a very positive thing.”
There was a time many years ago when Dean considered moving back to Oklahoma. But after returning there to assess a checklist of items, “there was no comparison,” he said.
“I also know a lot of people who have moved to Kansas City, and have come back again. There is something about the culture here that is family friendly, very trusting.”
In turn, Dean has given back to the community by way of funding several projects: Teacher grants, construction projects at PSU, and hike-bike trails that promote active lifestyles, among other things.
He doesn’t like to take accolades for it, but when pressed, said that’s also a Midwestern thing. “I was brought up to understand that when you’re given a blessing, it’s your responsibility to bless others,” he said.
Brock, too, invests in the community and is a big supporter of PSU.
“It’s Pittsburg. It’s part of what we do,” Brock said. “It brings so much life to the community.”
As does Miller, and numerous other entrepreneurs who got their start here and decided to stay.
“Our people have to have a place to live, and we want them a great place to live,” Webb said. “Pittsburg has been really good to us, and we want to be really good to Pittsburg. We’re happy to give back. It’s what you’re supposed to do. It’s just that simple.”
Even as entrepreneurs like Brock, Webb, Dean, and Miller celebrate milestones of longevity, the next generation of entrepreneurs is laying a new foundation in Pittsburg.
“When I was young, I dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur,” said Tyler Harrell, a Southeast Kansas native. “I wasn’t very clear at that the time on when, where, or how I would accomplish it, but did have the desire to make a difference.”
His grandfather started a Case Tractor dealership 60 years ago, and he grew up there working on equipment, selling parts, and learning the world of business. His father was a lifelong salesman, and Harrell admired how he took care of customers and built relationships.
After graduating from PSU, Harrell worked in Kansas City, but after gaining experience in product development, chose to return home to start his own firm: PRG Prototyping.
“We chose Pittsburg to be close to the university for recruiting purposes, and because both my wife’s family and my family are within a 45-minute drive,” Harrell said.
At 10 years old, his company is both young and small in comparison to Names & Numbers, Watco, Pitsco, and Miller’s, but he’s proud, he said, to have grown it to 14 employees who specialize in designing and building new products for entrepreneurs across the nation. He’s also happy with his choice in location.
“Pittsburg has been amazing for our internship program to recruit the best students, and turn those recruits into full-time employees from the company,” he said. “We also recruit from several of the Division 1 universities around the area for design and engineering talent.”
“We enjoy the small town feel that Pittsburg brings, but also the industry and established businesses, as well as being a part of a growing community,” he said.
Along the way, he’s looked to longtime, homegrown, established entrepreneurs as mentors.
“I’ve always tried to surround myself with successful, like-minded people,” he said.
“We’re lucky that here, in Pittsburg, there are many. And I think we’ll continue to see many more in coming years. It’s just that kind of place.”