Lessons from Mr. K
This blog originally appeared in the Sept. 21 issue of The Kansas City Star.
Imagine being a 30-year-old upstart entrepreneur, world on a string, but with arguably more confidence than wisdom. You’ve just been offered the opportunity to talk with a master entrepreneur at the top of his game. What to do? There is only one option. You say yes, asking where and when.
The year was 1981, and I was the young entrepreneur. The master entrepreneur was Ewing Kauffman, founder of Marion Laboratories, the diversified pharmaceutical and health company with a stable of blockbuster drugs and the high-flying stock price. He was larger than life, a man with a big personality, and the man who had brought Major League Baseball to Kansas City.
Sitting in his office, you realize he might be the wisest and most personable man you’ve ever met in your life. He was a farm boy turned city kid, an Eagle Scout, a voracious reader, a lover of people, and a business tycoon—and somehow this all comes across at once. You know that you’re going to listen more than talk. And when Mr. K does talk, you want to write everything down.
So much of his advice had to do with people. “Get everyone together in the same room and talk—and never say you’re too big to do it,” was one of his pearls. “Understand that people want to work hard and be challenged. Not everyone works for money.” His view was that all the people who worked for Marion were volunteers—talented people with plenty of other options—and they would only keep coming to work every day if the work was challenging and allowed them to feel a sense of pride in their job, pride in their company, and to have a feeling of accomplishment. That’s why he called them associates instead of employees.
I was fortunate to have a handful of meetings and encounters with Mr. K., most of them short, and each one was impactful. Each time, I would rush back to tell my business partner Cliff Illig what he had said, and we would plan our changes on the spot. Town halls with our fellow associates became a part of our culture. Our first attempt at getting everyone together in one room was at Woodside Racquet Club, mostly because it was the only place we knew that had a room big enough to hold a dozen or more people. Over the years, we moved from Woodside to Cliff’s place in our leased office building. When we outgrew that, we built a gymnasium with bleachers in our own office park. Last year, we had our town hall meeting in the Sprint Center. We still practice town halls in all of our business units because Mr. K believed in it. Thirty-five years later, his imprint from a relatively short amount of time is deeply rooted in our culture.
Ewing Kauffman left us all too soon in 1993, but not before he changed our city for the better. His fingerprints are still seen in the Royals, in the wonderful work done by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to support entrepreneurship and education in our Kansas City community, and in the lives of all the people he effortlessly mentored through his words and through the example of his life. There will only ever be one Mr. K. On this 100th anniversary of his birth, let’s celebrate the man he was and endeavor to learn from him.
Neal Patterson is cofounder, chairman and chief executive of Cerner Corporation. Together with Cerner cofounder Cliff Illig and others, he is co-owner of Kansas City’s Major League Soccer franchise, Sporting Kansas City.