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Bob Killian, center, founded two longstanding Springfield companies. Son Joe, left, and granddaughter Lana, work with him at Springfield Development Co., which holds multifamily residential properties. Another son, Bill, not pictured, leads the Killian Group of Cos., including general contractor Killian Construction.
Bob Killian, center, founded two longstanding Springfield companies. Son Joe, left, and granddaughter Lana, work with him at Springfield Development Co., which holds multifamily residential properties. Another son, Bill, not pictured, leads the Killian Group of Cos., including general contractor Killian Construction.

Founding Fathers

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When looking at large, family-owned businesses grown here in the Ozarks, a few similarities begin to emerge.

For a handful of Springfield-based businesses – Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Co., Killian Group of Cos. and Springfield Development Co., and Meek’s Lumber Co. – a few common themes such as perseverance and adaptability might hold true for just about any family-owned company aiming for longevity.

In each case, at the company’s genesis is a strong patriarch with an appetite for risk, a quest to build something to call his own and, at varying points throughout the company’s history, times when it wasn’t altogether certain the venture would survive.

Humble beginnings
As Ed Rice, president of Ozarks Coca-Cola Dr Pepper Bottling Co., points out, his grandfather didn’t have to move his family to Springfield from Kentucky to find a business opportunity.

“He was well established as a cashier in a bank (where) his father was president,” Rice said. “He had a pretty secure future.”

But there was something about the Electric Bottling Co. – established in 1905 – that called Rice’s grandfather, Edwin C. Rice Sr., to Springfield 90 years ago this year. The company bottled a variety of soft drinks, but Rice thinks one in particular – Coca-Cola – was a key motivator.

For Charles Meek’s great-great-grandfather, the motivation was the sudden realization he needed to do something different to provide for his family.

Charles C. Meek Sr. was a Kansas native who moved to Missouri and was involved in county politics in Kansas City.

“He was a Republican Kansas guy, and the Democrats’ (Tom) Pendergast machine had taken over Kansas City politics, so he had to quickly find something,” recalled the younger Charles Meek, general manager for Meek’s Lumber.

In 1920, the elder Meek opened his first lumberyard in Lockwood with then-partner Bill Putnam. The two eventually parted and launched their own respective chains of
lumberyards. Putnam’s Tapjac chain was later sold to the E.C. Barton & Co. chain based in Arkansas, which earlier this year was purchased by Meek’s, bringing Putnam’s locations back into the fold. Companywide, Meek’s has about 850 employees and posted 2009 revenues of about $212 million, according to past Springfield Business Journal coverage.  

Bob Killian, who will be 90 next month, has several decades of business experience under his belt as the founder of Killian Group of Cos. and Springfield Development Co. The companies are separate entities run by his sons – Bill at the helm of Killian Group, and Joe at the helm of Springfield Development Co., where the elder Killian still has an office and where Joe’s daughter, Lana, also works.

Killian Group comprises Killian Construction Co., KCC Contractor Inc. and Design Build Partners Inc., according to www.killco.com, and the development company holds the family’s multifamily residential developments, which Bob Killian declined to name.

His building career began when he was 14 and worked for his own father, a carpenter.

After serving in World War II, Killian joined his father and brother in business in 1948 and began building homes. His brother left Killian Consruction in 1954 and Killian bought out his dad in 1959.

“We were one of the bigger homebuilders at that time,” Killian said. “Most of it was speculative, and that’s something now you certainly couldn’t do.”

No easy journeys
While each company has faced its own challenges – with hard times in different decades – the families behind them showed flexibility in adapting to their circumstances.

“During World War II, obviously, there were great hardships for us in the allocations of different products,” Meek said. “It was hard to get anything built.”

As a result, the Meek family switched from millwork to producing ammunition boxes. “That’s pretty much what we lived on during the war,” Meek said.

A second blow came shortly after the war ended and the demand for homes climbed.

“After World War II, in Missouri and Arkansas, all the timber had been cut down. There were no other stands of timber available, so in the early 1950s, my grandfather went to California to secure timber rights,” Meek said. “He set up a lumber mill in Redding, Calif., and began shipping lumber back to Missouri to sell at our lumberyards.”

This move marked the beginning of Meek’s West Coast division, which comprises 12 stores.

Killian had seen business boom in the early 1950s, and it was still strong during the 1957 Parade of Homes, although competition was increasing, Killian said.

The business took a hit in 1960 when the Frisco Railway pulled its workers out of Springfield. Though they came back a couple of years later, Killian recalls one winter during which he had 26 vacant homes to heat and pay taxes on.

What helped is that Killian had diversified his interests by opening Midwest Building Components, which manufactured trusses and building components. Killian also began expanding into commercial construction in the 1970s and eventually got out of the home building business altogether. Killian Construction topped SBJ’s list of the area’s largest commercial general contractors, reporting 2009 billings of $89 billion and backlog of $125 million. Recent projects include Drury University’s $13.5 million O’Reilly Family Event Center.

The late 1970s weren’t terribly kind to business, but they were particularly stark for Rice’s beverage bottler.

The plant had outgrown its facility on North Clay Avenue and was looking for financing to build a new bottling plant, but the company hit a roadblock with Union National, the bank it had worked with for nearly 50 years.

“They had hired someone to reorganize that whole thing,” Rice recalled. “So we made our presentation … and the guy that took over to clean up the deadwood in the bank said, ‘We’re not going to loan you the money. You’re going broke.’”

Rice explained there was no way the company would go broke, because the family could always sell the plant to repay a loan. “But he was kind of regimented in his views,” Rice said.

So they approached Commerce Bank, where they were told, “We’ll be glad to loan you the money at 1 percent over prime,” Rice said.

While that wouldn’t be such a big deal now, Rice said that within days, the prime rate went to 21 percent.

“It was a nightmare. It was touch-and-go for several years,” he said. “But it never stopped us from investing in the business.”

That tradition of reinvestment holds today, Rice said, with $1 million in upgrades to the bottling plant expected to be complete in December.

Lines to longevity
In each case, company leaders credit their multigenerational survival to strong business relationships, quality customer service, supporting the community and longtime employees.

“Being a family-owned and family-operated business, either myself or my brother, Mike, or my dad is available to any employee at any time. We’re one family. We have employees who have worked for us for 45 years who knew my great-grandfather, even though I never did,” Meek said.

At Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Co., Rice said his employees are what makes his company sustainable.

“We have more than 40 percent of the employees who have been here longer than 10 years. I think that’s extremely rare,” he said.

Sally Hargis, Rice’s daughter and vice president of Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Co., said the company continually reinforces the need for quality customer service.

“Customer service can sometimes fade away – fewer people, more turnover, less emphasis on the name and the face of that customer,” she said. “We’re continually looking for ways to improve training, new ways to get things done.”

But Killian said the future health of any company comes down to a simple point: “You just roll with the changes and keep going.”[[In-content Ad]]

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