Her license plate reads “Roto Mom” – probably because “Roto Great-grandmother” won’t fit.
Wanda Farmer, 82, still drives to work every day as president of Wichita’s Roto-Rooter franchise. It was 65 years ago this week that Farmer and her late husband, Paul, first went into business together.
She has eight children, 22 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren.
“Her favorite job here is dispatcher,” her eldest son, also named Paul, said. “She likes bossing (the employees) around.”
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“I’m 82 now,” Wanda said. “I probably should retire, but I enjoy being with the customers.”
The Roto-Rooter franchise covers Sedgwick, Butler, Harper and Cowley counties. On a busy day, it may service 140 customers. Seventy percent of clients are residential, although the company also has done work for larger concerns, such as Cessna and Wal-Mart.
For a city that prides itself on entrepreneurship, Wanda Farmer’s story is pure Wichita.
She grew up on the old Miller dairy farm, then located at Harry and West streets, the only girl among five siblings that include former Sedgwick County sheriff and Kansas attorney general Vern Miller.
She finished high school at 16 and enrolled at Friends University. She was thinking about becoming a doctor. Instead, she met Paul Farmer, a fellow student who was four years older and studying on the GI Bill.
Wanda’s dad made them wait until she turned 17 for their first date. The couple married later that year, and they started their first business together even before tying the knot. After spotting a newfangled trench digger, they decided to buy one of their own. They expanded into sprinkler systems and septic tanks while raising a family.
But one of their employees was killed when a ditch collapsed, and when the local Roto-Rooter franchise came up sale in 1960, the Farmers jumped at the chance to make a change.
“I wasn’t fond of digging anymore,” Wanda said. “I said we’d never dig another ditch.”
The franchise grew from one truck to 10, and the kids were expected to pitch in. Their main job was to keep updated a filing system with information about each job, a task that would have profitable ramifications in the future.
“She ran the house like a sergeant,” Paul said. But there was another side to his mother, who was also active in a halfway house for inmates and Catholic charities.
“Mom would round up all kind of undesirables and invite them for dinner,” Paul said.
“They were just kids who lost their way,” Wanda said.
Wanda said her husband thought their children should start their own businesses. Paul, for instance, ran a coffee company. When he suffered lung collapse in 1971, his parents took his routes for him until he could recover. Paul gave his mom a plaque reading “most outstanding salesperson.”
One of the Farmers’ daughters, Jane, had written a computer program for the family businesses to use – an outgrowth, Paul says, of the filing system all the kids worked on. After seeing what else was available, “Mom got the idea that the software was doing so good we should start selling it,” Paul said.
JRay Software, named for Jane and her husband, Ray Jantz, started doing that in 1985, installing business software to be used on local networks by other Roto-Rooter franchisees. In 2002, when the family decided to offer a hosted application, it bought 24 servers in downtown Wichita. Today, that operation, called Famhost and headed by Paul, has nearly 200 clients in 20 countries ranging from Roto-Rooter franchisees to health care operators and government clients. Call recording, routing and tracking, GPS-enabled dispatching and point-of-sale digital imaging are some of the services provided.
In 1992, Wanda’s husband died of a heart attack.
“That first year was tough,” Wanda said. “It was our business, our baby.”
Surrounded by family, she can’t really see herself retiring.
In addition to Paul and Jane, Catherine is office manager of Roto-Rooter. Rita – the youngest, who was born in 1961 and nicknamed “Rita Rooter” – is the CEO. Phillip, who used to have his own plumbing business, manages the plumbing division. Mark worked as a dispatcher before retiring. Another son, Tom, is an executive with Spirit AeroSystems, while the oldest daughter, Mary, is a psychiatrist in Seattle. But as Paul notes, “everyone filed cards” at some point in their young lives.
There are 35 employees in the Roto-Rooter business and another 14 in Famhost.
“Mom is the catalyst for the whole thing,” Paul said.
“Just trying to keep my kids busy is all,” Wanda retorted.