What isn't made in Kansas?

Crops to airplanes to chocolate, state produces a wide range of goods

07/17/2011 9:02 AM

08/05/2014 3:18 PM

Kansas provides the world with flour, planes, beef and amusement rides. Kansas-made products include the brown paperboard used in making toilet paper tubes, refrigerated dough cans and paper party plates.

We make the aerosol cans for insecticides, the containers for pop-up sanitizing wipes, and the food our dogs and cats eat, as well as the steaks on our table — or hamburger, depending on how the recession has affected your pocketbook.

We tell people where to go and how to get there — because Garmin, which makes Nuvi and other GPS devices, originated with Kansan Gary Burrell.-

We give the world much of its sweetness. We have Russell Stover candies, and we will soon be mass-producing M&Ms and Snicker Bars at the Mars Chocolate North America plant in Topeka.

From bullet clips to poker chip weights, Kansas-made products are pretty much everywhere.

"We are one of the top manufacturing areas in the United States," said Karyn Page, president and chief executive of the Kansas World Trade Center.

"When people think of manufacturing areas, they think of Pittsburgh or Detroit, but we are right up there with them. People know how to make stuff around here — and that makes us globally competitive."

Kansas exported $9.93 billion worth of goods overseas last year, made by 2,747 companies.

For the 150 years Kansas has been a state, Kansans — with their own hands and know-how — have carved names for themselves.

"I have been in Kansas longer than I was in Louisiana," said Chad Kassem owner of Acoustic Sounds, Quality Record Pressings and Blue Heaven Studios in Salina. He makes high-quality vinyl LPs, one of only three places in the nation to do so.

"People say, 'Salina? You are in the middle of nowhere.' But I tell them, 'No, in Kansas you are in the middle of everywhere.' "

He has the vision, the passion and the sometimes cantankerous spirit that's marked many other Kansans.

"I came here with nothing, except what I was making doing minimum wage as a cook," Kassem said.

"I've always gone against the grain.... One time they used to say I was only a fool. Now, I'm looking like a genius."

Started with farming

First and foremost, Kansas is an agriculture state.

Always has been.

Because of our vast volume of wheat — nearly a fifth of all wheat grown in the United States is grown in Kansas — we are the largest wheat-producing state in the nation, thus earning us the nicknames "Wheat State" or "Breadbasket of the World."

But we are also so much more.

"When my grandfather started farming, he had a couple of mules and a plow," said Kansas Secretary of Commerce Pat George. "Now, we farm with big tractors and equipment, and more often than not, that equipment has been made in Kansas.

"We not only produce the commodities, we make them and export them around the world."

Aircraft, industrial machinery, meat products, cereal and electric machinery all top the list of the state's most exported industrial sectors. We also are a leading state in pharmaceutical products.

We are first in the nation for exporting civilian aircraft, engines and parts.

We are second in the number of cattle — or meat products — we export; third for producing dog and cat food.

"Wichita exports over 50 percent of the state's total exports" by dollar figure, Page said. "We have every reason to be proud."

Kansas work ethic

Talk with most Kansans and there are traits that describe us as workers, Page said.

Kansans are known for their humility, resilience, perseverance, self-reliance, imagination, independence, pragmatism, determination and entrepreneurial spirit.

"I wish we would shout about what we do — in our humble way," Page said. "But we always kind of hang our head.

"We are humble farmers, that's our historical roots and part of our culture. But we need to humbly and quietly tell people we have some of the best products in the world — not just in the U.S., not just better than Texas — in the world."

On Chuck Comeau's website promoting his company, Dessin Fournir in Plainville, he posts this quote from W. Eugene Smith, a world-renowned photojournalist from Wichita known for his outspokenness and passion:

"Passion is in all great searches and is necessary to all creative endeavors."

It pretty much defines Comeau.

A native of Plainville, Comeau started his furniture, lighting and textiles company in California but chose in the mid-1990s to relocate it in Plainville.

"I never left Plainville; I commuted to southern California," he said. "But in 1996, I believed that in order for the company to succeed and grow, it needed to be in Kansas."

He renovated a 1920s car dealership in Plainville and moved the company in. It has since expanded to six buildings.

"This is home. I've never found any place I liked better," Comeau said.

"When we started expanding, the people were so much better than what we found in California. Kansans have a work ethic; they trust and are loyal. Those were all attributes we needed.

"And that translates to customers. The customers need realistic and caring people on the phone. This business has been able to grow because of the quality of people in Kansas."

In a 2005 poll conducted by House & Garden magazine of the nation's top interior designers, Dessin Fournir was voted one of the top three furniture design and manufacturing firms.

"I love the creative spirit," Comeau said. "We are able to live in a small town where we can relax, think and be creative."

Going global

When Kansas officials landed the contract last month with Mars Chocolate to build a $250 million chocolate production plant in Topeka, the Kansas work ethic helped seal the deal.

"Companies like Mars are looking to move to Kansas," said George, the Commerce secretary.

"They told us that was one of the things that set Kansas apart. Kansans know how to work. They take pride in their work product."

The future, George said, will hopefully include more contracts that highlight what Kansas offers.

Agriculture will still be at the forefront.

"We know how to use a tractor and get the most out of our soils," George said. "But we are also working with Kansas State University in sharing our knowledge. We have relationships with countries who might still be farming the way my grandfather did with mules and looking now to use tractors and equipment. Instead of being protective, we can also be exporting our knowledge."

In western Kansas, as more dairies are established, there are more chances of locating major companies that use milk in that end of the state, George said.

"It makes sense. Instead of exporting our milk products to Colorado or Texas, companies can cut down on the cost of transportation."

Kansas aviation is still the gold standard for what we manufacture.

Wind energy will also be at the forefront, George said.

"The potential is almost endless," he said. "We have some of the highest sustained wind of anywhere in the nation. ...

"As soon as we build the transmission lines ... we can export electricity. Plus, we can manufacture the wind turbines. We will become more aggressive in attracting more of those."

Pharmaceutical breakthroughs could also come from Kansas.

"We have one of the top-rated schools of pharmacy in the nation," George said of the University of Kansas. "Two of the largest pharmaceutical companies — Bayer and Merck — are located here.

"Not only are we making medicines for humans, but we also have a large presence in the animal science world, through K-State."

But the best commodity Kansas offers, George said, is found in its people.

When people moved to Kansas in the late 19th century, they learned to work hard, or die or leave. Those who stuck it out were strong.

"The motive to work was so strong," George said. "It had to be.

"That work ethic has carried on from generation to generation. We like making things. We like using our hands and taking pride in what we make.

"That's part of our sales pitch when we meet with companies looking to move to Kansas. We are not being shy or humble about it anymore — that's part of our story."

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