Business Perspectives

Wichita: The long road from ‘HQ City’ to ‘Division Town’ and back again

In His Own Words

I grew up in 1970s Wichita, when it was the headquarters of at least a dozen national and global companies. They were built, owned and run by people who lived right here: Pizza Hut, Coleman, Rent-A-Center, Bank IV, Koch Industries, Beech, Cessna, Learjet and Residence Inn, to name a few.

We were a “Headquarters City,” and we had the attitude to show it. Wichita was a town of entrepreneurial millionaires who were changing the way the world ate, traveled and lived.

Then, everything changed.

One by one, our headquarters became divisions. In 1977 Pizza Hut sold to PepsiCo; in 1980 Beech sold to Raytheon; in 1985 Cessna sold to General Dynamics; in 1987 Marriott purchased Residence Inn and Thorn America purchased Rent-A-Center; and in 1990 Learjet sold to Bombardier.

By the end of the 1980s, Wichita had transformed from an HQ town to a town with distant owners and local managers. Koch remained as Wichita’s sole global headquarters, but had moved to its new campus on the northern edge of the city. The strings controlling the future of the Wichita economy were clearly not in the hands of Wichitans any longer.

I left Wichita in 1987, and when visiting, the town seemed stunned from such a devastating change in economic control in the span of a decade.

Fifteen years later I decided to return to Wichita to start a business and raise a family. When I gave my parents the news, they told me, “Don’t ruin your life by coming back here.”

I was surprised that Wichita had completely lost the confidence of the HQ town I grew up in. Many Wichitans seemed mired in the defeatist attitude of a town whose destiny was no longer in its own hands.

Is this the “low self-esteem” issue that I keep hearing is holding Wichita back?

Many of us who remember Wichita as an HQ town may find it difficult to believe that it can regain that status, but I’m an optimist.

The best news of all is that the 20- and 30-somethings are leading a wave of entrepreneurship and positivity in Wichita. They aren’t burdened with the memory of what Wichita lost; they only see what it can become.

I’m excited to see companies rising in Wichita, bringing back our HQ city attitude. Look at us now!

Every few days another Freddy’s opens somewhere across America, adding to the more than 230 that dot the map from coast to coast. This year we saw Equity Bank debut on the NASDAQ exchange.

The floors of office buildings downtown are filling with SNT developers and apartments. New breweries, local eateries and even technology startups sprout across Wichita every month.

Our new e2e Accelerator is up and running, helping these startups to scale up.

And Koch Industries continues its unprecedented growth, with more than 100,000 employees around the world, overseen from a global HQ in Wichita.

Sometimes when you’re making a long, wide turn, it’s hard to see that you are turning at all. I’m excited to see Wichita making the turn that brings us back to our HQ status.

I love that HQ city swagger.

Bruce Rowley is Managing Partner for RSM Marketing Services. Contact him at

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