As Shelly Prichard sees it, what Wichita needs is a Marion Laboratories. That’s the Kansas City pharmaceuticals firm that made hundreds of people millionaires and spun off numerous businesses when it was sold in 1989.
“People feel like if a business sells, it’s negative,” said Prichard, CEO of the Wichita Community Foundation. “But it can be great. They have this capital they can continue to churn and put back in the community. That’s what we haven’t had – reinvestment – as some of our competitors have.”
Of course, a company doesn’t have to sell to have a positive effect on the local economy. But it does have to be successful.
The Wichita Community Foundation hired Harvard-trained analyst and Wichita native James Chung to analyze Wichita’s challenges. He concluded that the city has lagged behind many other similar-sized cities in business start-ups and venture capital investment. His report also says the city needs to diversify its manufacturing base and slow the exodus of skilled workers and college graduates.
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Andrew Nave, executive vice president of economic development for the Greater Wichita Partnership, said that organization is focused on bringing in jobs that will raise the average wage in the region. Chung noted that the city’s household income had dropped 12 points compared to the national average over the past 30 years.
“We’re really open to a lot of different industries, but I would say we try to focus and leverage where Wichita has the best resources,” Nave said. Seven of those business sectors have been identified: aviation; oil and natural gas; agriculture; data serves and information technology; advanced manufacturing and materials; health care; and transportation and logistics.
So what kind of Wichita companies, entrepreneurs and organizations might play the roles of re-investors and good job providers?
Here are a few prospects.
SNT Media SNT, which stands for Social Networking Technologies Inc., provides online media news content for clients. What makes it unusual for Wichita is its fast growth and high-tech orientation. The company moved here from California in 2014 with a dozen people. Today it has more than 100 employees, with plans to possibly double that this year. It occupies several floors in the High Touch building in downtown Wichita and is renovating additional space there.
The company uses huge databases and artificial intelligence programs to create online content for media companies. It is so focused on growth that it brings in food twice a day to encourage employees to stay at their desks and work.
Company executives say Wichita has been an ideal place to start and run their business because of high-performing employees, lower costs and an appealing quality of life.
King of Freight This trucking brokerage was founded by Mike Ricklef on his laptop. The company now has more than 50 employees, with plans to nearly double that by early next year. Ricklef credits old-fashioned salesmanship and software developed by his partner for allowing the company to match shippers and haulers faster and cheaper than competitors.
Spirit AeroSystems Chung concluded that Wichita’s economy must diversify beyond the aerospace industry to thrive, but Spirit will remain one of the city’s largest employers for the foreseeable future. The aircraft parts manufacturer has announced plans to get even bigger, investing $825 million in new machinery and equipment and creating 349 jobs over the next five years.
Foley Equipment The Caterpillar dealership, founded in 1940, is another longtime business that’s growing. It broke ground last year on a $19 million renovation and expansion of its campus on South West Street and plans to add a dozen more employees.
Heartspring The nonprofit organization that works with special-needs children from around the world last year announced a multimillion-dollar expansion of its northeast Wichita campus. Prichard said that shows that nonprofits such as medical and educational institutions can have a big economic impact on communities, in addition to the services they provide.
Fireshark Gaming The immersive gaming developer, which operates stand-alone store and entertainment space in Wichita, expanded to a bowling alley in Omaha with a smaller version of its platform that it hopes to install across the country.
GroundWork GroundWork is an informal startup incubator housed in part of Builders Plus’ new offices on East Douglas. With more room than his company needed, Builders Plus CEO Chris Callen decided to allow a half-dozen people to work out of the space, hopefully helping with innovations in the construction industry.
e2e A half-dozen businesses took part in e2e, the city’s first startup accelerator, including KingFit, Visibility Optics, Buddy Rest and Reverie Coffee Roasters. These entrepreneurs drew on the experience of business mentors in their efforts to grow.
Michael Ramsey The downtown developer of The LUX and other buildings paid for a community chalkboard next to the Downtown Pop-Up Park on Douglas that quickly became covered with artwork and messages. “He’s thinking of ways to active that space,” Prichard said. “He’s not making any money off of it.”