Leadership Kansas class learns about local entrepreneurial success

Amro Samy and Lona DuVall listen as Cecil O’Brate discusses entrepreneurship during a panel discussion for the Leadership Kansas class visit to Garden City on Thursday.

By SCOTT AUST, FCEDC Director of Communications

Work hard. Do what you love. Find like-minded people to cooperate with.

That was the message Thursday afternoon of the three-person panel tasked with discussing the local business climate and entrepreneurial spirit with a group of 40 people from across the state who are part of the 2018 Leadership Kansas class.

Leadership Kansas is a statewide leadership program designed to identify and assist new leaders. Each year’s class visits several communities across Kansas to learn more about the social, political and business issues affecting them.

The 40 members of the 2018 Leadership Kansas class spent Wednesday through Friday in Garden City and Finney County learning what makes Garden City and the area tick.

“If you haven’t noticed, Garden City has it going on, and we want to know why,” John Federico, Leadership Kansas executive director, said.

Entrepreneurial Spirit

Federico moderated the panel featuring local businessmen and entrepreneurs Amro Samy and Cecil O’Brate, and Lona DuVall, president and CEO of Finney County Economic Development Corp. Federico asked O’Brate and Samy to share how they got their start as entrepreneurs and for any tips for the class.

O’Brate, founder, chairman and CEO of several oil and gas companies including American Warrior in Garden City, got his start working on a farm near Syracuse. After going to college at Oklahoma State, O’Brate bought Palmer Tank and has had interests in a variety of business ventures through the years.

O’Brate, who still works from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. most days despite being 89 years old, said it’s hard work that got him to where he is now.

“If you only want to work 40 hours a week, don’t start your own business. You work a lot more than that if you want to be successful,” said.

O’Brate said if a person wants to work eight or nine hours a day, that’s fine. But if they want to get ahead, they need to do something else “even  if it’s as little as detailing a car in the evening or something.

“There’s always something more you can do if you really decide you want to be an entrepreneur, and then one thing will lead to another,” he said. “I think I’ve got parts of 26 or 28 businesses that I’m working with other people on. But it’s all there — you’ve just got to want it.”

When asked what he looks for in potential partners, O’Brate said he looks for those who want to work and want to succeed.

“Then you just help them. If you want to work, you can do it,” said.

Originally from Egypt, Samy came to the United States in 1982 to go to college at Wichita State University. While using a student visa, Samy was able to work at the University Club on campus waiting tables, washing dishes and busing tables before eventually moving into the catering side of the business.

Over time, Samy’s work ethic was noticed by the general manager of Crestview Country Club who recommended Samy for a management role. After going through a certification process, Samy enjoyed the work so much he pursued it as a career.

Samy moved to Garden City in 2000 to manage Southwind country club, intending to stay in that job only a couple of years but ended up in that role for seven years. Around 2007-08, Samy joined with O’Brate to take on and turn around the Clarion Inn.

Since then, the two have ventured into other hotels, built the Parrot Cove water park, the Old Chicago and developed housing projects. Currently, they are working on the Sports of the World STAR Bond project.

Samy said in his work life he has always kept the next job in mind. For instance, when waiting tables, he always wanted to be the best waiter, or if someone wanted to take the night off he was willing to take their shift.

“When I speak to young entrepreneurs I tell them surround yourself with successful people. Don’t sweat the small stuff, just work with your heart. I think when people see you working with your heart and giving 110 percent they’re going to support you. That’s what Cecil saw in me, and other investors in Wichita saw in me. I’ll never forget that,” he said.

Economic Development

Federico asked DuVall about the role of economic development.

DuVall said the primary goal of the FCEDC, a stand-alone corporation fully funded by its partners including the Cities of Garden City and Holcomb, Finney County and Garden City Community College, is to grow the tax base. which requires increasing job opportunities, the share of retail trade area, and attracting more visitors.

DuVall said Garden City/Finney County’s local trade area includes four states, the extended trade area includes about 500,000 people, and the primary trade area is more than 200,000 people. The more FCEDC does to attract national retail and improve quality of life, she said, the better.

FCEDC’s goal is to assist business however it can.

“When we meet with an entrepreneur, he may have the craziest idea in the world … but we never know which one is the next Cecil. So from our standpoint, everybody who is a resident of this community who wants to work hard, who wants to build something, is deserving of our attention, and they’re going to get our attention,” she said. “Whether they come with $5,000 and a dream or $1 million and a dream, they’re going to get treated exactly the same way.”

The community’s growth has been strong. Over the past 10 years, Finney county’s tax base has grown by more than 60 percent, and sales tax revenue has increased year-over-year during that time with about half coming from visitors outside the community.  That growth is amazing considering FCEDC’s budget is a little more than $300,000 per year. DuVall pointed out that the community has seen a return on investment of $649 for every $1 budgeted for economic development.

Recent successes that have driven that growth include the TP&L transload facility and the DFA milk processing plant.

The Dairy Farmers of America plant itself was a $350 million investment in the community that created about 80 jobs and led to another company, Mies & Sons Trucking, to locate its business here to serve the area dairies. Its $14 million facility will add something close to 120 jobs, DuVall said.

Federico, referring to news reports over the past year in which some legislators raised questions about the STAR Bond and other state supported initiatives, asked how much local projects rely on economic incentives.

Most businesses that start here don’t get any kind of an incentive, DuVall said. However, she said, the community does rely on tax abatements primarily to maintain the status quo with other communities that do offer that tool.

“For me, my philosophy is if you have to write a check to get a business to come here, somebody else will always have a bigger checkbook,” she said. “It’s more important that we make this community the best place to do business. When we do things right and have good progressive local government and transparency in what we’re doing, the opportunities continue to just roll.”

In addition, DuVall felt it was very important for people to understand that incentives aren’t gifts. She said no incentive offered in the state are available without a “huge, financial commitment” from the developer or business.

“People can say, ‘Gee, I wish I could get a STAR Bond deal and get up to $23 million back.’ Yeah, as soon as you put up the $40 million to build it, we’ll sign you up for that deal, too,” she said. “People have to understand it takes a huge commitment from the entrepreneurs and developers in the state to get to the point where they can even benefit from an incentive.”

Giving Back

In discussing ways entrepreneurs give back to the community, Federico mentioned the O’Brate Foundation, founded by Cecil O’Brate to help kids in need be able to go to college. To date, $3.5 million disbursed and more than 165 current college students receiving assistance.

In response to a question, O’Brate said he came up with the idea while serving on the Youthville board in Dodge City which took kids out of troubled homes and took care of them until they turned 18. But after age 18, there was nothing for them.

“These kids needed help cause they’re out on the streets, some of them. I set this foundation up to help the foster care kids go on to college, then we later moved it to the poverty level kids,” he said.

Partnerships and Workforce

The panelists noted that local entities, including state and local government and business, work hand in hand for the betterment of the community.

DuVall said to be successful, those entities do need to cooperate. But she said equally important is not caring who gets credit for success.

“You’re not going to find Cecil and Samy out rubbing your face in how much they’ve done. They never come to us and say, ‘Hey we have a new idea — don’t forget what we already did for you.’ They prove every deal. They don’t expect anything based on what they’ve done in the past,” she said.

A Leadership Kansas member said her community has jobs available but a lack of applicants to fill those jobs and wondered what Garden City does differently to find its workforce.

Samy pointed to Garden City’s high level of diversity with people coming here from many different places. In the high school, he said, there are something like 52 languages and dialects spoken.

“We had to kind of learn each other’s culture. That’s what’s driving a lot of our energy,” he said. “People are more comfortable moving to this area because we are welcoming. It doesn’t matter your color, your culture, where you’re from. We work together.”

DuVall agreed, saying Finney County’s immigrant population has played a big role in providing able workers.

“The fact that we’ve proven we can welcome folks regardless of where they’re coming from and regardless of their past experiences has made a huge difference for us,” she said, adding that the ability to show good job growth — an average of 800 jobs per year over the past five years — has proven to corporations considering locating in Finney County that a workforce can be provided despite the local 2 percent unemployment rate.

Work/Life Balance?

Another question had to do with the ability to find a work/life balance.

“To be honest, there’s no balance,” Samy said. “Every business is different. In the business I’m in, the hospitality business, you have no balance. If you enjoy what you do, that’s the best balance. My wife would say I’m a lot happier when I’m busy, and grumpy when I’m not busy.”