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A conversation with Steve Cox

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, April 21, 2013, at 7:31 a.m.

During the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce’s Honors Night on Wednesday, Steve Cox took the stage to accept one of the “Over the Years” awards on behalf of his family’s business, Cox Machine.

The company was founded by Cox’s father, Ernest “Bud” Cox. Today, Cox’s three sons – Jason, Adam and Seth – work there.

How did your father come to start the company?

He was working in a tool-and-die shop, and that was in 1954, and he just felt that his future would be better served, or his family’s future would be better served, if he were in business for himself. He comes from a long line of people who had their own businesses.

How did it go for him?

He was successful, obviously, but it was slow starting, and he started by picking up small jobs from other shops in the Wichita area and then eventually was able to get approved to do work for the manufacturers. … Primarily Beechcraft was his main customer and remained his customer for 20-some years.

His first shop was in your family’s garage. How did that work?

He would work all day out in the garage, and of course he would come inside for his meals, and my mother did not appreciate that he would come in in his work clothes to eat dinner, and she wanted him to clean up before dinner, and he was wanting to work as much as he could.

So one evening before he came in from the garage, he put a necktie on and proceeded wearing his dirty work clothes with a bright, clean necktie, and nothing was said at the table, and nothing was said after that by Mother about him coming in wearing dirty work clothes.

Did you grow up knowing you’d follow in your father’s footsteps?

No. … I did grow up in the business. I worked there actually before I was 16. I would sweep the floors, and once I turned 16, he allowed me to start operating machines. My degree is in business administration, and I really expected to do something different with my life, but I was working in the business. That’s what allowed me to get through college.

The year after I graduated from college, my father made the decision that it was time for him to step back. While it was not something that had been in my game plan, it seemed like a good opportunity.

Any regrets?

No, no regrets at all. I admire my father for being able to recognize the opportunity for him to step away from the business and allow me to run it. He was there as a consultant for as much as I needed, but he gave me free rein to run it as I saw fit. That was in 1972.

It’s been a phenomenal run for myself and now providing a living for all three of my sons.

How have things changed through the years?

One thing that happened is our customers changed. They forced us to get better. I mean, I remember at one point where we would literally deliver parts to Beechcraft in a coffee can.

Over the years, the documentation requirements became much stricter, and we had to be much more aware of what we were doing and the traceability of parts.

The evolution of the machinery allowed us to get into computer-controlled machines, which then allowed us to make the parts much more accurately.

Do you focus solely on aviation clients?

We made a decision probably eight years ago that our market was going to be strictly aviation. We do general aviation and commercial aviation, and there are differences in that.

During Honors Night, you shared some business advice with the audience. What was it?

I have learned that there were three ways to have a successful business, and the first being a solid foundation, which was provided by my father. … He did command the respect of everyone that he worked with in the industry. That strong foundation gave me something that I had an opportunity to build on.

The second thing was you have to be comfortable enough in your position to hire people that are smarter than you are and to let them take the company in perhaps different directions than you would have taken it yourself. And so a real challenge becomes to stay out of their way and allow them to guide the company.

And then the other thing is that I think it’s a misnomer to look at the chief executives of companies as leaders. And I think that when you throw out the term “leader,” it implies a sense of knowledge or that you have all the answers, and I think in reality we are servants, and I think our ultimate success is how well we serve our customers and our employees and our community.

What’s it like having your sons in the business now?

We did not raise them with an expectation that they would be in the business. I had put together a 10-year exit plan, and at the end of that 10-year period, I would have done something different with the business than what happened if none of the three boys had shown an interest in coming in. It’s just extremely gratifying to see them grow in the business and to see them help grow the business.

How involved are you these days?

I am not involved in the day-to-day decisions. I have an office there. I am there occasionally most days, but it is almost in the role as an observer rather than an active participant in the day-to-day decisions.

I’m really involved in Rainbows United, and it is a very big passion of mine. … I’m also very active with the YMCA. … I think that family and kids causes are important, and I think if we’re going to make a difference that that’s where it’s going to happen.

What’s one thing few people know about you?

That Jeff Herndon, the KAKE news anchor, is my nephew and that he was the voice on the Chamber of Commerce night video that was done for us.

Reach Carrie Rengers 316-268-6340 or crengers@wichitaeagle.com.

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