Business

Former Koch exec Varner dies at 89

Sterling Varner helped grow and manage one of the world's largest privately held companies.

But friends and colleagues said Wednesday that there was much more to him.

Mr. Varner, former Koch Industries vice chairman and president, was a down-to-earth man who gave much to Wichita through his management and financial support of charities and arts groups.

He also was very comfortable working at his Flint Hills ranch.

Mr. Varner, 89, died Wednesday.

Charles Koch, chairman and CEO of Koch Industries, said he knew Mr. Varner for more than 60 years.

"He was not only a close colleague and key contributor to building Koch Industries, but one of my closest friends," Koch said in a statement.

Mr. Varner was born in a tent in Ranger, Texas, and was the son of an oil field contractor who provided mules to haul oil field equipment.

He became an employee of what would later become Koch Industries in 1946, when Fred Koch purchased the Rock Island refinery in Duncan, Okla.

He relocated to Wichita in 1948 and worked in several roles and businesses for the company over the next two decades, including overseeing Fred Koch's nearly quarter-million-acre ranch in southwest Montana.

In 1967, Mr. Varner was elected to Koch Industries' board of directors. In 1974 he was named president of the company and served in that role until 1987, when he was named vice chairman.

Mr. Varner retired from the company in 1990 but continued to serve as a member of its board of directors until his death.

"While I was president I obviously used him as a sounding board," said Bill Hanna, president of Koch from 1987 to 1999.

Hanna said Mr. Varner hired him in 1964 and was his boss until 1987.

"He was very supportive of the people who worked with him," Hanna said. "Sterling basically had no ego. He was such a kind and thoughtful guy."

Bob Buford and Mr. Varner became friends in the 1980s. Their ranches are next to each other in the Flint Hills, where they take care of wild mustangs. Buford said Mr. Varner was a "solid citizen" who cared deeply about Wichita and loved spending time at his ranch.

"The cowboys in the Flint Hills had so much respect for him," Buford said.

Mr. Varner's wife of 64 years, Paula, said ranching was his focus in retirement.

"He didn't play golf, and he wasn't into sports," she said. "So he thought the thing to do was to have a place to run a few cows and walk the dog, and that turned into having a ranch.

"And the place grew bigger than walking the dog."

Mr. Varner was also known for his support of arts in the city. In 2006, he and his wife were recognized by Wichita's Arts Council for decades of service on cultural arts boards.

Paula Varner said his greatest interest was supporting organizations that supported children, such as Maude Carpenter Children's Home, Youth Entrepreneurs Kansas and Junior Achievement of Wichita.

In 2004, Mr. Varner was named to Junior Achievement of Wichita's Business Hall of Fame.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Varner is survived by daughter Jane Beard of Abilene, Texas, son Richard of Corona del Mar, Calif., and five grandchildren.

Services are pending with Downing & Lahey Mortuary East.

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