Find the common denominator: high-end furniture designer, new odor and stain remover, kit plane industry leader, organic flour producer. These thriving businesses share two traits. Entrepreneurs in Western Kansas started them and the visionaries grow the businesses on native soil. Entrepreneurship drives a diverse economy that includes value-added agriculture, energy production, renewables and a cross-section of specialty manufacturing. Technology shrinks distances and gives entrepreneurs and innovators – especially those in rural Kansas - easier access to mentors, technical help and financing. Western Kansas Is NetWorked NetWork Kansas runs Entrepreneurship (E-) Community Partnership, a program that allows a town, a cluster of towns, or a county to raise seed money for local entrepreneurs and retain local control of spending and outreach. Of 30 (E-) Communities statewide, Western Kansas is home to 13. Odor-Z-Way in Phillipsburg is one beneficiary. President Mike James wanted to commercialize a byproduct from a customer in the family’s trucking business. The material, a synthetic crystal, absorbs odors and stains, a product with far-reaching applications. The Phillips County (E-) Center matched the company with resources to write a business plan, provided seed money and helped with equipment purchase and industry connections at trade shows. Business doubled between 2008 and 2009 and again the next year. In 2010, after five years in business, Odor-Z-Way added new products in the housewares, pet, hardware, lawn and garden, and automotive sectors and picked up related products as a local distributor. “Now people want to talk to us,” James says. The company manufactures its own product, and is creating a fulfillment center in Phillipsburg. “I look for our growth to continue,” James says. “We are out to make a living, employ some people and do the right thing.”
Right Resources, Right Time
By Erik Pedersen’s account, many western Kansas communities are doing the right thing. “The communities we work with are the ones doing the heavy lifting,” says Pedersen, who directs the (E-) Community program. “They really have a shared vision that entrepreneurship is a true way to grow their own economies.” With more than 500 city, county and regional partners, NetWork Kansas has created a one-stop website and staffed phone line to direct callers. “We get them connected to the right resources at the right time,” Pedersen says. Beyond loans, matching grants and technical help, e-communities also sew early seeds with entrepreneurship curriculum as early as middle schools. Entrepreneurship fairs and business plan competitions get students excited about the potential to go out on their own.
No Place Like Home
Western Kansas grows go-getters. Liberal, a community of fewer than 25,000 near the Oklahoma border, is home to High Plains Pizza, one of the leading U.S. Pizza Hut franchises. Wichita County, near the Colorado line, hosts Heartland Mill Inc., a grower-owned business that produces flour from organically grown wheat plus other organic grains and related products. Randy Schlitter, president of RANS Designs in Hays, started with recumbent bicycles and moved into single-seat kit airplanes, then two-seaters and more sophisticated aircraft. “People misunderstand this state,” he says. “I don’t think anyone on the planet has not been touched by Kansas. We have planes all over the world that have touched people’s lives.” Chuck Comeau has been all over the world. Yet all of his businesses, including Dessin Fournir Cos., his signature furniture design and manufacturing company, and C.S. Post & Co., a nationally recognized retail concept store and website, are based within miles of where he grew up in Plainville. Comeau and his team also launched Liberty Group, Inc., a downtown development corporation that’s brought new life to Hays, and Gella's Diner & Lb. Brewing Co., a brew pub with national and international awards.Small boutique hotels are next. “There is no place like home,” Comeau says. “I get the luxury and pleasure of being able to see one end of the world to the next. But the people here are so genuine, so real and so hardworking, you can do something you love and with people that you care about. To me it is a no-brainer.”